Going back to Graceland
After spending many a pandemic half-hour listening to the consistently entertaining 1001 Album Club podcast, I decided to set up my own club of music-loving friends. The people at 1001 have taken on the herculean task of discussing every one of the albums form Robert Dimery’s 1001Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. It’s a good listen mainly because most of the friends are musicians with broad tastes. As a result, they respond thoughtfully to whatever they have to hear and tend to give the albums about five or six listens each. As they have some studio experience, they speak quite authoritatively on the various techniques employed by the artists but they wear their knowledge lightly and never lay it on too thickly. As with most podcasts I’ve heard, it’s a wee bit too pally at times and the contributors tend to laugh at one another very easily, but that is what happens when friends have a chat, isn’t it?
I have enjoyed listening to albums in advance of the podcasted discussions and feel pleased when I appear to be singing off the same hymn sheet as the contributors. Only occasionally have I had a clash of views with them. They couldn’t take Ian Dury’s songs, sound or singing while as much as I admire Bruce Springsteen and recognise his songwriting talent, I found Darkness on the Edge of Town painfully overwrought.
Anyway, when I proposed a form of album club to three music fan friends, there was enthusiastic agreement (if you can trust how people express themselves on WhatsApp). I didn’t mention the 1001 Album Club, which is a good way to force yourself into sampling things you ordinarily wouldn’t touch with a bargepole, suggesting that choices be open.
The tallest of the group suggested Graceland, an album he’d never heard but which he’d read mentioned in a recent interview.
I have a history with this album. It was the first album I ever got, a Christmas present on cassette, bought in the shop next door to ours on Xmas Eve 1986. That shop was a kind of jack of all trades one-stop, stocking stationary, cheap plastic toys, board games, ornaments, a few sweets, cigarettes, greetings cards, records and tapes. Unwrapping Graceland with its cryptic tribal art tile image on pale yellow cover, was no surprise. After all, it was me who had purchased it the day before. But this would turn out to be the album I listened to more than any other.
I was unaware of Paul Simon’s history in one of the most successful musical duos when I saw ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ video on TV. At the time, chart radio and TV were still a mixed bag of radically different pop sounds, and ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ with its opening accordion line followed by fat, threatening bass and a detached-sounding voice singing about shattering shop windows, slo-motion CCTV and ‘the automatic earth’ sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before.
Of course I was unaware that this was a South African sound. It just sounded extraordinary. Over the remaining days of my Christmas holidays, I must have listened to Graceland at least a hundred times and over the course of 1987 I probably listened to it several hundred times more. It became a kind of joint soundtrack for my Dad as we did a painfully intricate jigsaw puzzle.
As seems to happen when you binge on an album, there comes a point when you are almost allergic to it, and I remember never wanting to hear Graceland again, and even finding it a little embarrassing to think about my brief but heavy crush on it.
Going back to it last week in advance of our album club has been both a confirmatory and revelatory experience. I used to wonder why I had been so stuck on the album as a twelve-year-old. I quickly realised why when I played it through for the first time last week. The music, the playing, and the backing vocals are gorgeous from beginning to end, and the production is immaculate.
I felt myself moving to it and feeling like dancing, and I wondered what it might be like to listen to a version that omitted all of Paul Simon’s vocals. Most of it would make a fine party album. As is common knowledge, most of the songs were pre-existing numbers written by other people, onto which Simon placed his sometimes wonderful and sometimes lightweight lyrics.
The aforementioned ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ builds up a kind of dystopian vision of a world on the cusp of environmental and technological disaster while ‘Graceland’ itself features that great observation about heartbreak: ‘She says losing love is like a window in your heart / Everybody sees you’re blown apart / Everybody feels the wind blow’.
On the other hand, some of the songs have a daffy mid-life crisis feel. ‘Don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party?’ and ‘Aren't you the woman who was recently given a Fullbright’ asks Simon in ‘I Know What I Know’, while a group of female singers whoop beautifully over a muscular bass riff. It feels a bit like Woody Allen on a visit to Africa. ‘You can call me Al’, ‘Gumboots’ and ‘Crazy Love Part II’ also have a kind of ‘navel-gazing shlub’ feel to them, the musings of guys who have been left temporarily unmoored by the vicissitudes of life. In normal circumstances, that might be hard to listen to, but here the music is so beautiful and Simon’s voice is so coolly unobtrusive, that the overall sound is unharmed.
There were a lot of mysteries to the album when I listened to it back in the 1980s and thanks to wikipedia I have discovered that the mysterious but alluring lines from ‘Diamonds on the soles of her shoe’ (‘She makes the sign of a teaspoon / He makes the sign of a wave’) relates to sign language and might describe how the couple are dancing.
One question remains. Why did Simon employ the Everly Brothers, two of the most distinctive singers in the history of popular music, to sing backing vocals on ‘Graceland’ only to mix them so low as to render them anonymous?