In my university days, I really only protested about two things (there were so many options; you had to pick your battles): education cuts (naturally – we had no effect, but we certainly enjoyed our library sit-ins), and the South African government. I went on marches, I sang the songs, I demanded victory for the ANC, I didn’t buy oranges – to be fair, fruit wasn’t a huge part of my student diet, but anything with the word ‘Cape’ on it wasn’t going in my shopping basket. I also steadfastly refused to bank with Barclays, which wasn’t a major issue for a Scottish student, but it was the thought which counted.
Being vocally and visibly anti-apartheid might have been a controversial stand, but that’s not how I remember it; the people I hung out with, and the ones I studied with were all pretty much in the same frame of mind; by the time Free Nelson Mandela came out in the spring of 1984, I’m fairly confident most of us owned a copy, and if amplifying the reach of a pop song had an effect on the South African government (and it might have done), then I did my part.
Maybe – as my mother worried – going to the protest marches and rallies put my name on a list; it’s possible that I’m not a civil servant to this day because I once stood around in the freezing cold in Teviot Square shouting about Nelson Mandela and urging SWAPO on to victory.
So, you might be asking yourself, what is this album doing on this list? How is it that only two years after leaving behind my student protest days, and with Mandela still in prison, I bought myself a copy of an album which I’m fairly sure would have seen me ostracised by my fellow protestors?
The answer is, of course, that – like all of adult life was proving to be – it was more complicated than it seemed. Not at first, of course – I was still living and working in the north of Scotland, and didn’t exactly have my finger on the cultural pulse any more – no time for poring over the opinion pages of the weekly music press; no time for engaging with the subtleties of the arguments; I was newly married, and figuring out how this whole ‘being a grownup, paying bills and keeping my employer happy’ thing worked. I heard stuff on the radio, I liked it, I went out and bought it, and only afterwards became dimly aware that there was some talk about the album and how it was made, and that not everything is as simple as it seems.
There’s no doubt in my mind that I owned this album because of the startling bassline in You Can Call Me Al– it soundedlike it had been recorded backwards, but it apparently hadn’t. It sounded like some of the things I liked most about Remain in Light; it sounded – frankly – like nothing else I was hearing, and if I thought about the politics of the album at all, I likely settled on the idea that most of the musicians on it were exactly the people all that protesting had been designed to help; exposing the music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo to a wider audience was surely a positive thing.
But, like I say, it was more complicated than that.
And it’s still more complicated than that. It’s easy for me to say that I’m not supposed to like this album because of the way it was recorded, and because – however you look at it – you can’t deny that the primary beneficiary of this cultural exchange was Paul Simon’s bank balance, rather than the political objectives of those opposed to the South African government. It’s easy to say, but I did buy it, I did enjoy it, and – as far as I know – I still do enjoy it. It’s a classic album, and rightly so; it did impact the wider music scene – it, and several others, paved the way to record stores having ‘world music’ sections, and changed a lot of opinions about ‘authenticity’ and what constituted pop music anyway.
I also can’t really take refuge behind the idea that it’s all in the past now; the good guys won, and that there is an argument to be made that this album played a tiny part in that process by exposing this music to the world. I can’t do that because what seems obvious now – that Nelson Mandela would, indeed, be released, and become president of South Africa – wasn’t at all obvious in 1986, and those who protested this album were right to protest that Simon had indeed breached the cultural boycott of South Africa to get it made.
And, for what it’s worth, I don’t buy the ‘naïve artist’ line either – I think Paul Simon knew exactly what he was getting into, but I also hear what he heard – he took a gamble on the album’s success drowning out the protest, because he could hear what this music could sound like, and for him, the urge to get the music out there overrode the political considerations. He also could point to his collaborators on the album, whose enthusiastic participation suggested that they, at least, had no issue with what was going on.
The more you thought about Graceland at the time, the more complicated the issues seemed to be, and time has not exactly eased things. On one hand, you can look at it and see the controversy as a historical quirk; on the other, it does sound quite a lot like cultural appropriation; taking the music of another continent and presenting it to the world, saying ‘look what I found’ and profiting from it.
I hope you weren’t expecting answers from this, because I don’t have any. I can, I think (I’ll find out shortly) separate the music from the context, and listen to it the way I listened to it at the time, able to appreciate the musicians and their craft. I can also agonise still over whether this should even be in the list (Peter Gabriel’s So would have been the alternative, I think), but it’s here because it happened; it’s here because it caused me to face up to the fact that I didn’t have all the answers than, and I don’t now; it’s here because I did that Smiths album a couple of weeks back, and I don’t want to skip over things and pretend they didn’t happen.
I bought Graceland when it came out; I loved it, and it was part of my life. I never felt entirely comfortable with the fact that I enjoyed it as much as I did (it’s, I think, still my favourite Paul Simon solo album), and I’m OK with the fact that I still don’t know if I should enjoy it as much as I do.
Life isn’t straightforward, and I think we should be grateful for any opportunity to examine our position on things, and be comfortable with the idea that we can be conflicted about something, yet still find it irresistible and worthy of comment. All of which presupposes that I still love Graceland, and I’m going to have to listen to it to find out.
The Boy in the Bubble immediately drops us into the unfamiliar; the wheezing accordion producing an off-kilter rhythm before some more familiar elements begin to creep in; Adrian Belew contributes some of the same strange synthesised guitar sounds which tie back to Remain in Light and all the while Paul Simon is singing about – well, for an album which famously doesn’t attempt to address the circumstances under which it was made, this song does at least have some sense of South Africa and the tensions of everyday life about it. It is a bit of a middle-aged white man’s complaint at the way the world is going, but there are enough universals in it that we can recognise that much of what’s bothering him bothers us today.
