Graceland (album)Graceland is the seventh solo studio album by American singer-songwriter Paul Simon. It was produced by Simon, engineered by Roy Halee and released on August 25, 1986, by Warner Bros. Records.
In the early 1980s, Simon's relationship with his former musical partner Art Garfunkel had deteriorated, his marriage to actress Carrie Fisher had collapsed, and his previous record, Hearts and Bones (1983), had been a commercial failure. In 1984, after a period of depression, Simon became fascinated by a bootleg cassette of South African township music. He and Halee visited Johannesburg, where they spent two weeks recording with South African musicians.
Recorded in 1985 and 1986, Graceland features an eclectic mixture of genres, including pop, rock, a cappella, zydeco, isicathamiya, and mbaqanga. Simon created new compositions inspired by the recordings made in Johannesburg, collaborating with African and American artists. He received criticism for breaking the cultural boycott imposed against South Africa because of its policy of apartheid. Following its completion, Simon toured alongside South African musicians, performing their music and songs from Graceland.
Graceland became Simon's most successful studio album and his highest-charting album in over a decade; it is estimated to have sold up to 16 million copies worldwide. It was lauded by critics, won the 1987 Grammy Award for Album of the Year, and is frequently cited as one of the best albums of all time. In 2006, it was added to the United States' National Recording Registry as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important".
Following the 1970s, in which he had released a series of hit records, Simon fell on hard times. His relationship with his former musical partner Art Garfunkel had again deteriorated; his sixth solo studio album, Hearts and Bones (1983), achieved the lowest sales of his career; and his marriage to actress Carrie Fisher collapsed. "I had a personal blow, a career setback, and the combination of the two put me into a tailspin," he recalled.
In 1984, Simon became fascinated with a bootleg cassette tape, Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, Volume II, loaned to him by Heidi Berg, a singer-songwriter with whom he was working as a producer. He described it as "very good summer music, happy music", and said it reminded him of 1950s rhythm and blues. He began improvising melodies over it as he listened in his car.
Simon asked his contacts at his label, Warner, to identify the artists on the tape. Through South African record producer Hilton Rosenthal, Warner confirmed that the music was South African and played by either the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo or the Boyoyo Boys. "I first thought, 'Too bad it's not from Zimbabwe, Zaire, or Nigeria.' Life would have been more simple," Simon said at the time.
Simon considered buying the rights to his favourite song on the tape, "Gumboots", and using it to write his own song, as he had with the song "El Condor Pasa" in the 70s. Instead, Rosenthal suggested that Simon record an album of South African music, and sent him dozens of records from South African artists.
In the 1980s, recording in South Africa was dangerous, and the United Nations had imposed a cultural boycott for its policy of apartheid. This forced "all states to prevent all cultural, academic, sporting and other exchanges" with South Africa and ordered "writers, artists, musicians and other personalities" to boycott it. Nonetheless, Simon resolved to go to South Africa, and told The New York Times: “I knew I would be criticized if I went, even though I wasn’t going to record for the government … or to perform for segregated audiences. I was following my musical instincts in wanting to work with people whose music I greatly admired."
Before leaving for Johannesburg, Simon contributed to "We Are the World", a charity single benefiting African famine relief. Simon spoke to producers Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte about recording in South Africa, who encouraged him to do it. The South African black musicians' union also voted to let Simon come, as it could benefit their culture's music, placing it on an international stage. At the time, musicians in Johannesburg were typically paid $15 an hour; Simon arranged to pay them $200 an hour, around triple the rate for top players in New York City. Simon said he "wanted to be as above board as I could possibly be", as many of the musicians did not know who he was and would not be lured by the promise of royalties alone. He also offered writer's royalties to those he felt had contributed particularly to compositions.
Recording and production
In February 1985, Simon and his longtime engineer Roy Halee flew to Johannesburg, intending their visit to be secret. Recording sessions took place at Ovation Studios. Halee had feared the studio would be a "horror show", but was surprised to find it "very comfortable". The studio was reminiscent of a garage, which Halee feared would be a problem for recording, and none of the musicians wore headphones.
