A quarter of a century ago the world was still in thrall with a new medium that was going to revolutionise music, improve fidelity, blast cassette tape completely out of the water and dance a merry jig on vinyls grave. The seismic change in question was the CD and a trio of albums emerged from the pack as must-haves of the new era, each one showcasing your hi-fis capabilities in that brave new shiny world.
Tomorrow’s Worlds presenters demonstrated the Compact Discs supposed hardiness by smearing peanut butter on Dire Straits‘ (SP) Brothers In Arms, and stadium rockers proudly played Born In The USA like Bruce Springsteen was in the room with them. Then came Graceland, an ambitious album of global proportions that not only made people think Paul Simon was playing in their room, but that the rest of the world was as well.
Now CDs are spluttering their last gasp, Graceland finds itself the subject of a commemorative re-release following last years reissue of Simons earlier solo albums. But how does one of the most fondly remembered albums of the 1980s fare in the digital age? Does it still retain its potency? And what of todays generation who were not even born at the time of its original release? Or those ’80s children who, after watching the video for You Can Call Me Al, became convinced for years that Paul Simon and Chevy Chase were one and the same person?
The intervening years have been kind to Graceland, and it still holds up as a solid and influential piece of work, mostly thanks to the quality of Simon’s songwriting. Simon is one of the great bards of America and as synonymous with New York as Brian Wilson is with Los Angeles. But what made Graceland stand out from the rest of his career was the influence of music from South Africa that forms the bedrock of the LP. The juxtaposing of North America with the African continent has an intoxicating effect, re-enforcing the fact that despite a different culture and thousands of miles of geography, we human beings have a great deal in common. The closing track All Around The World Or The Myth Of Fingerprints sums it up perfectly: we’re told each one is different, but we’re really all the same.
Although its naïve to suggest there wasn’t a world music scene before 1986, this was, perhaps more than any other, the album that opened ears to global possibilities. Graceland’s commercial success made people take world music more seriously; without it we might have found it harder to encounter the likes of the Buena Vista Social Club or Tinariwen. To quote Rolling Stone from back in the day, the album transcended ‘world music’ to become the whole world’s soundtrack”.
The songs themselves still retain their wit into the hyper-globalised age. Needless to say that You Can Call Me Al is still a joyous crowd pleaser, but theres also a new poignancy to the lyrics of The Boy In The Bubble were still living in the age of miracles and wonder, but the long-distance call has been replaced with the internet, and the camera follows us in slow-motion more than ever. The Grammy-winning title track, a cross-continent tribute to Sun Records, still holds up; heading to Elvis Presley’s last resting place seems apt and enforces the album’s sense of pilgrimage and musical heritage.
As with most music from the era, the production techniques can come across as a little dated and over-sythesised- but these minor jars are countenanced by the raw, organic moments of beauty. Witness Ladysmith Black Mambazo finding a global audience on Homeless – something that should prove more of an enduring legacy than their later ill-advised Heinz Baked Beans ads.
Like most successes, Graceland is also mired in its fair share of controversy. It’s difficult to believe that this album has been with us for 25 years, but even more difficult to comprehend how on earth Apartheid was still a potent force at the time. A UN committee approved Simons recording sessions in South Africa, but many felt that he flaunted the cultural boycott. Los Lobos’ contribution is also subject to debate, with bitter arguments over songwriting credits on The Myth Of Fingerprints.
Despite these essentially side issues, Graceland was a major triumph for an artist whose career was teetering on the moribund. For Simon it was a rejuvenation and an example of how someone who’d already been around for decades could still be relevant in a shifting music scene. Much later, Graceland would be a critical reference point for whole new forays for cross-cultural conversation, from Vampire Weekend to tUnE-yArDs. Much troubled water has passed under the bridge in the intervening years, but Graceland’s appeal is undiminished. The Clash’s Joe Strummer summed it up perfectly when he remarked that adolescents make the best records. Except for Paul Simon. Except for Graceland.