On August 25, 1986, Paul Simon released Graceland, his sixth studio album. After winning Album of the Year at the 29th Annual Grammy Awards, Graceland peaked at #3 on the Billboard 200, making it Simon’s most successful album in years and something of a comeback after the disappointing sales of 1983’s Hearts and Bones.
Along with being a major commercial success for Simon, the album also helped bring the music of South Africa to a Western audience. The album was recorded mainly in South Africa, and featured collaborations with several of the country’s musicians. But the success was somewhat bittersweet, with anti-apartheid artists like Steven Van Zandt, Paul Weller, and Billy Bragg criticizing Simon for breaking the cultural boycott against South Africa. Meanwhile, others, including the United Nations Apartheid Committee and many South African musicians, praised Simon for supporting the country’s music and bringing it to a wider audience.
Today, Graceland is thought of as a classic album, one of the best of the 1980s, and a fine starting point for anybody interested in venturing into world music, and while not entirely forgotten, the breaking of the cultural boycott has become less crucial to understanding the album. But were the criticisms against Simon valid? Should we not let Simon off the hook for the negative aspects of recording Graceland? And does art, as Simon once claimed, transcend politics?
United Against Apartheid
“Our government tells us
We’re doing all we can
Constructive engagement is
Ronald Reagan’s plan
Meanwhile people are dying
And giving up hope
This quiet diplomacy
Ain’t nothing but a joke”
-Artists United Against Apartheid, “Sun City,”
In 1985, there were two major musical releases relating to South Africa. First, there was The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, a compilation of tracks by South African musicians, notably Ladysmith Black Mambazo (who would later become well-known worldwide through their appearances on Graceland). Later named the best album of the ’80s by rock critic Robert Christgau, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto came to the United States in 1986 and became the first album of South African music to gain wide distribution in the U.S.
The other major release was Sun City, an album released by a supergroup called Artists United Against Apartheid. The group was formed by Steven Van Zandt, and featured a wide array of artists, including Lou Reed, Jimmy Cliff, Run-D.M.C., Bruce Springsteen, and Joey Ramone. On the group’s single, also called “Sun City,” the artists make a pledge not to perform at Sun City (the resort located in Bophuthatswana, one of the independent states created to relocate South Africa’s black population). The song managed to top the 1985 Pazz & Jop critic’s poll, but didn’t chart as high as the other major supergroup charity singles of the time, Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and USA for Africa’s “We Are the World,” and has been largely forgotten. Despite that, both the diversity of the artists featured and the catchy-as-hell hook make “Sun City” a much better song.
These two releases are important, because they showcase both the South African musicians, trying to gain an audience outside of their own country, and the musicians outside the country who were protesting the apartheid regime. Graceland would merge these two elements together the following year.
“It was in the early morning hours
When I fell into a phone call
Believing I had supernatural powers
I slammed into a brick wall
I said hey, is this my problem?
Is this my fault?
If that’s the way it’s going to be
I’m going to call the whole thing to a halt”
-Paul Simon, “Gumboots”
After the low sales of Hearts and Bones, as well as his divorce from Carrie Fisher, Simon was at a low point. Feeling uninspired, he took solace in a tape fellow musician Heidi Berg had given him.
“It was instrumental music with an accordion, electric guitar, bass, and drums. It reminded me of a certain kind of fifties rock ‘n’ roll,” Simon said. “It was a couple of months before it dawned on me that this was something I liked so much that I could write to it. I had just been listening to it for fun, but then I become obsessed with it.”
He had the tape traced, and discovered it was called “Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits Number 1,” recorded by a South African group called The Boyoyo Boys. Now full of the inspiration, he traveled to South Africa to further explore this fascinating music.
He would use the Boyoyo Boys track as the basis for the fourth song on Graceland, “Gumboots.”
“Gumboots” is my favorite song on Graceland, and it’s easily the most underrated. The reason it’s so overlooked is likely because it doesn’t do much that isn’t covered on other songs on the album. It has the accordion prominent in “The Boy in the Bubble,” similar background vocals to “I Know What I Know,” horns like those in “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “You Can Call Me Al,” and the beat, while strong, doesn’t do anything particularly different than the other tracks.