The title track is perhaps the best exemplar of the strange dichotomy of this whole album. It’s a fairly straightforward, vaguely allegorical, Paul Simon lyric which conflates Elvis with that mystical something which he believes we are all seeking. As a simple acoustic song, it would be clever, but not particularly remarkable; another Paul Simon semi-confessional. It is, however, set in a soundscape which makes you sit up and take notice; there are faint echoes of unfamiliar instruments, a liquid bassline, and a set of vocal harmonies and doubled vocals which just take it out of the ordinary, and give it more heft and meaning than is perhaps actually present.
The South African elements move from support to front and centre in I Know What I Know; this isn’t Paul Simon supported by African artists, it’s an African song featuring Paul Simon’s voice (which it has to be said, does fit perfectly). It is around here that the listener (well, this listener, knowing what he knows now) begins to ask uncomfortable questions about authorship and just whose music this actually is.
Which questions feed inevitably into Gumboots, which was even acknowledged on the sleeve (If I remember correctly) as being a pre-existing song which was the impetus for this entire project. It’s simple, joyful, and troubling in retrospect. Just what does this whimsical lyric have to do with the music underpinning it? I mean, I can’t help singing along with a song so familiar, but I also can’t help wondering what exactly was going on.
On the other hand, the choral introduction to Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes, sung in Zulu by Ladysmith Black Mambazo is so overpowering and somehow truthful that it banishes doubt. The singing is magnificent and elevates the rest of the song to the point of irresistibility. I know I’m going to be singing this for the rest of the week, as it’s right around here that I let go of my reservations and surrender to the music; to the joy and try not to worry about anything else.
The lead-off single is, of course, in its correct place at the start of side 2, and is still the best-known of all these songs. Having gone to such trouble to work with African musicians, and to record music in a South African idiom with all the issues that caused, it is still a source of mystery to me that the song which most people associate with this album is about an urban white man’s mid-life crisis, and featured a video with Chevy Chase. And then I’m whistling along with the instrumental break and still unable to process exactly how that bass run is made to sound like it does – it’s not reversed; I’ve seen it done live – and once again I find myself lost in the music and understand that this is how it works; why it’s still considered a classic – eventually, the music just overrules your objections.
The loping rhythms of Under African Skies frame a song which – while ignoring the elephant in the room – does reflect on the common experiences of the Western and South African musicians; it’s a straightforward tale of the power of music to erase boundaries, spoiled only a little by having Simon’s voice doubled by Linda Ronstadt, an artist who breached the cultural boycott to play concerts at Sun City, which is – even by the fudged standards of this album – remarkably tin-eared. You can make the case for the album as a whole as a way to expose this music to the rest of the world; including Ronstadt on it kind of eclipses that argument.
Then, while I’m still pondering that, back come Ladysmith Black Mambazo with the truly moving and irresistible introduction to Homeless. The whole thing is magnificent, uplifting, and pretty much nothing to do with Paul Simon, save a few vocal lines. It’s comfortably the best thing on the album, it appeals mightily to the linguist in me with the sounds of the Zulu language, and it has caused me to reflect that, had I boycotted this album all these years, I would never have heard a song which still causes me to sit open-mouthed in awe and admiration. All other considerations put to one side, this is spellbinding music.
As is the sparse guitar work by Ray Phiri on Crazy Love, Vol. II – it’s another song where the lyrics are disconnected from the thrilling pulse of the music as Simon whinges on about whatever is bothering him this time, it’s easy enough to tune him out and listen to how the music is constructed, and how it pays little or no attention to the singer while still supporting the song.
I’m aware that I seem to be somewhat grumpy about the words on this album, and that’s not entirely fair – there are plenty of great couplets, and lyrics I’d be happy to dissect in another context; it’s just that they do feel like a missed opportunity to say something about how this album was recorded, and what was going on around it. It says something that the most affecting words I’ve heard so far are the ones in a language I don’t speak.
The final two tracks on Graceland head back to the US via the zydeco accordion of Good Rockin’ Dopsie and then the Mexican sounds of Los Lobos. Those two tracks represent a transition back to western idiom, and to me, never quite worked. They also have their own controversy surrounding them and how they were written and credited. Both are fine songs, but both seem to be trying to do something like demonstrating that American and South African music share common underpinnings, and I’m not sure I buy that argument.
Overall, Graceland is comfortably familiar to me, and that makes it hard to reappraise. I do now – and perhaps always did – see the issues with it, and I’mprobably being harder on it than I might otherwise be, because I’ve spent time thinking about whether I should even have included it on this list. But here it is; it was part of my life then, and I have enjoyed listening to it again, despite all the reservations I seem to have. It is fun, it is joyful, and it is complicated.
A bit like life, then.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
I have a soft spot for the follow-up to Graceland, The Rhythm of the Saints, but acknowledge that it has just as many questions about cultural appropriation surrounding its construction. For something less controversial, try Still Crazy After All These Years.
Compilations to consider?
There have been a few, of which Negotiations and Love Songs is the only one I know, so try that for an introduction to Paul Simon.
Concert in the Park covers pretty much all of Simon’s career to that point, and is also a record of the show we saw at Wembley in 1991 – I’m sure I could find out for certain, but the tracklist is pretty close to what I remember.
Pretty much all the Simon and Garfunkel albums, including the Concert in Central Park are worth your time, and I do remember seeing a film about the Graceland concerts in Africa at some point; that would be worth a look, if I could remember what it was called!