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30 Years Ago: Paul Simon Stages a Multi-Cultural Comeback With ‘Graceland’

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Paul Simon‘s decade wasn’t going so great when he started work on his sixth solo album in October 1985. The two albums he released in the previous five years were nowhere near as popular as those he made during his mid-’70s run, when Still Crazy After All These Years won the coveted Album of the Year Grammy.

One-Trick Pony, from 1980, served as the soundtrack to a movie that starred Simon and few people saw. It was the first album Simon was associated with to not reach the Top 5 since Simon & Garfunkel were getting their career off the ground with 1966’s Sounds of Silence. Hearts and Bones, the follow-up album from 1983, fared even worse, stalling at No. 35.

Not that either record was terrible. Hearts and Bones remains one of his most underrated albums, a meditation on age and maturity that the well-seasoned Simon delivered with class and restraint. But nobody was buying his music, and by mid-decade Simon looked to be heading the way of so many of his ’60s contemporaries who had settled in as nostalgia acts on the touring circuit.

The year or so following Hearts and Bones hit Simon hard. In addition to tanking record sales, his marriage to actress Carrie Fisher fell apart, and a planned reunion album with Art Garfunkel crumbled after another argument between the long-warring duo. (Hearts and Bones was proposed as a Simon & Garfunkel LP, but Simon erased all of his old partner’s vocals after their latest fight.) But Simon found joy in one thing during this dark period: a bootleg tape of South African township music called Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, Volume II, given to him by a friend.

Fascinated by the playful and buoyant rhythms on the tape, Simon went to Johannesburg with longtime producer Roy Halee to not only track down some of the artists, but also to explore more of the music and, eventually, record a handful of songs – mostly jam sessions – with South African musicians while there. They formed the basis of Graceland.

Inspired by the recordings, Simon began assembling the tracks that would make up the album, going to London, New York, Los Angeles and Lafayette, La., to collaborate with musicians both familiar to him (like the Everly Brothers, who contribute backing vocals to the title track, and Linda Ronstadt, who sings on “Under African Skies”) and some entirely new (Los Lobos, Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters). He even flew in some of the South African artists, like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, to record with him. Horns, percussion and bouncy rhythms tied it all together. Only later did Simon begin to build actual songs from these tracks, as he and Halee pieced together what they had gathered over the past several months.

Watch Paul Simon’s Video for ‘You Can Call Me Al’

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They all came together for one of the decade’s best, and most diverse, albums. The pop, folk and rock foundations were obvious, given Simon’s history. But the world-music influences, especially on the tracks directly inspired by his South African trip, were ear opening. A small group of U.S. fans had championed African music since the start of the decade, when King Sunny Adé and His African Beats’ 1982 album Juju Music served as an electrifying introduction to Afropop; the 1985 compilation The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, which included the a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, was even more illuminating. And artists like Peter Gabriel had already incorporated similar sounds into their music.

But Simon bridged cultures on Graceland, and he made them seem like natural fits the whole time. The album’s best songs – “The Boy in the Bubble,” “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” “You Can Call Me Al,” “Under African Skies,” “Homeless,” “Crazy Love, Vol. II” and the title track – were rooted in what Simon does best: super-melodic pop songs with worldly flourishes. Much of it came from Simon’s past and his love of ’50s rock ‘n’ roll. The South African instruments, musicians, voices, rhythms and beats took it all to an entirely different level.

Graceland opened the door for world music – for better and worse. It wasn’t long before other artists started to copy its style, bringing in foreign guest artists, loading their songs with accordions and African percussion and generally acting like they weren’t privileged white musicians appropriating another, less affluent, culture’s music. Simon was on the end of many such complaints. He also was criticized for ignoring the boycott of South Africa because of its apartheid leadership at the time.

Watch Paul Simon’s Video for ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’

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It was a messy affair that could have damaged the album’s momentum. But Simon smoothed over most of his critics by pointing out that he was working with South African musicians, not the government. He even brought some of the instrumentalists and singers over to the States – including Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who got a major-label record deal following Graceland‘s success – for a tour and historic appearance on Saturday Night Live.

The music was Graceland‘s central draw, but Simon spiked many of the songs with a balance of political and personal lyrics. His failed relationships are touched on a bit, as is global poverty. But most of all, following Hearts and Bones‘ soul bearing, the songs on Graceland are joyful, funny and celebratory. And the playful, elastic African rhythms have a lot to do with this.

Nobody expected much from Graceland when it was released on Aug. 25, 1986 – not even Simon, who thought his days at the top of the charts were over. But the album slowly picked up fans over the next couple months, thanks to great reviews and the songs themselves, which caught the ears of listeners ready for something new.

By the following summer, Graceland had climbed to No. 3 and had become a global phenomenon. It is Simon’s best-selling album; he also picked up another Grammy for Album of the Year. None of its singles were massive hits — “You Can Call Me Al” just missed the Top 20, yet others couldn’t get past No. 81 — but Graceland falls together as a unified piece anyway, designed for consumption all at once, a snapshot travelogue filled with discovery and redemption.

Its legacy grows larger each year. There’s no part of popular music (pop, rock, R&B, hip-hop, indie, country) that hasn’t been touched, in some way, by Graceland. Artists – particularly artists of Simon’s age at the time, 44 – weren’t supposed to take musical risks. Certainly not the ones Simon took on Graceland.

He ended up breaking down multiple barriers in the process. And more so than almost any other record released since 1980, it’s a cultural touchstone, a record that shrinks our huge world and all of its differences into 43 minutes of glorious global pop music that anyone can understand, no matter what language they speak. It’s that good. It’s that timeless. And it’s that essential.

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Next: Top 10 Paul Simon Songs

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