In a world populated by endless boring debates about the ever-changing times of music and pop culture, two lovable millennials, Mike Duquette and Stephanie Salo, scour the world in search of yesterday’s coolest sounds and today’s hottest takes. Armed with little more than a Spotify account and a dream, this dynamic duo brings you fun, informative fireside chats on the pop giants of yesterday.
The artist: Paul Simon, folk hero of Simon & Garfunkel fame.
The album: Graceland, released in 1986.
The lowdown: Experiencing an era of personal and artistic turmoil, Paul embraces his inner Elizabeth Gilbert, finding musical salvation in a most unexpected place, igniting a national interest in world music, and jump-starting his career in the process.
MD: So Steph, answer me this: of all the albums we could have started with, why Graceland? It’s..it’s not because I have weird, outdated musical tastes, right? Right??
SS: No! I think that’s just a happy coincidence. Though I can’t really figure out why this is what we landed on first. To be honest, I just sort of picked it out of thin air because of my profound love for it.
MD: It is such a great album, but I came to the party pretty late. Like all eighties nerds, I knew “You Can Call Me Al,” but I don’t think I heard the record all the way through until the Paul Simon discography was reissued a few years back. I vividly remember getting review copies sent to my house while I was home alone; suddenly, there was a thud at the screen door and I found myself nervously approaching what turned out to be a manila envelope full of CDs.
SS: I remember my mom used to play it a lot in the car when I was a kid. My mom is a way bigger music aficionado than I will ever be, so she’s got some solid taste. I remember getting really excited whenever I found out another friend liked it, because I was so thrilled to talk about it somewhere. I guess for me this is one of my favorite albums to dissect and talk about.
MD: Aww, how sweet! (I’m assuming you’re talking about me.) In any case, what do you say we invite our gentle readers to pick up the needle on their record player, iPod, or Spotify-compatible device and listen along with us?
SS: Yeah! And look, we have a playlist of Graceland, some demo tracks, and other notable tunes conveniently located right…here:
MD: “The Boy in the Bubble.” What an opener, right?
SS: The absolutely perfect opening track. It’s funny because I was listening to this in the car the other day and I started to get really cerebral about what the song actually means. I think it’s kind of cool. Like the album itself is a little bit of a concept album, right? About South Africa and exploration and self discovery. So to open up with “The Boy in the Bubble” is kind of a way to point out that the world is so big and interesting and most people don’t see much of it.
MD: Graceland definitely is one of the better, more conscious albums by slightly older dudes in the eighties (released in 1986, the year of both Peter Gabriel’s So and Steve Winwood’s Back in the High Life!). Simon’s commitment to traditional South African music remains both admirable and vaguely shocking: he broke the long-held boycott of the country to make this record with actual musicians from the area. It didn’t make him a lot of friends, politically speaking, but it did add a layer of authenticity to this album that simply could not have existed otherwise.
And “The Boy in the Bubble” is absolutely one of the better “there is a larger world outside” sort of tracks. That bassline just kills me.
SS: Do you think there is anything to my theory that he purposefully wrote Graceland as a means of showing his fans the beauty of South Africa? I think to start with a song as literal as “The Boy in the Bubble” shows that he knows that a good portion of his listeners will have no idea about what South Africa has to offer in terms of art and music.
MD: Oh, absolutely. Don’t forget, this is the age of the Western world discovering just what a world existed outside the major cities and the heartland. A year before Graceland, we had Live Aid and a veritable tidal wave of awareness toward the world outside.
SS: I really love the story behind “Graceland” (The track.) I remember listening to the track Simon recorded explaining how he tried to change the name from “Graceland” to something relating more back to South Africa, but he couldn’t shake the word and that inspired the trip that takes place in the song. So cool how it all came full circle. It’s like this is where our trip begins, right in the center of such an American landmark.
MD: Titling an album after Elvis Presley’s house takes balls, kind of. I remember when I first read about the record, a weird teen who sought out albums based on how they ranked on Rolling Stone lists, I figured, “oh, sure, Elvis tributes.” It’s obviously a lot deeper than that, but there’s a beauty in using a familiar touchstone of rock and roll to sort of open the window to a larger world of music.
“Graceland” also has Paul reaching back to his roots with Simon & Garfunkel in a really cool way, having The Everly Brothers singing background vocals.
SS: The Everly Brothers’ sound is what inspired that guitar riff in the background. I can’t remember the name of the guitarist, but he was inspired by American rock/folk music when he wrote it. So it’s interesting to see a South African’s perspective of American country play so well into what Simon was already sort of going with. “I Know What I Know” is the first song on the album (to me, at least) that really celebrates traditional South African music.
MD: He kind of eases you into it. Both “The Boy in the Bubble” and “Graceland” have a very distinct sound compared to, say, the relatively spare sound of his last record, the criminally underrated Hearts and Bones (1983). With “I Know What I Know,” he’s like, “well, you’re here, now try…this!”