Rosenthal used his connections to assemble the variety of musicians who had inspired Simon, including Lulu Masilela, Tao Ea Matsekha, General M. D. Shirinda and the Gaza Sisters, and the Boyoyo Boys Band. Jam sessions ranged from 10 to 30 minutes, with Simon and Halee intending to assemble an album from them upon their return home. Though the playing style was technically simple, Simon found it difficult to mimic. Outside the studio, the general public was hostile toward Simon, but the Musician's Union received him warmly. At the end of the two-week trip, Simon found himself relieved of his former personal turmoil and with a revitalized passion for music.
Though Simon described the recording sessions as "euphoric", he recalled "tension below the surface" due to the effects of apartheid. When recording sessions continued into the evening, the musicians would become tense, as they were not allowed to use public transportation or be on the streets after curfew. Simon recalled, "In the middle of the euphoric feeling in the studio, you would have reminders that you’re living in incredibly tense racial environment, where the law of the land was apartheid."
Simon and Halee spent around two weeks recording in Johannesburg before returning to the Hit Factory studio in New York City to edit the material. Simon flew several South African musicians to New York to complete the record three months after the original sessions in Johannesburg. These sessions resulted in "You Can Call Me Al" and "Under African Skies".
Simon began writing lyrics at his home in Montauk, New York, while listening to the recordings. The process was slow, but he determined he had sufficient material to begin re-recording the tracks. He played the tracks backward to "enhance their sound", interspersing gibberish to complete the rhythms.
He brought together guest musicians including American singer Linda Ronstad and his childhood heroes the Everly Brothers. Simon's trip to Louisiana with Richard Landry led to the recording of "That Was Your Mother" with local band Good Rockin' Dopsie and the Twisters. After seeing the group at a dance hall in Lafayette, he recorded the song with them at a small studio behind a music store. He felt that the accordion, central to zydeco, would make a pleasing transition back to his own culture. Afterward, he contacted Mexican-American band Los Lobos, with whom he recorded "All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints" in Los Angeles.
Engineer Roy Halee edited the album with new digital technology, transferring analog tape recordings to the digital workspace countless times. He said: "The amount of editing that went into that album was unbelievable ... without the facility to edit digital, I don't think we could have done that project." He used tape echo and delay on every song, and paid particular attention to the bass, saying: "The bassline is what the album is all about. It's the essence of everything that happened." Each song was mixed in about two days at the Hit Factory, where most of the vocal overdubs were recorded.
Warner executives were uninterested in the project, viewing Simon as a bad investment due to the failure of his previous two solo albums. The label was much more invested in Prince and Madonna, viewing Simon as a has-been. Simon felt their indifference to him worked in his favor, as it gave him more freedom. According to Halee, he believed executives at the label viewed the duo as "crazy".
CompositionGraceland features an eclectic mixture of musical styles including pop, a cappella, zydeco, isicathamiya, rock, and mbaqanga. Mbaqanga, or "township jive", originated as the street music of Soweto, South Africa. The album was strongly influenced by the earlier work of South African musicians Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu, and the Zulu-Western pop crossover music realized in their band Juluka. Juluka was South Africa's first integrated pop band. Simon includes thanks to Johnny Clegg, Juluka, and Juluka's producer Hilton Rosenthal in the "Special Thanks" citation included in Graceland's liner notes. Simon included American "roots" influences with tracks featuring zydeco musicians such as Rockin' Dopsie and Tex-Mex musicians.
The album alternates between playful and more serious songs. Simon thought of it as like a play: "As in a play, the mood should keep changing. A serious song may lead into an abstract song, which may be followed by a humorous song." On many songs, Simon and Halee employ a Synclavier to "enhance" the acoustic instruments, creating an electronic "shadow".
"The Boy in the Bubble" is a collaboration with Lesotho-based Tao Ea Matsekha. "Graceland" features the playing of bassist Bakithi Kumalo and guitarist Ray Phiri. Simon remarks on the album's original liner notes that it reminded him of American country music, and wrote: "After the recording session, Ray told me that he'd used a relative minor chord—something not often heard in South African music—because he said he thought it was more like the chord changes he'd heard in my music." Steel guitarist Demola Adepoju contributed to the track some months after its completion. "I Know What I Know" is based on music from an album by General M.D. Shirinda and the Gaza Sisters. Simon was attracted to their work due to the unusual style of guitar playing, as well as the "distinctive sound" of the women's voices. "Gumboots" is a re-recording (with additional saxophone solos) of the song with which Simon first found himself enamored from the cassette tape that spawned Graceland.
