80s #1: Graceland

Part of a series where I go through my favourite albums from the 1980s. Maybe this blog is too 60s/70s-centric, so here are the albums that I think do the best to define the aura of that decade; the musical touchstones of the era, if you like: Alternative rock, Indie rock, Jangle pop Post-rock, ‘World music’, and other completely feeble, redundant categories. Here’s Paul Simon’s Graceland:

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The origins of this record are wonderfully humble: Paul Simon is listening to a beaten up copied tape of South African ‘Accordion Jive Hits Vol 2’, which piques his curiosity. Showing, naturally, a complete disregard for the ‘Academic Boycott of South Africa‘ during the apartheid era on the glorious basis that it’s all just music anyway (the only universal language), he travels there to record. I suppose if most other western singer-songwriters were asked their reasoning for going to South Africa to record, they’d say something like: ‘I wanted to introduce people to the music of this wonderful culture’. All shrouded in naive western concepts of cultural exoticism. Their lyrics would probably be full of angst about the apartheid (none of their business), acting like a kind of patronising talent agent to the South African musicians, sampling their ‘indigenous musics’, polishing it up and sending it back home to mass popularity. A kind of musical imperialism if you will.

Thank god, then, that Paul Simon comes across like someone utterly bereft of this: no delusions of personal grandeur, nor any obvious literary pretensions. However, he’s confident enough with his own lyrical talent (and rightly so) to write about Elvis Presley’s mansion, talk show hosts, cinematographers, and his (or his characters’) mundance romantic encounters. All of this in an album made of the then-‘exotic’ African sounds. He mythologizes Memphis, Tennessee while his African musicians play music that is distinctly African. Yet it works. Because he’s Paul Simon.

10 Mambazos out of 10

Here are some of the most prophetic lyrics ever written. ‘Staccato signals of constant information’ seems like it’s almost predicting the digital age:

And I believe
These are the days of lasers in the jungle
Lasers in the jungle somewhere
Staccato signals of constant information
A loose affiliation of millionaires
And billionaires and baby
These are the days of miracle and wonder
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4 thoughts on “80s #1: Graceland

  1. Good choice. As I think you know, Simon is one of my top three songwriters. I’ve always wondered about the meaning of the song ‘Graceland.’ and how much to take it on its face. It’s clearly about a real trip to Elvis’ home as he mentions Memphis, Tennessee But I like that double meaning perhaps about being in, or headed to, a state of grace.

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  2. Yeah, it’s open to multiple interpretations, yet at the same time seems to be rooted in a very personal meaning for Paul Simon. The playing on this record is just euphoric, though. Beautiful fretless basslines throughout. Thanks for commenting 🙂

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