But “Gumboots” merges these elements together, making it the closest Graceland comes to being summed up in a single song.
The Boy in the Bubble
“These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation
That’s dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don’t cry baby, don’t cry
-Paul Simon, “The Boy in the Bubble”
In the Classic Albums episode on Graceland, Simon explains how he always knew that “The Boy in the Bubble” would be the opener on Graceland:
“It began so unusually, and the sound of those drums at the top. It sounded so African, that it was really like an announcement that said, you haven’t heard this before.”
Indeed, “The Boy in the Bubble” is one of the finest opening tracks ever, at least in terms of letting you know what you’re in for. It begins with an accordion intro, before jumping into a rhythm section that indeed probably introduced many people to African music. Meanwhile, the lyrics, like much of the lyrics on Graceland, are much darker than the cheerful music would suggest, depicting a world on the brink of destruction.
I’ve read comments from people saying that Simon could have represented South African music without having to travel there. But what makes Graceland so special is that it isn’t the sound of an American musician trying to recreate another culture’s music. It’s the sound of an American musician creating authentic music by performing with musicians from another culture. Graceland’s main advantage over similar records that came after—even by artists I love, like Vampire Weekend—is that there’s little imitation going on.
“She comes 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
And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow”
-Paul Simon, “Graceland”
Graceland is, to me, one of the two or three most perfect albums of all time. Just the sheer consistency of it is astonishing. For the first eight songs, there isn’t a thing I would change, and when a couple less memorable tunes come in near the end, it hardly matters. It’s just a wonderful album.
So wonderful, in fact, that I can actually complain about the marvelous title song receiving too much attention.
“Graceland” has received more praise than any other individual song on the album. In 1988, it won the Grammy for Record of the Year. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named in among the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked it #485 on their list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. Even Simon himself has gotten in on this, calling it his personal favorite of his own songs.
Now, I personally love the song. It has multiple gorgeous melodies and highly personal lyrics—the “She comes back to tell me she’s gone” section could be my favorite melodic moment on Graceland. But, musically, the song suffers because of how basic it is compared to everything else on the album. It’s a nice Paul Simon folk song with harmony vocals from The Everly Brothers. Apart from the great bass work by Bakithi Kumalo, “Graceland” doesn’t take enough advantage of the South African sound, resulting in a terrific record that could have been featured on any other Paul Simon album.
Even stranger is the fact that, despite its acclaim, “Graceland” wasn’t the album’s most successful single. That would be “You Can Call Me Al,” a song just as good—probably even better—but that is more in tune with the rest of Graceland.
You Can Call Me Al
“A man walks down the street
He says why am I short of attention?
Got a short little span of attention
And wo my nights are so long
Where’s my wife and family?
What if I die here?
Who’ll be my role-model
Now that my role-model is
-Paul Simon, “You Can Call Me Al”
“You Can Call Me Al” is such a major piece of pop culture that I’m pretty sure babies are now born knowing the horn hook. It’s simultaneously the most conventional the album gets—very poppy and featuring a fairly basic structure—and the most experimental, featuring both a penny whistle solo (performed by Morris Goldberg) and a bass solo (performed, again, by Bakithi Kumalo).
The funny chorus and silly video starring Chevy Chase definitely makes “You Can Call Me Al” seem more upbeat than it actually is. Lyrically, the song is quite sad, telling the story of a man going through a midlife crisis. (Jens Lekman’s quiet cover does a good job of highlighting the lyrics.) But the overall catchiness of the song brought it to #23 on the Billboard Hot 100, and today it’s the song from Graceland most likely to get stuck inside someone’s head.
By reaching #23 on the Hot 100, the song also consequently brought Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who sing backup, to the top 40. Their contributions to the album extend even beyond that, though.
Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
“And she said honey take me dancing
But they ended up by sleeping
In a doorway
By the bodegas and the lights on
Wearing diamonds on the soles of their shoes”
-Paul Simon, “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”
The best representation of Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Graceland is easily “Homeless,” which Simon co-wrote with the group’s founder Joseph Shabalala. The first example of isicathamiya music that many Westerners heard, the song is entirely a cappella and features less of Paul Simon than any other track. This means the song has the opposite problem of “Graceland”—it’s a song that is beautifully composed and a fine introduction to one of the best vocal groups of all time, but is so different from the rest of the album that it feels more like an interlude than it should.
