Source Material: Paul Simon, Graceland
by Justin Farrar | June 19, 2012
Paul Simon's Graceland quickly exploded into pure pop phenomenon upon its 1986 release. Not only did the platinum-selling album help turn the concept of world music into a mainstream trend, it ignited a fairly heated debate about the role of rock music as political activism, and inflamed the issue of cultural appropriation within the framework of 20th neo-colonialism. There were more than a few -- among them the African National Congress - who felt rankled by Simon's circumvention of the cultural boycott of South Africa in order to record with a host of pop, folk and jazz musicians, including the choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Because most of the artists Simon collaborated with were barely known outside apartheid-era South Africa, Graceland's interface between Western rock and the country's rich musical traditions (mbaqanga, township, isicathamiya, et al.) really did seem to come out of nowhere. But what's been forgotten to time somewhat is how the album belongs to a strand of global sound exploration whose roots reach back to the '70s. Numerous post-punk and New Wave musicians played pivotal roles in introducing American ears to African-inspired polyrhythm and other similarly "exotic" ideas, perhaps none more so than Talking Heads and their 1980 album Remain in Light, particularly the music's warmly refined production, courtesy of the great Brian Eno. (Then again, Eno influenced just about everybody in the '80s.)
Another fountain of inspiration is what renowned writer and disc jockey John Schaeffer tagged "new music" in his 1987 book New Sounds. Schaeffer's focus was those avant-garde musicians collapsing art rock, ambient-based minimalism, folk, synthesizer music, jazz fusion and world music into what he considered a wholly new genre. In addition to Eno, new music-related artists who are relevant to the discussion at hand are Jon Hassell (his "fourth world" aesthetic is key) and gruff visionary John Martyn, whom Simon probably ran into during his folkie days in mid-'60s London. Technically speaking, Phil Collins isn't new music; however, his 1981 solo debut Face Value (the cuts "Droned" and "Hand in Hand" in particular) was very much shaped by the sonic terrain opened up by the genre's progenitors. In this sense, he introduced many of the ideas Simon later fleshed out on Graceland. (BTW, the serpentine-like fretless bass on "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" is pure Phil, who in turn borrowed it from John Martyn's One World album.)
Graceland, however, wasn't just about world fusion: Simon also turned inward, to the American vernacular. One of the album's most impactful qualities is the button accordion of one Alton Rubin, who under the colorful moniker Rockin' Dopsie is one of zydeco's true legends. The punchy "That Was Your Mother" is more or less a Dopsie instrumental featuring lyrics added by Simon. He undertook a similarly liberal (brazen?) approach to collaboration when working with Los Angeles Chicano rockers Los Lobos on the Tex-Mex-flavored "All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints." To this day, the band insists Simon, who has the tune's lone songwriting credit, stole it outright from them.
No dissection of Graceland is complete without touching on its considerable legacy. The record's novel sound has proven to be wildly inspirational though the years. In its immediate wake, a slew of A-list boomers, from Robbie Robertson (see his self-titled solo debut from '87) to Bob Dylan (1989's Oh Mercy = Alton Rubin cameo + Daniel Lanois' neo-Eno production), attempted to make their own masterwork brimming with worldly ideas and sophisticated sound textures. In fact, you could say Graceland -- as well as 1986's other landmark recording, Peter Gabriel's So -- laid the foundation for the whole NPR-enlightened-liberal-imported-Volvo-world-beat thing that's going still strong.
Graceland's most unforeseen progeny surfaced only a few years ago -- from the ranks of indie pop, no less. Such groups as Vampire Weekend and Grizzly Bear are so obsessed with Paul Simon that it's only appropriate they're represented in the collection of albums below.