The character of the base music here is overwhelming: complex, ebullient and life-affirming, and in yoking this intricate dance music to his sophisticated New Yorker sensibility, Simon created a transatlantic bridge that neither pandered to nor patronized either culture.” – The Independent
He looks around, around
He sees angels in the architecture
Spinning in infinity
He says Amen! and Hallelujah!
When Paul Simon arrived in Johannesburg in February of 1985, he didn’t really have any specific song ideas to work on other than the ones from the tape. And some that had been recommended by South African producer Hilton Rosenthal who pulled the whole thing together for him. The general populace met him with some hostility due to reasons previously mentioned. The local musician’s union – who saw it as a way to promote their culture and music internationally – welcomed him with open arms.
The actual musicians who were to play on the record? Well, they certainly were looking forward to having a paying gig. But even though Paul Simon had been famous for the previous twenty-plus years, not one of them had the slightest idea who he was. One musician said that someone kept singing Simon & Garfunkel songs to him to jar his memory. Nothing.
All that rhymin’ Simon knew is that he wanted to use these specific musicians to get that specific sound. He was going to record a bunch of backing tracks and come up with the lyrics later. (Some people interviewed in “Under African Skies,” expressed some amazement at this. But it doesn’t surprise me at all. Simon had by then been a master songwriter for over two decades.)
“I would play the tracks over and over again,” Simon advises, “improvising melodies until I thought I could perceive patterns in the music that would enable me to write matching verses. It was very difficult because patterns that seemed as though they should fit together often didn’t. I realized that in African music, the rhythms are always shifting slightly and that the shape of a melody was often dictated by the bass line rather than the guitar.”
“Harmonically,” he continues, “African music consists essentially of three major chords — that’s why it sounds so happy — so I could write almost any melody I wanted in a major scale. I improvised in two ways — by making up melodies in falsetto, and by singing any words that came to mind down in my lower and mid range.”
I had remembered some vague story of Paul McCartney and Simon sitting in a car listening to an unreleased album of Simon’s. And damned if in the “Under African Skies” video McCartney didn’t relate this exact story. Tres cool. Man, I would like to have been a fly on the wall for that one.
Simon’s label was pretty hands-off during this process which Paul was quite happy with. He didn’t feel he had to pursue the elusive hit. Wikipedia illuminates this story a little further:
“Executives at Warner Bros. were unconcerned with Simon’s material, viewing him as a “bad investment” due to the failure of his previous two solo albums. The label was much more invested in the music of Prince and Madonna, and they viewed Simon as a “has-been” performer from another time. According to producer Roy Halee, he believed executives at the label viewed the duo as “crazy.””
Ah, yes. Record executives. Always so helpful, so on top of things. Although that said, one can hardly argue with their support of Prince and Madonna.
The song “Graceland,” itself is a terrific piece of music. The title initially came from Simon’s thinking that the rhythm reminded him of the Sun Records sound. “The track has a beautiful emptiness to it,” he said. “That’s what made me think of Sun Records when it was nothing but slapback echo and the song.”
Paul said this song compelled him to visit Graceland but that the song is less about that and more about being in a state of grace. Simon’s childhood heroes the Everly Brothers assist on vocals.
The Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a National guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the civil war
I’m going to Graceland
In Memphis Tennessee
I’m going to Graceland
The story on “You Can Call Me Al” goes that composer Pierre Boulez, at a party, referred to Paul as Al and his then-wife Peggy as Betty. And thus, are great songs born. “You Can Call Me Al,” says Simon, “is really the story of somebody like me, who goes to Africa with no idea and ends up having an extraordinary spiritual experience.”
The brief bass solo by bassist Bakithi Kumalo is actually technically imposssible. The first half was played forward, the tape was reversed, and the second half is the first half played backwards. “The bass line is what the album is all about,” said Halee. “It’s the essence of everything that happened.” We saw Paul Simon play in Boston almost twenty years ago. He played this, much of his solo output as well as Simon and Garfunkel tunes. Big-time party.
This version is from Zimbabwe during the 1987 Graceland world tour and it’s riotously happy:
One of the great hopes of the African Musician’s Union was that Paul Simon’s fame – notwithstanding the local musicians who had never heard of him – would shine a spotlight on their music. Whatever we may think of Simon’s methods, there is no question that this happened.
And this is probably truest of the group known as Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The vocal group had been together since (at least) the ’60’s before Simon’s arrival. A force in their own right, they provided a counterpoint to Simon’s folksy voice, both aurally and visually. They are still together, are ending a tour right now, and damned if I didn’t miss them. Next time.
