On This Day is a new regular series dedicated to great moments in music history.
The story of ‘Graceland’ begins with Paul Simon’s career in freefall. He began the decade in the midst of a musical mid-life crisis. Following a badly received film (One Trick Pony – the definition of a ‘vanity project’) he fell back into the reliable arms of a Simon And Garfunkel reunion.
But that ended abruptly after Simon erased Garfunkel’s vocals from the album they were both working on. The tentatively titled ‘Think Too Much’ morphed into the solo disc ‘Hearts And Bones’. However the 1983 album also became a cross to bear; it was the lowest charting album of Simon’s career.
The stage was set for giving his career a major overhaul. And so he did.
The seeds for ‘Graceland’ were sown when a friend handed the singer a tape of the track ‘Gunboots’ by South African band Boyoyo Boys. They were a group from Soweto who played Mbaquanga music (a fusion of South African tribal music with a type of SA jazz music called ‘Marabi’), nicknamed “township jive”. Reminding Simon of the R’n’B he was so enamoured with in the 50s, he contacted his label Warner Brothers in an attempt to set up a collaboration with the Boyoyo Boys.
But this proved difficult in the era of Apartheid opposition. However, he found an ally in Hilton Rosenthal, a record company man who’d worked with racially integrated bands in South Africa, meaning he could convince the Black Musicians Union to agree on a collaborate with Simon.
It’s hard to say how these obstacles affected the singer, because ‘Graceland’ isn’t the sound of someone over-burdened by the weighty baggage of circumstance, but rather it’s the sound someone wildly firing on all cylinders, high on the the joie de vivre of life.
A prescient sense of internationalism radiates out of tracks on ‘Graceland’. Whether Simon’s singing about New York’s LaFayette, whilst Rockin’ Dopsie’s accordian jumps about on ‘That Was Your Mother’, duetting with lady of the canyon Linda Rondstadt on ‘Under African Skies’ or riffing about the dangers of technological advancement as Forere Motloheloa lays down an unforgettable riff on ‘The Boy In The Bubble’. It’s a postmodern take on musicality which today we take for granted, influencing everyone from Vampire Weekend to M.I.A. and Noah & The Whale and Beyonce.
Aside from this sonic onslaught, ‘Graceland’’s huge success (Number One internationally, the winner of ‘Album Of The Year’ at The Grammys) is also down to the fact that lyrically Simon was the best he’d ever been. His vignettes about his seemingly endless supply of outsider characters (the travelling salesmen, Fat Charlie, the former talk show host and the lonely millionaire rock star trapped in his own Eden, the spectre of who haunts the title track) were beautifully written, recalling his finest work with Simon & Garfunkel.
It had something that everyone could relate to. From his baby boomer audience would find an affinity with the atmosphere of a 40-something malaise which shades his lyrics to the kids who laughed at the Chevy Chase featuring video for ‘You Can Call Me Al’.’Graceland’ was and is an album which unites people.
Also On This Day
*1964: The Beatles’ first film ‘A Hard Days Night’ opened in 500 American cinemas to rave reviews.
*1986: Prince started a run of five nights at Wembley Arena, London, his first UK shows for five years.
*1996: The Spice Girls were at No.1 on the UK singles chart with ‘Wannabe’.