Graceland is probably the first album (or strictly speaking, one of the first two albums) that I remember hearing as a child. My parents had a C90 recording of Graceland and Jackson Browne’s Lives in the Balance that they would play on long car journeys. I would have been seven or eight years old at the time, and while I’m sure they must have had other records that got played on car journeys before that time, I don’t remember what they were. (Or maybe they didn’t: perhaps the grey escort had a cassette player and the blue datsun didn’t…)
At the time, I preferred the Jackson Browne album. Which just goes to show that eight year old me had no taste, because Graceland is a much better record. It’s not for nothing that while I’ve gone back and listened to it from time to time over the past thirty years, it was only a moment of idle curiosity earlier this week that had me go back to Lives in the Balance. Seventies political protest music with very eighties production values. And incongruous pan-pipes. It might sound better if re-recorded, to be fair…
It would be quite possible to like Paul Simon and not really get on with this record or, in my case, the other way round. Some years later; another cassette in another car, I used to hear ‘The Best of Simon and Garfunkel’ a lot in my mid-teens. And to be honest, I don’t really remember it: fairly standard singer-songwriter fare, not unpleasant, but not something I’ve ever sought out since. What made Graceland work,for me at least, was the world music elements. At the time, it was controversial because in making it, Simon had broken the cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa, and while he argued that by working with black musicians, he was not normalising the apartheid regime, but bringing black South African music to an audience that wouldn’t otherwise have heard it, there were those who argued that the decision ought not to have been his to make. All the same, I can’t help thinking that Graceland does not deserve to be considered in the same light as Queen, Elton John or Frank Sinatra’s shows at Sun City. And then there’s the argument about cultural appropriation, which I’m going to dismiss in my middle-class white guy way by waving my hands and noting that almost all musical innovation consists of taking something that someone else has done, and doing something different with it. If we’re going to insist that cultures live in hermetically sealed boxes and nobody is allowed to lift elements from cultural traditions other than their own, then we may as well give up on pop culture.
Anyway, that out of the way, the record begins with Boy in the Bubble which belongs in that little niche genre of ‘the world is spinning out of control, technology is so complicated and politics don’t make sense’ songs (see also We Didn’t Start the Fire and It’s The End of the World As We Know It) that seem to have been a ‘thing’ in the latter part of the 1980s. A time when BBC Micros were the cutting edge and punch-card operated mainframes were but a distant memory from…10 years ago. But what makes it work as a song, what makes it something I’d be much happier to hear on the radio than that Billy Joel song, is that it’s not just guitar, bass and drums (although the drums are really good). There’s a great accordion introduction. In contrast with some of the other songs the world music influences are fairly subliminal (the drums, something I can’t quite put my finger on about the bassline, but nothing so overt as Ladysmith Black Mambazo or The Boyoyo Boys’ contributions to later tracks) but it still sounds a lot more open to different musical palettes than most guitar rock.
The title track, Graceland, is the least world music influenced, and most overtly Americana sounding song on the record. Half-baked theory: The 1980s marked the point in time at which the first youngsters to make their name as rock, pop and folk musicians, following the point in the late 1950s and 1960s when recorded music became a mass-market commodity, hit middle age. And while different musicians responded differently to this – the Rolling Stones were not alone in becoming a pantomime caricature of their own younger selves – Paul Simon was among those who decided instead to write songs about the concerns of 40-somethings. So Graceland is the story of a road trip with “the child of my first marriage” taken as, if it is autobiographical, his second marriage to Carrie Fisher, was collapsing.
I Know What I Know is another song where I’m struck by how good the drums in the introduction sound. As far as I know, Graceland has not been mined by hip-hop beatmakers in the way that, say Led Zeppelin’s back catalogue has been, but that’s their loss. More importantly, it has one of my favourite opening couplets in popular music
“She looked me over and I guess she thought I was alright/ Alright in a sort of a limited way for an off-night.”
The second line is one I can’t help thinking might come in very handy if I were in the habit of writing reviews on TripAdvisor. A story of a fleeting encounter at a society party between two people who flirt for want of anything better to do, while never really connecting:
“She said don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party/ I said ‘who am I, to blow against the wind.”
“She said there’s something about you that really reminds me of money/ She was the kind of a girl who could say things that weren’t that funny.”
Listening to the record again for the first time in a few years, there are things that I don’t remember having noticed before: The way that the backing vocals that come it around 2mins 20 on Under African Skies really make the song. The sheer oddity of the lyrics of You Can Call Me Al – I mean, I get that it’s meant to be a kind of account of a middle-aged man who finds himself out of his comfort zone in Africa and rediscovers his love of music in the process – but what is a cartoon graveyard? Or a bonedigger? Come to that, I’d never noticed before that the penultimate track, The Myth of Fingerprints appears to be about someone dismissing the notion that fingerprints are unique “I’ve seem them all and man they’re all the same…”
If you weren’t around at the time, it would be easy not to realise how ubiquitous this music was at the time. My perspective might be slightly warped by hearing it so often on car journeys, but I’m fairly sure that songs like The Boy in the Bubble and Call Me Al got the kind of heavy rotation on Radio 1 that I imagine Taylor Swift or Bruno Mars do now. But it isn’t so odd, because this is pop music – it has the earworm quality of the best top 40 music. It may be pop music made by a forty-something guy with a quarter century long career as a singer-songwriter behind him but who says that chart pop has to be the exclusive preserve of the under twenty fives?
Highlights: I Know What I Know, Under African Skies, Graceland, The Boy in the Bubble