“Under African Skies,” in fact, mentions their leader Joseph Shabalala as well as, more surreptitiously, Linda Ronstadt who, as mentioned, sang harmony on the record. (Ronstadt is from Tucson, Arizona which is mentioned in the lyrics and which Simon admits she inspired.) South African legend Miriam Makeba sang harmony on the world tour. Another South African legend, trumpeter Hugh Masekela joined the tour as well. Adrian Belew plays guitar on the studio version of this song and guitar synth on a couple others:
Joseph’s face was black as night
The pale yellow moon shone in his eyes
His path was marked
By the stars in the Southern Hemisphere
And he walked his days
Under African skies
“Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” has an interesting provenance. Simon had brought some of the South African musicians back to New York City with him. (He had to tell them that they did not need a permit to go to Central Park but were free to go there at their leisure.)
With so many of the musicians there, Simon figured well, let’s cut another song. Simon worked on this song with Joseph Shabalala who gets credit on the album. (Just fewer than half the songs are co-credited to others.)*
The album hadn’t yet been released and Simon was scheduled to appear on Saturday Night Live. He brought Ladysmith Black Mambazo with him and by all accounts, brought the house down. This was the first indication to the world of this music. Alas, I cannot find that clip but this is a pretty damn good one from Simon’s 2007 Gershwin award performance:
I mentioned the 1987 Graceland world tour above. From a musical perspective, this was a wildly successful tour. From a political perspective, given that apartheid was still very much at its apex, there was still a lot of anger. Simon was in some cases met by “Yankee Go Home” signs. A grenade was tossed into Simon’s promoters’ office in Johannesburg, shaking everyone up quite a bit. (A look at the tour dates indicates they did not actually play South Africa, likely because there could not be an integrated audience.)
Legacy: Released on August 25, 1986, the album was a worldwide smash and represented a major comeback for “has-been” Simon. It is estimated to have sold 16 million copies worldwide. (No match, however, for Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water which has sold 25 million.)
This is considered to be a five-star album by every single outfit of note from AllMusic to Christgau to Rolling Stone. It is number 71 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Simon won Best International Solo Artist award at the Brit Awards in 1987.
Graceland is, along with Talking Heads’ Remain In Light and Peter Gabriel’s So, considered to be an important album that popularized African music world wide. (Gabriel, who had earlier recorded the more blatantly political “Biko,” was effusive in his praise for Graceland.) The album was added to the National Recording Registry in 2007, having been judged to meet the registry’s admission criterion of being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.”
After spending 27 years in prison on a life sentence for resisting apartheid, Nelson Mandela was released in 1990. An end to apartheid was negotiated and in 1994, against all possible odds, Mandela became the president of South Africa.
I mention this as closure on the story and not in any way, shape or form to imply that the musicians’ boycott or Simon’s album were the determining factors. Clearly it was Mandela’s sacrifice and the will of many South Africans, mostly black but some white, that wanted an end to the vicious, toxic moral stain known as apartheid. But artists make a difference if only to chip away at the stone and add their powerful voices to perceived injustices.
Had I been Paul Simon, I would have unquestionably asked permission of whomever I needed to in order to record in South Africa. But then maybe that album never gets made or maybe it gets made too late to have an impact. But I will say this – music cuts across all borders, all races, all governments, all religions. And in whatever defense I might make of Simon I think this is what he was trying to say.
Was Simon right to do it? In the 2012 documentary, “Under African Skies,” he has a discussion with Dali Tambo, the guy who led one of the anti-apartheid groups that did not want Simon to go and who said his visit was “not helpful.” Years later, he seemed wistful about the whole thing. Simon apologized to him if he caused Tambo and his people any grief. (I think he may well have said “inconvenience.” Van Zandt still thinks Simon should say he was wrong.)
Anyway, they hugged. From what I’ve read, most artists – guys like Billy Bragg – forgive Pual Simon but don’t necessarily forget. My take?
Well, maybe I’m naive but I like to think we will all (even Paul Simon) be received in Graceland.
NOTE: Here is an interview with Steve Van Zandt that I discovered shortly after the first post. He discusses the potential hit not only on Simon but even possibly on himself.
Full album YouTube (including demos and that dopey Chevy Chase video)
Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, documentary Under African Skies.
*Los Lobos play on the track, “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints.” There is some bad blood over this as the band members say it’s their song and that Simon literally “stole” it from them. Simon’s contention is that there was no mention of this till after the album had become a massive hit. Not sure where the truth lies on this one but seems to me that if they contributed greatly it would not have killed Simon to give them a credit.