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.