Graceland: Paul Simon’s South African Steeped Solo Masterpiece

Paul Simon's album Graceland
Graceful.

Launched in August 1986, Paul Simon’s seventh solo album is also his best.

Born out of stressful personal circumstances, he channelled his creative energies to write songs steeped in glorious South African charm.

Paul Simon’s Graceland Solo Album

In the early 1980s Paul Simon’s marriage to Carrie Fisher had collapsed. His previous album was Hearts and Bones and launched in 1983.

Despite being a strong record, it was a total commercial failure. His previous album suffered the same fat.

In a period of depression, he nonetheless became fascinated with mbaqanga (South African street music) and visited the megacity of Johannesburg.

There he involved local musicians such as Lulu Masilela, Tao Ea Matsekha, General M. D. Shirinda and the Gaza Sisters, and the Boyoyo Boys Band.

Pay at the same (February 1985) was the equivalent of $15 an hour, but Simon paid the musicians $200 an hour to convince them to commit to his project.

At the time, Simon’s visit was dangerous as the UN had put a cultural boycott on visits due to ongoing apartheid.

Later, after Graceland first released, there was controversy over whether Simon should have travelled to South Africa in the first place.

In 2013, he summarised his stance on the situation:

“What was unusual about Graceland is that it was on the surface apolitical, but what it represented was the essence of the anti-apartheid in that it was a collaboration between blacks and whites to make music that people everywhere enjoyed. It was completely the opposite from what the apartheid regime said, which is that one group of people were inferior. Here, there were no inferiors or superiors, just an acknowledgement of everybody’s work as a musician. It was a powerful statement.”

After after two weeks writing and recording in South Africa, Simon returned to the US and was able to wrap up production.

The result was a unique album packed with different genres. Accessible for casual fans, but with new styles many listeners had likely not heard of before.

This included pop, rock, a cappella, zydeco, isicathamiya, and mbaqanga. Gems such as Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, the fifth track on the album.

Or Under African Skies, another of the album’s sentimental tracks. It’s a real thinker.

Despite Simon’s depression at the time, the songs he wrote were joyous and life-affirming.

And that’s one of the big strengths of Graceland. It offers a reassuring blend of upbeat, calming, and uplifting little numbers.

That’s despite several of the songs dealing with a sense of yearning sadness, clearly nodding towards Simon’s failed marriage (plus, other issues).

The eponymous track Graceland, for example, directly deals with Simon’s failed marriage to actress Carrie Fisher.

In 1988, the track won a Grammy for Record of the Year.

And there’s a lot of praise for the album in its entirety. Major awards and, importantly for Simon at the time, major commercial success.

Plenty of hit singles and sales that catapulted him back into the limelight.

For us, we consider Graceland a mighty fine album. But it’s also got a strong place in our history as we used to listen to it a lot growing up.

As in, our parents would often stick it on cassette in the car. Or during meals at night. So that’s part of where our fondness for the record comes from.

But it also helps that the songs are rather inspiring and calming, non? Reassuring in their often upbeat take on life troubles and melancholia.

You Can’t Call Me Al, Okay?

One of the big hits from the album is You Can Call Me Al, which tends to get overplayed on the radio.

Good song, but not the highlight from the album. And we’d like to flag up some of the proper standout tracks from Graceland.

One of the singles includes The Boy in the Bubble, which is the album’s opening track.

That song is about David Vetter (1971-1984), who suffered from severe combined immunodeficiency.

He spent most of his short life in a sterile plastic bubble to keep him away from rogue infections.

Given there was a lot of dodgy music in the 1980s (not that we’re saying it’s any better these days), Graceland sure was one remarkable gem to come out of the decade.

It took a great deal of personal blows against Paul Simon for him to conceptualise it.

But sometimes in life you take knocks and then can come back with something truly inspiring. And that’s what we think Graceland delivers.

Paul Simon These Days

Back in 1987, Graceland won Simon an Grammy for Album of the Year. Rightly bloody so!

Its legacy only continues to grow and many music critics view it as one of the greatest albums of all time.

Over 30 years on and Simon is 80 this October, but still actively performing.

He’s on Twitter and recently flagged a Graceland set from London in 2012. Where he’d brought the original band together from 1986.

Nice, eh? See! It’s not always raining in England.

Anyway, we feel this is an album you should own. Get it RIGHT NOW on cassette. Or CD. Or whatever else they do these days. Vinyl, maybe.

8 comments

  1. I have this album already. It’s tremendously good. And a total contrast from the folksy rock of Simon and Garfunkel which was ok but very much ‘period’. The Graceland album is significantly more timeless.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like some of Simon and Garfunkel’s stuff, although Garfunkel seems a bit difficult to get on with.

      Whereas Graceland I’ve loved a great deal since being a kid.

      Like

  2. Paul Simon is one of those artists that have been in my “must listen” list for ages, but I have yet to get to. I have heard great things about this record.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Graceland is one of those albums that was frequently referenced in my world music class at my community college. For the longest time, I only knew it as the album with that “song with the Chevy Chase video”…which isn’t entirely indicative of the range of genres used on the album. Great stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aye, I think You Can Call Me Al is what people think of with Graceland. It’s been played to death on the radio and other tracks have been ignored.

      I just had another listen now though and it is actually a great song. DJs just need to back off a bit!!

      Liked by 1 person

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