Joseph Shabalala also contributed to "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes", with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Senegalese singer-percussionist Youssou N'Dour. It was recorded a week following their appearance on Saturday Night Live. The pennywhistle solo featured on "You Can Call Me Al" was performed by Morris Goldberg, a white South African living in New York. "Homeless" was written jointly by Simon and Shabalala, the lead singer of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, to a melody from a traditional Zulu wedding song. In the song "Under African Skies," "the figure of Joseph becomes the dual image of a dispossessed African black man and the New Testament Joseph." For the song, Simon sent Shabalala a cassette demo, and the two later met at Abbey Road Studios in London, where the rest of the song was completed. "Crazy Love" features music from Stimela, Phiri's group that was very successful locally in South Africa.
LyricsTo write lyrics, Simon listened to the recordings made during his time in Johannesburg, identifying patterns in the music to fit to verses. He said:Simon told Robert Christgau in 1986 that he was bad at writing about politics, and felt his strength was writing about relationships and introspection. In contrast to his previous album, Hearts and Bones, the subject matter on Graceland is more upbeat. Simon made an effort to write simply without compromising the language. Composing more personal songs would take him significantly longer to complete, as this process would involve "a lot of avoidance going on". Rewrites were necessary as Simon ended up using overcomplicated words. A perfectionist, Simon rewrote songs only to scrap the newer versions. Songs such as "Graceland" and "The Boy in the Bubble" took three to four months, while others, such as "All Around the World" and "Crazy Love", came together quickly.
"The Boy in the Bubble" discusses starvation and terrorism, but mixes this with wit and optimism. Simon concurred with this assessment: "Hope and dread – that's right. That's the way I see the world, a balance between the two, but coming down on the side of hope." The song retains a variation of the only lyric Simon composed on his South African trip: "The way the camera follows him in slo-mo, the way he smiled at us all." The imagery was inspired by the John F. Kennedy assassination and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. "Homeless" discusses poverty within the black majority in South Africa. According to Simon's ex-wife Carrie Fisher, the "Graceland" lines "She’s come back to tell me she’s gone / As if I didn’t know that, as if I didn’t know my own bed / As if I’d never noticed the way she brushed her hair from her forehead" refer to her. She confirmed she had a habit of brushing her hair from her forehead, and said she felt privileged to be in one of Simon's songs.
Throughout the recording process, Simon remained unsure of the album's thematic connection. He kept dozens of yellow legal pads with random words and phrases he would combine in an attempt to define the album. He derived the album title from the phrase "driving through Wasteland", which he changed to "going to Graceland", a reference to Elvis Presley's Memphis home. Simon believed it represented a spiritual direction: just as he had embarked on a physical journey to collect ideas in Africa, he would spiritually journey to the home of the rock "forefather" to revitalize his love for music.
ControversyFollowing the album's success, Simon faced accusations by organizations such as Artists United Against Apartheid, anti-apartheid musicians including Billy Bragg, Paul Weller, and Jerry Dammers, and James Victor Gbeho, at the time the Ghanaian Ambassador to the United Nations, that he had broken the cultural boycott imposed by the rest of the world against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Before going to South Africa, Simon sought advice from Harry Belafonte, with whom he had recently collaborated on "We Are the World". Belafonte had mixed feelings and advised him to discuss the matter with the African National Congress (ANC). At an album launch party, Simon bluntly clarified his opinions on the controversy: "I'm with the artists. I didn't ask the permission of the ANC. I didn't ask permission of Buthelezi, or Desmond Tutu, or the Pretoria government. And to tell you the truth, I have a feeling that when there are radical transfers of power on either the left or the right, the artists always get screwed."
