August 25 – Paul Ventured A Long Way From Central Park

Paul Simon took us to Tennessee this day in 1986. Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee…by way of Africa. His seventh solo album, Graceland, came out three dozen years ago today.

It ended up being a monumental comeback for the bard of New York City…but it was a risky one, musically and socially. Simon was at a bit of a low point in the mid-’80s, with his marriage to Carrie Fisher breaking up and his music receiving less and less notice. His previous album, Hearts and Bones, was a relative flop and got virtually zero airplay. Ironically, this probably worked to Simon’s advantage. He was with Warner Bros. by then and having little commercial clout anymore, they didn’t really care too much what he was doing. The amount of freedom allotted him thus allowed for a lot of experimentation and different sounds he might not have been encouraged to look at if he was still a top-notch star in the label’s estimation.

Around the middle of the decade, he’d gotten a tape of so-called “township music”, Black African folk music, especially Mbaqangi, something akin to a Zulu type of jazz. “It’s very good summer music, happy music,” Simon said. He decided to use it as the basis for Graceland. The problem was, much of the authentic music of the styles that caught his ear were from South Africa, and that land was still living under apartheid – institutionalized racism. The majority of artists and many corporations were officially boycotting the country in protest. “Too bad (the sound’s) not from Zimbabwe, Zaire or Nigeria,” Simon noted. “Life would have been more simple.”

Paul made the decision to go to the country and soak in the local scene and bring on some of the local musical talents to help on the album. Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte encouraged him, but even still many politically-correct types lambasted him for entering the country, where he recorded the basic demos and base of the record. At the same time, ironically, other equally politically-correct sorts proclaimed him a hero for bringing native African music to the masses and employing local session musicians. Simon notes he paid them about $200 an hour, about double their usual daily pay there. It was a strange situation, he remembers, with the musicians wanting to wrap things up in the afternoon because apartheid laws prohibited them using public transit or being out in a number of places after sunset. “In the middle of the euphoric feeling in the studio, you had reminders that you’re living in an incredibly tense racial environment,” he says.

After a few weeks of recording there, he returned to New York to finish off the mixing and add some extra dubs and tracks. By the time it was done he’d credited at least 58 musicians on the album, including a plethora of Africa’s best, like Ladysmith Black Mombaza and Peter Gabriel’s collaborator, Youssou N’dour, as well as American pros like the Everly Brothers who sang backing vocals on the title track. Several of the tracks, like “Gum Boots” utilized traditional African rhythms and were co-written by African musicians.

The resulting record was a collection of unusual songs illustrating Simon’s usual flair for wordplay but a bubbly sound mixing pop, jazz, zydeco and the African roots he tried to invoke.

The album could have easily been overlooked, but instead was a big hit and even expanded the range of stations playing his music from just general “top 40” or “classic rock” to alternative rock ones who were already fond of Peter Gabriel’s use of African styles. Although it only generated one real hit single – “You Can Call Me Al”, which made it to #23 in the U.S., his best-showing since ’80 – but several other songs got considerable radio play including “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes,” the loosely-Elvis inspired “Graceland” and “Boy in the Bubble.”

Overall, the record was a #1 hit in Australia, Canada and the UK – in the latter, it was the fourth biggest-seller of the year – and hit #3 in the U.S., where it went a very impressive 5X platinum. It ended up becoming Simon’s best-seller of records without Garfunkel, and critics loved it. To whit, it won both the Album of the Year and Record of the Year Grammy. Rolling Stone rank it as his best solo work and describe it thusly: “an album about isolation and redemption that transcends ‘world music’ to become the whole world’s soundtrack.” When a magazine says your record is the soundtrack to the planet, you’ve probably done something right.

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7 thoughts on “August 25 – Paul Ventured A Long Way From Central Park

  1. It came with a a real different sound for the times. ‘You Can Call Me Al’ is another of the songs that, from history’s perspective, you find hard to believe only went to 23 in the US. Talking of history, South Africa has a horribly racist recent one. NZ and SA have a massive sporting (rugby) rivalry. Teams would tour each others countries for up to three months at a time, playing games against the local opposition. Only a few years before the only way anyone in the NZ team with a less than blindingly white skin could tour South Africa was by being bestowed the dubious honour of being an ‘Honorary White!’ This ‘honour’ was only for the sporting tours duration, and once it was over anyone with a hint of the non Aryan look was ‘No Longer Welcome.’ Sorry, went off on a rant there… Anyway, good comeback Paul!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I absolutely love this album and think it may well be Paul Simon’s Mt. Rushmore. “You Can Call Me Al” has one of the craziest bass solos I’ve heard.

    I actually got to see Paul Simon back in Germany during the tour that supported the album. He was performing with many of the African musicians who were featured on the album. Seeing these African musicians perform and experiencing the obvious joy they got out of it was something else!

    I also liked how the gig was structured. There were portions when it was only the African musicians without Simon performing – clapping with their hands, stomping with their feet – it was absolutely amazing! Then there were portions when Simon played with them the songs from the “Graceland” album. At the very end of the show, Simon did a couple of tunes by himself including the iconic “The Boxer.”

    This was hands-down one of the best shows I’ve ever seen!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. To the best of my recollection, the audience was quite receptive to the concept. Frankly, I feel it was almost impossible not to love these African musicians. They projected so much enthusiasm! Miriam Makeba, best known for her 1967 song “Pata Pata”, was there as well!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. When I saw Peter Gabriel in ’86 (’87?) he brought along some African dancers and Y’ssou d’nor (I think his name is) that had helped on ‘So’… they added a lot of energy to the show.

        Liked by 1 person

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