In the 1980s, several stars of the 1960s and 1970s discovered a resurgence. Unfortunately, for most of them, it was fueled by superficial pop hits that in many cases, were note even written by these re-emerging artists. Heart, Aerosmith and Tina Turner are among those that come to mind, and while they had a lot of commercial success in the 1980s, I don’t think that era of their music comes close to the real sounds they created at the peak of their window of influence. One artist who managed to escape that trap was Paul Simon. The 1980s didn’t start well for him, as he had split from not only Art Garfunkel but his wife, Carrie Fisher (yes, Princess Leia!!), and he was struggling to be noticed with his recent albums. That changed when he was introduced to the sounds of mbaqanga, which is street music from South Africa. Spending time in South Africa, which didn’t come without controversy, Simon crafted an album of material based on, influenced by, and integrated with a large cast of musicians from South Africa and ultimately around the world. Paying tribute as a spiritual return to musical roots, he titled the album “Graceland” in honor of one of his musical icons, Elvis Presley. “Graceland” was a major hit, both critically and commercially, and is the #46 rated album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
I was always fond of both the inspiration and the results that came from this record, but relistening to it now, I have gained a much greater appreciation for how much I really love this entire album. The sounds are lush, the instrumentation is remarkably unique, and the songwriting is very effectively immersed within the African feel of this record. Simon is not the first white artist to explore this sound within his own recording. Previously, we have listened to, and given high praise, to both Neil Diamond and Peter Gabriel for taking this leap, and Simon definitely does it right with his creative collaborations on this record.
The album opens with a rich accordion, and the bouncy bass lines that drive this entire record burst into “The Boy in the Bubble”. Next comes the sweet and adoring sounds of the title track, continuing the warm echoes as Simon comes full circle with his African ensemble singing about the glories of “Graceland”, Elvis Presley’s iconic mansion in Memphis. The standout component of the next song, “I Know What I Know”, is the unusual riff and accompanying backing vocals in a high key, performed by the Gaza Sisters. One of the first songs Simon embraced and worked to reshape and augment was the legacy South African track “Gumboots”. An up-tempo track with beautiful horns, Simon intentionally intersperses faster tracks with slow tunes to extend the contrast and variety of the record. Side one ends with an absolutely gorgeous song, “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”. It starts in a beautiful a capella opening, which then evolves into a rousing up-tempo mix of sounds that almost seems too good to be true. This was a late addition to the album, but it is a real masterpiece.
Most music listeners will of course recognize “You Can Call Me All, the first and biggest single from the album. Aside from being a song that has always entertained me, this song stands out to me for two reasons. First, I have always loved the video with Chevy Chase assuming lead vocal duties while Simon is relegated to a series of complimentary tasks. The video also underscores the notable difference in height between the two, adding some comic fuel to the performance. This was at the peak of my Chevy Chase fandom as “Caddyshack”, Vacation” and “Fletch” were all easily among the Top 10 most watched movies of that entire decade for me. Secondly, I will always a recall this song for a strange and unusual recurring interaction during my time in college. At some point during my freshman year, I met a girl at a party. We only talked for about a minute or two, and when I asked her what her name was, she simply said, “You can call me Al.” That of course, made me Betty. And although I probably never talked to this person for more than a minute at any time again in my life, any time we saw each other for the next four years, I would say “hello” to Al and she would return the favor. So, Al, if you are out there somewhere, I hope life is treating you well.
“Under African Skies” is another beautiful melody that features Linda Ronstadt on a vocal duet. Adrian Belew also appears on this track on guitar. “Homeless” is a soulful acknowledgment of the economic imbalance and poverty of the black South Africans, and features Ladysmith Black Mambazo with Simon. “Crazy Love, Vol. II” sounds like Paul Simon coming back to his roots as an American singer after this powerful experience, and on the last two tracks he further diversifies his collaborations. “That Was Your Mother” is a Cajun zydeco song that features Good Rockin’ Doopsie and The Twisters. In a really weird coincidence, I was listening to this album I wondered if there was a similar style collaboration with Latin artists, and just as I thought that, the last song “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints”, which is a collaboration with Los Lobos, came on the stereo. I’m not sure how that happened, but some times things just happen for a reason.
Overall, “Graceland” is one of my very favorite records on this list that was not already a deeply embedded part of my musical catalog, and it was great to revisit why I liked it the first time and rediscover why I love it now. Paul Simon (like Chevy Chase) can be a bit of a grumpy old man these days, and it always struck me how oddly insecure he was in his relationship with Art Garfunkel, given the fact he was the clear and primary creative force of that duo, but for all of those quirks, he made a fantastic record that lives on as a classic today.