“Homeless” features a lot of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, but I don’t think it was the song that made people take major notice. That was likely “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”
“Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” was the last song recorded for Graceland, after the album’s release date was pushed back. It’s bizarre to think of how close the album came to being released without the song on it, since it’s an integral part of the record’s flow. It’s incredibly melodic and lyrical—the lyrics are something of a precursor to Pulp’s “Common People”—with a horns section and an amazing Ladysmith Black Mambazo vocal performance. It’s one of the album’s finest moments, and if any song helped bring the group to international attention, it was this one.
Nowadays, when African music is referenced in American pop culture, the style replicated will typically be isicathamiya. Meanwhile, Ladysmith Black Mambazo is well-known enough to be referenced in Mean Girls and Family Guy. Would they have gotten there without Paul Simon? Maybe. I hope so. But he certainly helped.
Also, “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” features Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour, my personal favorite African musician, on percussion. That same year, N’Dour received international attention from his appearance on Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.”
Under African Skies
“In early memory
Was ringing ’round my nursery door
I said take this child, Lord
From Tucson Arizona
Give her the wings to fly through harmony
And she won’t bother you no more”
-Paul Simon, “Under African Skies”
“Under African Skies” is a terrific vocal song, practically a complete duet between Simon and Linda Ronstadt. It’s almost more Ronstadt’s song than Simon’s, as she steals the show with her beautiful harmonies—Simon also borrowed some of Ronstadt’s experiences growing up in Arizona as the basis for much of the song’s lyricism, which makes her performance all the more powerful.
As memorable as the vocals on the song are, I actually prefer the live version from Simon’s African concert, where Ronstadt is replaced by the great Miriam Makeba, who gives just as powerful a performance.
“He knew more than me, he knew more than Mandela, he knew more than the South African people. His famous line, of course, was, ‘Art transcends politics.’ And I said to him, ‘All due respect, Paulie, but not only does art not transcend politics… art is politics. And I’m telling you right now, you and Henry Kissinger, your buddy, go fuck yourselves.’”
-Steven Van Zandt
With Graceland’s legacy, it’s easy to forget how controversial it was when released. For all the acclaim it received, it was also heavily criticized, with many musicians protesting the album.
Meanwhile, South African musicians like Hugh Masekela were happy that Graceland was bringing attention to their music. In the Classic Albums episode, guitarist Ray Phiri, who performed on five tracks on the album, states, “There were a lot of people who were saying negative things like, ‘Here comes this white man. He has used our black brother’s music’ and so forth but then you ask yourself, ‘Where were they?’”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t truth to the criticisms against Simon. At the beginning of 2014, an interview with Van Zandt was published on the website Africa is a Country. In the interview, he claims, among other things, that he got Simon taken off of an assassination list from the Azanian People’s Organisation. He also describes how Simon felt about Nelson Mandela:
“And he says, ‘What are you doing defending this guy Mandela?! He’s obviously a communist. My friend Henry Kissinger told me about where all of the money’s coming from,’ and all of this.”
Later in the interview: “Meanwhile, that big ‘communist,’ as soon as he got out of jail, I see who took the first picture with him. There’s Paul Simon and Mandela, good buddies. I’m watchin’ CNN the other day. Mandela dies, on comes a statement by Bono and the second statement’s by Paul Simon. I’m like oh, just make me throw up.”
Beyond all of these problems, there’s also the case of Los Lobos, who claim to have written Graceland’s closing track, “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints,” without receiving credit. It seems like everywhere you look in relation to Graceland’s backstory, there’s something that’ll make you cringe.
And, of course, you can’t ignore that. Despite what Simon claimed, art does not transcend politics. That’s among the dumbest things that he ever said. Saying that art transcends politics negates both art and politics. I would even say that Graceland is, by and large, a political record—even if it never directly references apartheid, it’s always lurking in the background.
But if there ever was a convincing argument that art transcends politics, Graceland would be it. Because, in spite of all of the negative aspects that went into recording the album, it’s still a masterpiece, and the songs live on.
It’s important not to forget the problematic elements. But although the art didn’t transcend the politics, it’s certainly outlived them.