Scattered among the soon-to-be forgotten one-hit wonder releases (Glass Tiger, Stacey Q.), the last grasp efforts by fading bands (Toto, Nazareth) and the first strains of hair metal (Cinderella and Bon Jovi), 1986 saw Paul Simon release his career-defining album, a record that easily is one of the best things musically to survive the 80’s: Graceland.
Since splitting from Art Garfunkel 16 years earlier, Simon had settled into a nice career as a solid singer songwriter, but it was with Graceland, his seventh, where he finally stepped away from his comfortable career writing soundtracks to the lives of white suburbanites and decided to put his lyrics to an amazing collection of African instrumentals. Superlatives be damned, 25-years later the result is still nothing short of breathtaking.
As Simon tells it on the documentary accompanying this 25th anniversary re-release (more on the doc in a minute), he had been given a cassette of the South African band Boyoyo Boys playing the instrumental “Gumboots.” So overwhelmed by the music, he managed to track down the band and offer a collaboration. He eventually penned lyrics to “Gumboots” and the song was included on Graceland.
Recording in South Africa (a big no-no at the time given the on-going boycott of the racist pro-apartheid leaders in Africa), Simon and the musicians blended two cultural sounds with remarkable results. Song after song on the album took its place on the music charts across the globe, as well as in our collective conscious (“The Boy in the Bubble,” “Graceland,” “You Can Call Me All,” “Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes,” and on and on).
The documentary Under African Skies, included in the re-release, tells a remarkably unbiased story of the recording of the album. The core of the film was Simon’s decision to break the boycott and record with the musicians in their native South Africa and the backlash that followed. Not to give too much away, because it really is a film worth watching for any music fan, Simon contends that artists shouldn’t follow orders given by political parties no matter how much they agree with them (in this case, it was the African National Congress that called for the boycott). In the doc, Simon talks about how his friend Sydney Poitier suggested he speak to members of the ANC before going to Africa to work on the record. He didn’t.
Would Graceland have turned out as remarkable if Simon had simply flown the musicians to LA to work on the album, avoiding all of the future headaches? Possibly. The only thing that is certain is that the songs on this record are still just as impactful now as when they first showed up in 1986.
Paul Simon – Graceland: 25th Anniversary/1 CD and 1 DVD/19 tracks/Sony/Legacy/2012