Paul Simon's album There Goes Rhymin' Simon was his third solo album, although most people think of it as his second.
His first, The Paul Simon Songbook, was released in the UK in 1965, early in his career; it featured songs like "I Am a Rock" and "The Sound of Silence" that would later be rerecorded for Simon and Garfunkel albums.
After his success with Garfunkel and the subsequent dissolution of their partnership, Simon released Paul Simon featuring "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard" among other songs.
So, for most Americans, There Goes Rhymin' Simon was the second solo album.
Since Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints, Simon has been known as a bit of a musical explorer, finding rhythms and textures from other cultures and incorporating them into his own musical stew, already filled with 50s Doo-wop, the Everly Brothers, and Greenwich Village coffeehouse folk. There Goes Rhymin' Simon shows how this sort of musical borrowing and recombining has always been part of Simon's songwriting method.
The first song he recorded for the album ended up being the opening of the side 2, "American Tune," a State of the Union type address set to a melody by Bach:
JS Bach, St Matthew's Passion:
"American Tune" was recorded in England. For a few other tracks, including "Kodachrome" and "Loves Me Like a Rock," Simon headed for Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Reportedly, he wanted to play with the same black players who backed the Staples Singers' on "I'll Take You There":
How great is that track? Feel free to play it again, we'll wait.
Anyway, Al Bell at Stax told Paul that he could get him the same musicians that the Staples family used, but that the guys were "mighty pale."
Here's a trailer for a documentary about Muscle Shoals:
Those backing players were known as the "Swampers"; besides their own contributions to pop music, the Swampers were memorialized in the 4th verse of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama":
Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers;
They've been known to pick a song or two.
Lord they get me off so much.
They pick me up when I'm feeling blue
Now how about you?
Admit it, you always wondered what they heck that was about. You're welcome.
Anyway, those were the side players who backed Simon on "Kodachrome" and "Love Me Like a Rock."
"Love Me Like a Rock" also had some help from the Dixie Hummingbirds. Who?
The Dixie Hummingbirds have been singing together since... 1928. Holy cow! That's like having the Newton Family Singers in 2090.
"Kodachrome" and "Love Me Like a Rock" were both released as singles and both got to #2 on the charts.
"Kodachrome" was kept from the top spot by Billy Preston:
and "Love Me Like a Rock" was blocked by Cher:
Cher at her prime! I had forgotten after all those auto-tuned 80s singles.
Anyway, the point is, Paul Simon has always been searching. Just as Bob Dylan adapted Woody Guthrie, Simon has always been exploring different musical genres and writing songs in different "voices."
aul Simon's Graceland was written in a very odd way. (The Talking Heads are going to appear by the end of this blogpost.)
Instead of finding a pattern of chord changes and singing a melody over it, Simon and his longtime engineer Roy Hallee traveled to South Africa and met local musicians there. Simon would jam with the musicians and Hallee had set up the studio they rented so that individual instruments were recorded to individual tracks.
Later, they returned to the United States and could manipulate the jams into compositions, adding an instrument or harmonic line here, and taking it out from somewhere else. This is why the music is not that hard to learn instrumentally: the same chord changes continue throughout songs like "You Can Call Me Al" or "Under African Skies" -- although the arrangements change to signal a chorus or verse.
This track by track recording process also explains why the album sounds simultaneously like an exuberant jam session and highly produced. Listen carefully and you'll hear lots of backwards guitar lines (they start long and quiet and then get loud before cutting off sharply):
Listen at 0:32 of "Under African Skies":
And, perhaps the most famous instrumental part on the album is a crazy bass line played by Bakithi Kumalo:
Kumalo played the first half of this solo, but then Hallee and Simon reversed it and produced the second half of the solo; it's a musical (and audio) palindrome!
And in case you were wondering, it is possible to play this line live:
At 3:34 (after Paul mistakenly introduces "Here comes the bass" and then has to repeat himself), the bass line comes in and the crowd goes wild. I should point out that this crowd is at the 25th Anniversary concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in other words, most of the people in the first 15 rows are professional musicians and they love that bassline.
So how did Simon think to create his album in this fashion? Well, we know he was inspired by a cassette tape of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, his collaborators on a number of tracks. According to Marc Eliot's Paul Simon: A Life, that cassette joined the Talking Heads' Remain in Light and David Byrne and Brian Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts in his regular rotation (p. 186-7). Eliot points out that those two albums share some of the African rhythms and arrangements that would influence Graceland, what he fails to mention is that Eno and Byrne had used the same jam session and tape splicing technique that Simon would use to create their tracks.
I would not have thought to put the Talking Heads in a category with Graceland, but it almost, sort of makes sense. Simon's stream of consciousness lyrics are even fairly similar to Byrne's -- and a departure from the highly constructed poetry that he strived for earlier in his career.
You know what happens when you Google "Paul Simon David Byrne"? You find some videos of encores from Simon's June 6, 2011 show in NYC's Webster Hall. Byrne with Simon's band doing Byrne's "Road to Nowhere":
And here they are on Simon's "You Can Call Me Al":
Suddenly it all makes sense!
Bonus: This page has videos of Byrne doing "Al" and "I Know What I Know" with his own band. For more of a downer, that page also has an interview with Los Lobos' Steve Berlin about "collaborating" with Simon; if you want to have warm glowing feelings about Simon, you'd better skip it.