When Paul Simon’s Graceland was released in August 1986, critics rained praise over it from the direct (“daring and accomplished”) to the obtuse (“radically incongruous and plainly beautiful”). Over 25 years, the album, now included in the United States National Recording Registry, has proven its viability and sustainability, maintaining residency on “Best Of” lists of all varieties. Born out of a sincere desire to capture a genuine sense of purity long since lost in much of music, Graceland is a beautifully expressive yet slightly flawed masterpiece. Graceland may not be a perfect album; however, to be a masterpiece does not necessarily require perfection.
To understand the roots of Graceland, it is necessary to look at Simon’s career in the years preceding the album’s inception. Composer Philip Glass, who contributed to Hearts and Bones, noted, “It was clear that Paul was really coming to the end of writing pop songs the way he had written them up ’til then. He said to me on a number of occasions that he wasn’t interested in writing hits…So here was a man at a very crucial place in his career looking, basically, for something to do, looking for a larger canvas to work on. And I think it’s important to look at it in context of Paul’s music at that time in his life.”
After splitting from Art Garfunkel, Simon rode a relatively strong wave of success during the first half of the ’70s, with classic albums such as There Goes Rhymin’ Simon and Still Crazy After All These Years. However, aside from Collective Works, Simon remained relatively silent in the latter half of the decade. Simon returned with the release of One Trick Pony in 1980, an album that featured songs from a film (but was not necessarily a soundtrack) of the same name, that was written by and starred Simon. Continuing some themes first played with on Still Crazy five years earlier, with its jazz lite leanings, the album (and the film) was a critical and commercial flop.
Under this cloud, Simon then reunited with Garfunkel for a successful reunion performance in Central Park. The success of that led to talks of a new album between the two and a tour. While touring, however, things inevitably broke down. Simon described the period: “It was a difficult time for me personally…when I did a reunion concert with Art Garfunkel…And then we decided to go out and do some concerts. Just a classic mistake.” An album originally planned as a Simon and Garfunkel album was shelved and Simon instead released Hearts and Bones, a commercial disaster and the lowest charting album of Simon’s career. “I was exhausted. I didn’t do any work to promote it. I just put it out and it was a flop,” said Simon.
Nearing a decade since his last hit album and following two commercial failures, Simon’s personal life also began to spiral downward when his marriage to actress Carrie Fisher fell apart. The combination of the personal blow and career setback sent the artist into a tailspin. Around this time, in the summer of 1984, Simon began building a new house on Montauk, Long Island. While commuting to and from the city, Simon listened to a tape given to him by guitarist and friend Heidi Berg. Without knowing who or what was on the tape, Simon listened to it non-stop. “I began to realize I really liked that tape. After a couple of weeks of driving back and forth to the house and listening to the tape, I think, ‘What is this tape?’ This is my favorite tape. I wonder who it is. I wonder who this band is and that’s when things started to perk up,” Simon recalled. This curiosity led Simon to ask people at his label, Warner Brothers, to research the tape, where they discovered the album to be Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, Volume II, by a South African mbaqanga group called the Boyoyo Boys.
Mbaqanga, also called “township jive”, is the street music of Soweto, South Africa. To the natives, many of whom listen more to American funk and soul, the style was passe and old-fashioned, but it reminded Simon of early rock & roll, especially in the use of the accordion. Simon reflected, “The way they play the accordion, it sounds like a big reed instrument. It could almost be a sax.”
In early 1985, Simon and engineer Roy Halee flew to South Africa in search of native musicians. What they hoped to gain at the time, nobody could say; however, regardless of the outcome, Simon was an artist reborn. “I had finished with my disappointments and my sorrows,” said Simon.
Disappointments and sorrows aside, Simon’s difficulties were just beginning. After decades of practicing Apartheid, South Africa’s minority rule government found itself subject to UN sanctions and boycotts, one of which was an artists’ boycott. Simon, in wanting to go to South Africa and work with these musicians, could potentially be in violation of the boycott. Simon sought permission through the South African ruling congress and approached the artists via the musicians’ union, and though he didn’t receive it from the government, the musicians gave him approval. With that, Simon and Halee set out. Simon never intended to make a political statement by going to South Africa; he simply wanted to play and record music with the musicians he had great respect for and whose music he loved. Guitarist Ray Phiri defended Simon saying, “He didn’t politicize the album by simply writing what was happening. He went a step further and said, ‘No. Who am I to talk about people’s situations. Why don’t I get those people to come on and let us share these beautiful rhythms with the children of the world.’”
