Great Moments in Popular Music 2

I have some of the ambivalence about Graceland that many politically-concerned listeners have expressed. I admire Paul Simon’s New York craftsmanship in composing infectious, compelling pop melodies, arrangements, and lyrics; his work isn’t always to my taste, but it’s always well done. And I don’t begrudge him the brilliant contribution that his African colleagues made to the album; that would be a weird form of racism (“no, you may not record with African musicians, white man”). Nor do I want simply to indict him of exploitation or inauthenticity. I gather that the performers all appreciate the Western audiences’ attention that he brought to their work, and I haven’t heard that any of them grouse about working with him. The album is a stunning gesture of incorporation; it’s a Paul Simon album, but it’s an African-flavoured Paul Simon album, and that’s just kinda weird.
And he pulls it off, by and large. As I get older, I remember a smaller and smaller proportion of the tracks I hear, but Graceland has impressed itself on me, track after track. Well done, sir!
Simon being a consummate musician and craftsman, the album abounds with compelling touches, but there’s just one that makes my heart gasp every time I hear it (and I’ve gone back to listen several times over, to make sure of what I’m hearing). “You Can Call Me Al” wins much of its audience, I suppose, with the whimsical-nonsensical lyrics playing over a bed of rich pop hooks (“bed of hooks” — I’m going to remember reuse that phrase), or the charming video with Chevy Chase cheerily miming/lip-synching the lead vocals as Simon sits dolefully beside him, pushed to the margin during his own song.
The melody prances blithely along, with the African contributions held in the background: a few “Aaa-ohhhms” in the vocal tracks, and the irrepressibly funky rhythm tracks. Over the top, though, the horns and synthesisers and guitars sound mostly like an ordinary, jazzy Paul Simon number, and the very Manhattanite lyrics affirm that familiarity of the most prominent instrumental tracks. At the first bridge, the recording introduces a pennywhistle break to great effect — that’s fine, but it’s at the second bridge that the arrangement makes room first for a drum break (is that Isaac Mtshali, or Ralph Macdonald, or both?) and then the marvellous moment when Baghiti Kumalo tears off a breath-taking lightning-like bass line. Oh, my goodness! The last few notes sound as though they’re going backwards, presumably through studio manipulation, but that short break recast the whole track for me. I loved going back and hearing it several times over, alone and in the full context of the song, in order to write it up for the blog. Mmmmm.

4 thoughts on “Great Moments in Popular Music 2

  1. Nice love letter to a great album by a great musician. As a songwriter Paul Simon has produced an astounding body of work; can anyone outside of Bob Dylan top him?

  2. It’s a wonderful album.

    I’d always thought it was Simon who played that solo, partly because he is credited for six string bass on that track and partly because I’d remembered that the solo was extended in the studio by playing it backwards. (For awhile I believed that Simon had learned the solo backwards and so that it could be reversed when we listen to it. Occam’s Razor rarely applies in the studio)

    Here’s the lowdown from Roy Halee who worked on recorded the track

    “While Simon also contributed backing vocals and six-string bass, the line-up for ‘Al’ comprised Chikapa ‘Ray’ Phiri on guitar; Baghiti Khumalo on bass; drummer Isaac Mtshali; percussionist Ralph McDonald; synth player/arranger Rob Mounsey; Adrian Belew on guitar synth; Ronald E Cuber playing bass sax & baritone sax; trumpeters John Faddis, Ronald E Brecker, Lewis Michael Soloff and Alan Rubin; trombonists David W Bargeron and Kim Allan Cissel; and Morris Goldberg performing the pennywhistle solo.


    Meanwhile, the distinctive bass solo that Simon is seen playing in the aforementioned video was actually recorded by Baghiti Khumalo on his own birthday: a one-measure descending line that, in order to extend the break, was later reversed and played backwards in order to add the ascending line.

    “I simply copied the line as originally played to a mono machine and then sync’ed it backwards into the multitrack,” Halee explains. “That kind of thing was always happening — ‘Let’s try it in reverse.’ We would wild-track all the time. Anything to make it sound more interesting.”

  3. I have to confess that I never even considered the possibility that Simon himself played that solo; it fits so well with the style of the African ensemble that I simply assumed it must have been Khumalo himself. (And to give Simon credit, it fits his musical generosity to make sure that the African musicians had the opportunity to make themselves heard.)

    Thanks for the pointer, Trevor! Are you going to continue the Brief Introduction to Ethics?

    And Mikey: oh, yeah!

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