SS: That’s probably my favorite thing about Graceland: it sounds so full. Each time I listen to it I pick up on something new.
MD: The two things I think about “I Know What I Know” whenever I hear it: 1) I once played Graceland over dinner with my parents and they were so bewildered I think I shut it off before “You Can Call Me Al”; 2) this is one of the most Paul Simon-esque lyrics in history. It’s like he’s writing from an art gallery for The New York Times. (I often joke about albums in the wake of Graceland being “Times albums”: that is, almost explicitly crafted for a highbrow audience.)
SS: I love “Gumboots” so so much. This might be my favorite track. I remember somewhere that Paul Simon took a road trip through Louisiana when he was recording Graceland. He may have actually recorded it there too? I’m not sure. But you can tell that there’s gotta be a little bit of Louisiana in this song with the accordion.
MD: “Gumboots” was indeed recorded in the South! It was apparently the genesis of the album–Paul got his hands on a tape by a group called The Boyoyo Boys, who wrote the melody, and was inspired to do a whole album like that.
As we’ll hear throughout the album, the brilliance of Graceland as a whole is that it’s not all “traditional African” music. It’s zydeco, it’s a little bit of Southwestern—everything.
SS: “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” was one of my favorite songs as a kid. I love the little backing vocals that repeat throughout the song, and I loooove the steel guitar (I think that’s what it is?). It’s such a rich sound but at the same time it isn’t obnoxious. And the horns! The horns are perfect.
MD: I’m actually surprised this wasn’t a bigger hit on the charts (it in fact didn’t chart at all) but at the same time, this isn’t entirely an album custom-built for radio.
SS: I guess the intro just wasn’t fit for radio, but it’s one of my favorite parts.
MD: Ahh yes, now we’ve got the biggest hit off the album: “You Can Call Me Al,” one of my karaoke standbys.
SS: Ah yeah. Look at these two goofballs in a pink room.
MD: This is the closest Paul Simon could come to “anti-video” in 1986. Outside of wearing a turkey suit, I guess. There are a couple amazing moments in this video, like Chevy dropping a full glass of water through the drum stand and almost smacking Paul with the bell of his horn (which is the one thing that cracks Paul’s glower).
SS: LOOK, HE HAS A BIG-ASS DRUM. I love how annoyed Paul Simon is through the entirety of this video. And the hilarious flute solo!!! AND HORN CHOREOGRAPHY. This bassline is the greatest thing ever. This and the Seinfeld bass are the greatest basslines.
MD: Legit LOL at Paul miming the bass breakdown, half of which was achieved through studio trickery. (It was played backwards!)
SS: THAT’S SO COOL. I would have never known.
MD: Bakithi Kumalo is a badass all over this album.
SS: Now we have my other favorite song with “Under African Skies.” Speaking as someone that used to sing in a group, it has some of the most beautiful harmony I have ever heard. Linda Ronstadt kills it.
MD: You sang in a group? There’s a story here, haha.
SS: Haha, one for another time. It was acapella and our name was god awful.
MD: Salo…are you a Gleek? (studio audience gasps)
SS: I’m not saying “no,” but I can’t say “yes.” Let’s just say Ryan Murphy loosely based the show off of my young adult life.
MD: “Under African Skies” always reminds me what an underrated (at least by our generation) vocal talent Linda Ronstadt was. It’s a real bummer that sickness has taken away her gift. Nobody did it quite like her. That wordless bridge is magic.
SS: Linda Ronstadt is what MAKES that song. The bridge is incredible, side two of this album is where the bulk of the magic happens in terms of musical exploration. To start with something like “The Boy In The Bubble,” then toward the end have “That Was Your Mother,” which is SO much fun and so wonderfully influenced by New Orleans and zydeco, and then end with “All Around the World (The Myth of Fingerprints)” is brilliant. This is another prime example of Paul Simon helping us onto his magic carpet of sound and taking us on a tour of the world. The listener starts off as “the boy in the bubble” and then by the end of the last track, they have been “all around the world” with all of these amazing musical influences.
MD: There is some ingenious sequencing at play here, something that was frequently lost on albums until this weird vinyl resurgence we seem to be riding. So what can we learn from Graceland, nearly thirty (gasp!) years after its release?
SS: For me, it’s that good music is timeless and can take you on a journey. Good music can make you like things you would never expect to like. There’s so much more to this album than its age, you know? This is just weird enough to keep it interesting but catchy enough for mass appeal. It’s totally universal.
MD: Agreed! It’s really easy to sort of file this one away in the “New York Times readers and dads will love it” category, but that’s sort of ignoring the weird set of balls this record has, as well as its ability to both make some sort of global statement and sound catchy as all hell.
Duque & Salo Remember The Time runs the third Thursday of every month on Deadshirt.net, whether you like it or not.