Although supported by the United Nations Anti-Apartheid Committee, as the album showcased the talents of the black South African musicians while offering no support to the South African government, the ANC protested the collaboration as a violation of the boycott. Critics condemned Simon for having potentially damaging solidarity, calling him naive. The ANC voted to ban him from the country, and he was also added to the United Nations blacklist. Simon was removed from it in January 1987, and announced that he had been cleared by the ANC, but this was denied by Dali Tambo, the founder of Artists Against Apartheid. The Graceland concert at London's Royal Albert Hall prompted protests from Dammers, Weller, and Bragg. In 2012, The Guardian wrote that the controversy had been revived to an extent when Simon returned to London for a 25th-anniversary concert celebrating the album.
In contrast, Simon received praise for encouraging South African music from Hugh Masekela, one of South Africa's most prominent musicians and an exiled opponent of apartheid, who subsequently toured alongside Simon and Miriam Makeba. The album's worldwide success introduced some of the musicians, especially Ladysmith Black Mambazo, to global audiences. But Jonas Gwangwa has criticized the notion that Simon was responsible for making South African music popular: "So, it has taken another white man to discover my people?" Some critics viewed Graceland as colonialist, with Simon appropriating the music of another culture to bring to the global market. As stated by Star-Ledger reporter Tris McCall in 2012, "Does it complicate matters to realize that these musicians were second-class citizens in their own country, one groaning under the weight of apartheid? How could Simon approach them as equal partners when their own government demanded that they treat him as a superior?"
According to Simon:In 2012, Andrew Mueller of Uncut wrote: "Apartheid was of course a monstrosity, but it would be absurd to suggest that Simon's introduction of South Africa's music to the world prolonged it and quite plausible to suggest that it did some small amount to hasten its undoing."
Linda RonstadtSimon's choice to feature American singer Linda Ronstadt on "Under African Skies" was criticized, as three years earlier she had accepted $500,000 to perform at Sun City, a South African luxury resort. Nelson George of Billboard said her inclusion on Graceland was like “using gasoline to put out birthday candles”, and rock critic Robert Christgau wrote: “Even if the lyric called for total US divestiture, Ronstadt’s presence on Graceland would be a slap in the face to the world anti-apartheid movement."
Simon defended Ronstadt, saying: "I know that her intention was never to support the government there ... She made a mistake. She’s extremely liberal in her political thinking and unquestionably antiapartheid." He told Spin: "I don’t think Linda Ronstadt would ever play Sun City again. I know her politics and don’t think it’s incompatible to put her on the record."
Simon refused to perform on the 1985 antiapartheid single "Sun City", as the demo had included a list of names shaming artists who had performed at the resort, including Ronstadt's, and as he felt Graceland would be "my own statement". Simon said he had refused two offers to perform at Sun City, and drew a distinction between going to South Africa to perform for a segregated audience, which he felt was unacceptable, and going to record.
Allegations of plagiarism"That Was Your Mother" features the American zydeco band the Good Rockin' Dopsie and the Twisters. Dopsie felt Simon had derived it from his song "My Baby, She's Gone", and was not credited, but decided not to take legal action.
The Mexican-American group Los Lobos appears on the last track, "All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints". Saxophone player Steve Berlin felt they deserved writing credits:
[Simon] quite literally—and in no way do I exaggerate when I say—he stole the song from us ... We go into the studio, and he had quite literally nothing. I mean, he had no ideas, no concepts, and said, "Well, let's just jam."... Paul goes, "Hey, what's that?" We start playing what we have of it, and it is exactly what you hear on the record.
According to Berlin, when he contacted Simon about the lack of credit, Simon responded: “Sue me. See what happens." Simon denied this, and said: "The album came out and we heard nothing. Then six months passed and Graceland had become a hit and the first thing I heard about the problem was when my manager got a lawyer’s letter. I was shocked."
ReleaseGraceland was released by Warner Bros. with little fanfare in September 1986. "It could be that I've reached the point in my career where I can't be a viable commercial force in popular music," Simon remarked preceding its release, referencing the failure of his previous efforts on the charts. The cover art was an Ethiopian Christian icon from the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum dating to around 1500.