With all of Simon’s previous albums, the songs were written, often in the studio, where Simon was able to create “great things.” That was not the case with Graceland. “It was a concept of getting good grooves and coming back and re-writing it. There was nothing really written,” recounted Halee. “There’s an idea, a concept. Nothing on paper. It was a gamble, I guess.” Essentially, Simon and Halee were going to South Africa to record jam sessions with the hopes of obtaining something they could work with back in the studio in New York. The initial sessions proved disappointing and frustrating. Simon realized in order to achieve his goal, he would have to give up control. Simon said, “Instead of resisting what’s going on, I’ll go with it and I’ll be carried along and I’ll find out where we’re going. Instead of assuming that I’m the captain of the ship, I’m not; I’m just a passenger.” While in South Africa, they worked with such artists as Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the aforementioned Boyoyo Boys, and guitarist Phiri and bassist Bakithi Kumalo, among others. When they returned to America, Simon added the talents of Linda Rondstadt, the Everly Brothers and Los Lobos, the last of whom claimed Simon stole the song “All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints” from one of their jam sessions.
Glass said of Graceland, “This was a very in-depth compositional effort. It wasn’t just a question of taking a few rhythms and taking a few drummers and putting them together. This was a real composition that was made on the basis of that material.” When Simon and Halee returned to New York, they set about building what would become Graceland. “I didn’t feel that I was going to South Africa to come back and then express a South African outrage…I really didn’t feel comfortable with that. My feeling was I am playing musicians that I have the highest respect for. The way I can show my respect, completely, is to write the best possible song from my heart that I can write,” Simon claimed.
The process of actually writing the album came from a deep analysis of what was going on in the tracks. During writing Simon would come upon problems, often in the middle of a song, that he couldn’t quite grasp. Stubbornly approaching the problem with the attitude “well, it should work,” Simon was forced to focus and “learn to listen on a level [he] had never experienced before.” What Simon found was that the African musicians, whether intentionally or not, would often alter their patterns in subtle ways. It wasn’t until months later that these alterations were even noticed.
As the album began to form, Simon knew one thing for sure – the opening track. “I think we always knew that [“Boy In the Bubble”] would be the start of the album. It began so unusually and the sound of those drums at the top sounded so African that it really was like an announcement that said you haven’t heard this before.” Halee took it a bit further, personalizing the song, “To me it represents the whole feel and that whole experience. A very dark, brooding quality about it. And to me it most represents the whole trip, the whole concept and the whole feel of recording in that studio over there.”
For Simon, “a pretty accurate description of my journey” is the single “You Can Call Me Al”, with its lyrics connecting Simon to the song’s protagonist, a stranger in a strange land. The song suffered the unfortunate side-effect of a successful video: Because of the humorous nature of the video, the second made for the song, people had the tendency to view the song as funny or goofy and often failed to note the parallel between “Al” and Simon.
Despite the meaning behind “You Can Call Me Al”, Simon’s favorite is the album’s title track. “’Graceland’ is my favorite record. Favorite record, my favorite song, that I ever wrote. This is it, this is the best I ever did,” confessed Simon. “It’s all perfect. It begins so relaxed; there’s no lyrics. It’s taking its time.” It’s a tad ironic that the titular phrase, “I’m going to Graceland,” was never meant to be used in the final version of the song. “’I'm going to Graceland.’ That phrase fit very well with what was going on in the track. So I sang it, thinking all along of course I’m going to replace this,” admitted Simon. Halee remembered how the general wordiness of the lyrics caused concern that rhythmically they did not fit. Simon altered how he sang or phrased the lines “thousands of different ways” but they always felt uncomfortable. “There were times that I’m sure we both thought, we’re just not gonna get this,” said Halee.
When Graceland came out, Simon faced some backlash. Many felt the way Simon went about things was a violation of the UN boycotts. Linda Rondstadt had been temporarily put on a blacklist for singing on “Under African Skies”. Politicians and pundits even twisted the situation to claim that by violating the boycott, Simon supported the system in place. Others claimed that Simon was simply exploiting the musicians (even though he paid them triple industry rates and the musicians themselves denied such claims) for his own personal gain. With so many upset with Simon, Phiri summed the situation up accurately: “The most unfortunate thing about the beast in us is that we always find wrong when it is right and we find right when it is wrong. Something so beautiful can be turned into an ugly thing just for the sake of scoring political points.”
Though it may be a stretch to give Graceland and all that went into its creation as much credit as Simon tends to with regards to helping bring an end to Apartheid, this album did broaden the spotlight on the situation. It also introduced to the world to a collective of musicians and music that has forever enriched anyone who has ever heard it. “In retrospect, it’s an instant classic,” said Glass.