The music in my head in 2016

The music in my head in 2016

Something I’ve remarked on before is that these posts don’t properly reflect the ubiquitous presence of music in my daily life. Occasionally I do mention a new album that has made an impact, and I do record here all the live music events that I attend. But there’s always so much more. So here is a roundup of some of the music which I have particularly enjoyed in 2016. The post ends with a playlist of the music mentioned. Continue reading “The music in my head in 2016”


Paul Simon: a joyous celebration the night after a dream was shattered and driven to its knees

Paul Simon: a joyous celebration the night after a dream was shattered and driven to its knees

Last night, before the news came of Leonard Cohen’s departure from this life, I was privileged to see an outstanding show by another great poet of song, Paul Simon.

On our way into Manchester I said to my travelling companions, ‘He must, surely, do An American Tune.’ He hadn’t the previous night in London, but I prayed that in Manchester he would sing what is truly a song for these times.

And he did! Continue reading “Paul Simon: a joyous celebration the night after a dream was shattered and driven to its knees”

The Simon and Garfunkel Story: passing time and frail memories

The Simon and Garfunkel Story: passing time and frail memories

Time it was
And what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence

If he ever got back to the twentieth century, Paul Simon wrote in a recent song, he would ‘open the book of his vanishing memory.’ Listening to a succession of glorious songs from his catalogue in The Simon and Garfunkel Story at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall on Sunday night, made evident how many of Paul Simon’s songs right from the early days were concerned with the passing of time and the frailty of memories. Continue reading “The Simon and Garfunkel Story: passing time and frail memories”

Songs of Freedom: the Selma playlist

Songs of Freedom: the <em>Selma</em> playlist

Watching Ava DuVernay’s film Selma which takes as its subject the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches brought back memories of how, as a teenager growing up in a Cheshire village at the time, the Civil Rights Movement and the music associated with it played a key part in the awakening of my political consciousness.  Reading or hearing on the radio about the marchers, their dignity and bravery, and the murders and brutality inflicted upon black Americans in the South, had a deeply radicalising effect on me.

The anthems sung by the likes of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez, and the electrifying assertions of black pride from soul artists such as Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke just added to the intensity of my feelings. And it wasn’t just me, of course; in the way of these things, the ideas and methods seeded in the civil rights movement spread on the wind – to the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, to South Africa, and to student activists throughout the world. Continue reading “Songs of Freedom: the Selma playlist”

The Boy in the Bubble: Paul Simon, sanctions and Graceland

The Boy in the Bubble: Paul Simon, sanctions and Graceland

Sometimes a wrong action can have a positive outcome…

Sometime in 1984, seeking musical inspiration following the critical and commercial failure of Hearts and Bones, Paul Simon was entranced by the sounds he heard on a cassette he played repeatedly on his car stereo and labelled Accordion Jive Hits, II.  Using his record industry contacts, the source of the unidentified music was located in South Africa, and a recording date was set up for Simon in Johannesburg with three of the groups on the tape: Tao Ea Matsekha, General MB Shirinda and the Gaza Sisters, and the Boyoyo Boys.  In 1985 Simon flew to South Africa.

He could not have been unaware of the implications of what he was doing.  The brutal apartheid regime had entered its most vicious phase.  Economic sanctions had been extended in UN-approved cultural boycott which had been in effect since December 1980. The wording of Resolution 35/206 was explicit:

The United Nations General Assembly request all states to prevent all cultural, academic, sporting and other exchanges with South Africa. Appeals to writers, artists, musicians and other personalities to boycott South Africa. Urges all academic and cultural institutions to terminate all links with South Africa.

And it wasn’t just political activists who had been galvanised by the appalling situation in South Africa. Previous years had seen a batch of songs attacking the brutality of apartheid, from Peter Gabriels’ powerful ‘Biko’ and Jerry Dammers and the Special AKA’s classic, ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ to Stevie Wonder’s ‘It’s Wrong’.  Moreover, there were active campaigns to stop musicians performing in South Africa, and at exactly the moment that Simon flew into Johannesburg, musicians such as Dylan, Springsteen and Bono, joined Steve Van Zandt’s Artists United Against Apartheid to record Sun City, attacking those who performed in the South African entertainment complex in the so-called ‘homeland’ of Bophuthatswana:

Twenty-three million can’t vote ’cause they’re black
We’re stabbing our brothers and sisters in the back
I wanna say I, I, I ain’t gonna play Sun City

As he planned his trip, Paul Simon consulted his close friend, the veteran civil rights and anti-apartheid campaigner Harry Belafonte.  He told Simon to go and talk to the ANC.  Simon preferred to ignore his advice.