Rolling Stone David Fricke summarized the album's impact: "The robust bounce and soulful melodicism of township jive, which gave Simon's brainy lyricism a rhythmic kick in his recent work, has become a daily soundtrack in urban yuppie condos and suburban living rooms and on radio airwaves from Australia to Zimbabwe."
Commercial performanceBy July 1987, Graceland had sold six million copies worldwide. It has been estimated to have sold between 14 and 16 million copies to date. In South Africa, it was the bestselling release since Michael Jackson's Thriller (1982).
Initial reviews of Graceland were positive. Rolling Stone Rob Tannenbaum characterized the record as "lovely, daring and accomplished." Stephen Holden of The New York Times commented, "With his characteristic refinement, Mr. Simon has fashioned that event into the rock album equivalent of a work of literature." Robert Christgau of The Village Voice deemed it Simon's best record since his 1972 self-titled album, as well as "a tremendously engaging and inspired piece of work." It was so acclaimed by other critics that he anticipated that it would top The Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics poll for that year (1986).
Retrospective reviews have continued to be positive. According to AllMusic's William Ruhlmann, "Graceland became the standard against which subsequent musical experiments by major artists were measured." Joe Tangari of Pitchfork wrote that "its songs transcend the context as listening experiences. These songs are astute and exciting, spit-shined with the gloss of production that bears a lot of hallmarks of the era but somehow has refused to age. Taken as a whole, the album offers tremendous insight into how we live in our world and how that changes as we get older." Patrick Humphries of BBC Music wrote that "it may well stand as the pinnacle of his remarkable half-century career ... Simon fashioned a record which was truly, blindingly original, and – listening to it a quarter of a century on – modern and timeless." Andy Gill of The Independent wrote: "The character of the base music here is overwhelming: complex, ebullient and life-affirming, and in yoking this intricate dance music to his sophisticated New Yorker sensibility, Simon created a transatlantic bridge that neither pandered to nor patronised either culture."
AccoladesGraceland earned Simon the Best International Solo Artist award at the 1987 Brit Awards. It was ranked #84 in a 2005 survey by British television's Channel 4 to determine the 100 greatest albums of all time.
It was placed 81st (71st in the updated version from 2012) on the list of Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time as "an album about isolation and redemption that transcended 'world music' to become the whole world's soundtrack." In 2000 it was voted number 43 in Colin Larkin's All Time Top 1000 Albums. The song "Graceland" was voted #485 in the list of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
|- | style="width:35px; text-align:center;" rowspan="3"|1987|| rowspan="2"|Graceland || Album of the Year || |- |Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male || |- |rowspan="2"|"Graceland"|||Song of the Year || |- | style="text-align:center;"|1988 || Record of the Year || |-
LegacyNew York Times writer Jon Pareles identified Graceland as an album that had popularized African rock in the west, alongside albums such as Peter Gabriel's So (1986) and Talking Heads' Remain in Light (1980). A 2012 documentary film, Under African Skies, was directed by Joe Berlinger for the album's 25th anniversary, and includes archival footage, interviews, discussion of the controversy, and coverage of an anniversary reunion concert.
Advocates for Graceland feel its music transcends the racial and cultural barriers of its production. "Graceland was never just a collection of songs, after all; it was a bridge between cultures, genres and continents, not to mention a global launching pad for the musicians whose popularity had been suppressed under South Africa's white-run apartheid rule," said Andrew Leahey of American Songwriter. Presenting the album in a modern context, Tris McCall of the Star-Ledger writes that "In a sense, Simon was ahead of his time: The curatorial approach he took to assembling full tracks from scraps of songs and pre-existing recordings is closer in execution to that of Kanye West than it is to any of his contemporaries."
The album has influenced musicians including Regina Spektor, Bombay Bicycle Club, Gabby Young, Casiokids, The Very Best, Givers, Lorde, and Vampire Weekend. The latter faced particular criticism that their 2008 debut album was too similar to Graceland, due to its origins in African music. Simon later defended the band, remarking, "In a way, we were on the same pursuit, but I don't think you're lifting from me, and anyway, you're welcome to it, because everybody's lifting all the time. That's the way music grows and is shaped."
Simon recalled his experiences with the record in 2013: