I recently watched Under African Skies, the documentary about the recording of Graceland which has been touring the film festival circuit over the past 18 months or so. The film marks the 25th anniversary of the album’s release, and has the usual talking heads interspersed with archive footage from the recording sessions.
One of the big talking points was Simon’s stealthily assembled recording sessions in South Africa, bypassing the cultural boycott of the country imposed by the ANC. It’s funny that the music industry often criticises Queen for playing concerts in South Africa at this time (a topic that really annoys Brian May when brought up in interviews), yet Paul Simon is almost universally applauded for collaborating with South African musicians and recording part of this album there. Did he collaborate or did he exploit them? He seems to have given co-writing credit wherever it’s due, but surely he seems to have become much, much richer – both financially and artistically – than them as a result.
I’m not sure which side of the fence I sit, and I don’t really like to tarnish art with politics, but the whole thing reeks of a certain duplicity. What isn’t in doubt is whether this is a good album or not. I think it’s fantastic, and it’s a refreshing change from the sludge of mid-‘80s solo albums released by rock stars from the ‘70s. I’ve loved the album ever since I saw it covered during the first series of Classic Albums. It quickly became a favourite, throughout college and university, and I’d always try to push onto other people.
If I had any criticisms at all, it would be the title of the song that lends its name to the album. Although it’s a fantastic song, and one of the album’s highlights, it just doesn’t fit right hearing about America, New York City and Elvis’ home when the rest of the album is so rooted in South Africa – both lyrically and musically. In the documentary Under African Skies, Simon recounts that it also didn’t make sense to him at the time, and that he always meant to the change the title of the song at least, but that no matter what he tried he just couldn’t change those words that fit so well. Perhaps it’s the counterpoint, between the subject matter of America and South Africa that actually makes it so interesting.
A couple of years ago I went to see Simon & Garfunkel in concert. I don’t know what I was expecting but they totally exceeded my expectations, and to this day it remains one of the best gigs I’ve been to. Halfway through their set, Paul Simon walked offstage for a short break while Art Garfunkel remained on stage with the band. I started to lose interest after he followed a fantastic version of Bridge Over Troubled Water with a new song he had recently written. Right then, as my guard was down, and I thought I’d witnessed the peak of their performance with songs like Old Friends and The Sound Of Silence, Paul Simon walked back onstage to do his solo piece and give Garfunkel a short break. He walked out to the middle of stage and pointed across to the piano-accordionist that had suddenly appeared, who in turn started the opening notes to The Boy In The Bubble. I’d never have believed I would have seen Paul Simon perform this song, so it was a very happy and welcome surprise.
Hit: You Can Call Me Al
Hidden Gem: The Boy In The Bubble