Simon made the musical odyssey that resulted in the classic album Graceland without having received permission from either the UN or the African National Congress to enter South Africa.  Many feared that his blatant disregard for the boycott might undermine the anti-apartheid movement.  Jerry Dammers, then heavily involved with Artists Against Apartheid, was among those outraged: ‘Who does he think he is? He’s helping maybe 30 people and he’s damaging solidarity over sanctions. He thinks he’s helping the cause of freedom, but he’s naive. He’s doing far more harm than good’.

These issues were brought back into sharp focus by a remarkable documentary broadcast last week in BBC TV’s Imagine strand, and available as a DVD extra with the remastered Graceland 25th Anniversary EditionUnder African Skies, directed by Joe Berlinger, starts out as a conventional rock documentary, celebrating an iconic album’s quarter-century by following Paul Simon as he returns to Johannesburg to renew acquaintances with the musicians who joined him on Graceland, and with them to perform an anniversary concert in a free South Africa.

But very soon the film shifts gear from pop-promo into a subtle debate about the individual freedom of the artist versus the realpolitik of a people’s struggle for liberation. At first, Simon comes across as something of a Boy in the Bubble – blithely out of touch with the political realities of apartheid, concerned only to track down the rhythms that have delighted him in order to re-record them as a stimulus to his songwriting. Testimony makes clear how he went ahead with his mission, ignoring the pleas of those more attuned to social and political realities.  Simon even admits candidly to encountering and briefly accepting the racism of white recording studio technicians towards the musicians they are recording. It’s a startling admission, and testament to the clear-eyed nature of a film that does not gloss over the shortcomings of the star and its centre.

Of course, Simon was no racist.  He was, in his own estimation, simply an artist doing what he had done on all his solo albums – pursuing the joyous sounds that he found in musical traditions beyond Anglo-American rock and pop. What saved Simon in the ensuing controversy, and what turned the terms of the political debate around, was the wholehearted commitment of musicians like guitarist Ray Phiri, the Kumalo brothers, and Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo to his project – and of the exiled South Africans Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba who joined him on stage the global tour Graceland tour of 1987.

Graceland had threatened to blow a gigantic hole in the sanctions that had isolated the apartheid regime and endowed it with pariah status.  But the sheer brilliance of the music that sprang from the studio collaborations, the blending of traditions – and the way in which the album and the ensuing tour showcased South African culture and publicised the nature of apartheid – turned misguided action into triumph.  Moreover, the irony of a policy that seemed, in Ray Phiri’s words when he was advised by the ANC to leave a recording session in London and return to South Africa, to victimize the victim, was crisply illuminated.

In the film, Paul Simon continues to rest his case on the right of artists to express themselves, free from political pressure.  He sticks to a steely belief that artists shouldn’t be treated as if they work for politicians.  Back in 1986, in response to the ANC’s stance of, ‘You went to South Africa but you didn’t ask us, you need to ask the ANC’,  Simon retorted: ‘So that’s the kind of government you’re going to be? Check our lyrics? Fuck the artists like all kinds of governments have done in the past?’  The musicians who speak in the film all echo this sentiment of the power of artistic expression to transcend political oppression, and the ability of artists from widely differing circumstances and traditions to find a shared voice with which to communicate.

The core of the film’s political discussion takes place in a good-natured encounter on a Johannesburg sofa between Paul Simon and Dali Tambo, son of ANC leader Oliver Tambo who was the London-based exile who directed the cultural boycott. The pair agree to tell each other their side of the story. The film’s director, Joe Berlinger presents both sides of the story in a balanced way. Tambo crisply articulates the view of many black South Africans who saw a rich white man violating and pillaging South African culture for his own gain:

At that moment in time, it was not helpful. We were fighting for our land, for our identity. We had a job to do, and it was a serious job. And we saw Paul Simon coming as a threat because it was not sanctioned by the liberation movement.

Simon makes it clear where he stands to the end, saying ‘the power of art lasts. The political dispute has gone, but the music still lasts’, but in the last scene of the film Simon and Tambo apologise to each other, lean across, and hug.

The film leaves the viewer with the sense that are no easy answers here. Can art exist in a bubble, as Simon insists? This is not a historical question, relevant only to the issues of a quarter of a century ago.  Sanctions remain a crucial weapon in challenging injustice – think of Syria today, or those who argue for a cultural boycott to isolate Israel over its treatment of Palestine.  And, as the series Have You Heard From Johannesburg, shown on BBC 4 earlier this year, demonstrated, the worldwide struggle to isolate and destroy South African apartheid contributed hugely to the regime’s demise.

It is impressive is that Paul Simon allowed Berlinger to make such an unflinching film, containing as it does far more criticism than most celebrities would tolerate, and that he had the mettle to face the issues in an open and honest discussion with Dali Tambo.

But then I remember how I first heard ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’ on the car stereo, and having to pull over while the track played, so intoxicating was its sound.  Like millions of others I adored Graceland, and through the late 1980s it seemed to do more to promote world music in general and South African music in particular than anything else, bar the Andy Kershaw radio show.  It’s still an album that makes the hairs rise on the back of the neck – and that’s down to the combination of Simon’s clever, New York lyrics with the rippling rhythms of Ray Phiri’s guitar,  the infectious beat of the Khumalo brother’s rhythm section and the shimmering harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

In Under African Skies, Paul Simon tells how the release of Graceland was postponed for several months in 1986. But he, along with  Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Soweto Rhythm Section had already been booked to appear on Saturday Night Live. On that trip, Ladyship went into a studio and recorded ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’, going on to perform it with Simon on the TV show a few days later.  Watch a video clip of the performance here:

Paul Simon – Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes…

In 1987 the Graceland tour, with Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela reached Zimbabwe.  Here are some highlights:

Bridge Over Troubled Water: harmony and disharmony

From August to November 1969, Simon and Garfunkel worked in the studio on the songs that would become the album Bridge Over Troubled Water, released in February 1970.  It was to be their crystalline swansong.  The duo’s personal relationship had been deteriorating through their late 1969 tour and the album’s recording sessions were also marked by tension, and within months they had split.  Last night I watched Simon & Garfunkel: The Harmony Game, a documentary about the making of the album  broadcast as part of the new season of Imagine documentaries on BBC One.

The album has a special place in my memory.  In the summer of 1970 I had left university and begun living with the woman who I was later to marry. The LP was one of the first that we bought together, and in my mind the jaunty refrain of ‘Cecilia’ remains the soundtrack of that season:

Making love in the afternoon with Cecilia
Up in my bedroom
I got up to wash my face 
When I come back to bed 
Someone’s taken my place …

Jubilation, she loves me again,
I fall on the floor and I’m laughing,
Jubilation, she loves me again,
I fall on the floor and I’m laughing

The Harmony Game examined on the process through which the songs on the album emerged and were recorded in those  sessions stretching through the summer and autumn of 1969.  At the time the album was considered a technical marvel and the film revealed the techniques used by producer Roy Halee (‘One of the great engineers of his time and a genius with echo’) to achieve the LP’s distinctive soundscape: all kinds of tricks with echo, vocal blending and tape loops.

The wordless ‘la-la la’ chorus for ‘The Boxer’ was recorded in a chapel at Columbia University. Session man Hal Blaine’s booming drums on ‘The Boxer’ were recorded in a corridor at CBS Records for maximum echo, and almost gave an elderly security guard a heart attack when he emerged from a lift. Paul Simon explained that the unique percussion on ‘Cecilia’ emerged from a long evening with friends, thumping and shaking domestic objects and recording the sounds on a home-made tape from which a 1 minute 29 second section was sliced and then looped to become the rhythm track for the song.

There were interviews with pretty much every significant person involved in the creation of the LP and a track-by-track analysis of each song’s inspiration and development.   Speaking of the day when the melody for ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ came to him, Paul Simon said, ‘I remember thinking, ‘This is considerably better than I normally write’.’  Even so, he didn’t think it was a hit single – too much piano. It was the boss of Columbia Records at the time who saw that this slow, almost hymn-like song was something special and insisted that it should be the first single off the album.  Simon recalled that the chorus was partly inspired by a line from a 1958 Swan Silvertones record that he was listening to at the time. At first, there were only two verses, but Garfunkel and producer Roy Halee thought the song needed three, and a ‘bigger’ sound towards the end. Reluctantly, Simon agreed and penned the final ‘Sail on, silver girl’ verse.  The sound recordist on the session misheard the title and  labelled the track ‘Like a Pitcher of Water’.

We learned that ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ was about Art travelling to Mexico to film Catch-22, the line ‘Tom, catch your plane on time’ referring to Art’s earlier identity as Tom in their first group, Tom and Jerry. Simon explained that ‘El Condor Pasa’ was based on traditional Andean folk tune he had heard performed in Paris by a Latin American group.  He wrote lyrics to sing over the group’s instrumental recording that featured musicians playing traditional instruments including the charango made with from the shell of an armadillo.

In many ways, Bridge Over Troubled Water was an album that looked back, nostalgic for the innocence of pop in the 1950s when the duo were starting out on their musical career, modelling themselves on the harmonies of the Everly Brothers (it includes a live version of  ‘Bye Bye Love’). But Simon also admitted that they felt they were constantly playing catch-up to the advances in pop music being made by the Beatles and the Beach Boys.

Coming right at the end of a decade in which popular music broke through to new heights, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ is a sublime coda, with Art Garfunkel’s exquisite, soaring vocals and Paul Simon’s beautiful words combining, even now 40 years later, to raise the hairs on the back of the neck.

When you’re weary
Feeling small
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all

I’m on your side
When times get rough
And friends just can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

When you’re down and out
When you’re on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you
I’ll take your part
When darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

The LP was a massive hit and one of the best-selling records of the decade, staying at number 1 on the charts for six weeks. In the 1970 Grammy Awards it won Record of the Year and Album of the Year for the album and the title track.

Most notably on its title track, the album had, in parts, a soothing  and quietly reassuring tone for an unsettled time.  In other moments it was just plain fun.Whatever mood they captured, most of the songs matched the standard of craftsmanship of  the previous Simon and Garfunkel album, Bookends.  Its concluding track, the beautiful miniature ‘Song For The Asking’, evokes the sense of an era ending in a similar way to the Beatles’ ‘The End’.

A really interesting element of The Harmony Game concerned a television special – Songs of America – built around the album and featuring a mix of live concert recordings intercut with footage of urban poverty, civil rights marches, the Poor Peoples March, and the Vietnam war. The show’s sponsor, the telephone giant AT&T, hated it and pulled out. It was eventually screened with a new backer – Alberto Culver, the shampoo manufacturer.

Charles Grodin, the director of Songs of America,  told how a representative from the advertising agency was furious: ‘You’re using our money to sell your ideology’.  ‘I said, what’s my ideology?’  He said, ‘Humanistic approach!’  I said, ‘You mean there are people who are against the humanistic approach in America?’ He said, ‘You’re goddam right there are – the southern affiliates of AT&T are not going to appreciate seeing black and white kids going to school together’.

Paul Simon recalled: ‘It was the first time that ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ was played on TV, and it was played over footage of the trains that carried Jack Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King at their funerals.  The sponsor said, ‘It isn’t balanced – they’re all Democrats’.  We said – we think of them all as assassinated people.’

A million viewers switched channel after the section showing Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train, handing victory in that night’s ratings war to an ice-skating special.

‘I guess in retrospect it’s something to be proud of because we spoke up for who we were …. and our generation’, said Simon.

Simon and Garfunkel – “Songs of America” – Concert Selections (1969)

Paul Simon: the king of sprezzatura

You know life is what you make of it:
So beautiful or so what

Paul Simon’s set at Glastonbury (BBC2 Sunday evening) was largely composed of songs from Graceland (nothing wrong with that) and though he was suffering from a virus infection, I thought his performance was fine.  Apart from the title track, he steered clear of his magnificent new album, So Beautiful Or So What, explaining in an interview later that for Glastonbury it’s best to go with the familiar songs.

The consensus among most reviewers is that this is his best album since Graceland.  Who am I to disagree with Elvis Costello who writes in the liner notes:

I believe that this remarkable, thoughtful, often joyful record deserves to be recognized as among Paul Simon’s very finest achievements.

It’s a concept album: as Paul Simon says in the ‘making of’ video that accompanied the release, it’s a return to that great tradition that began with Revolver and Sgt Pepper.  Rather than start with a rhythmic premise as he has done with every album since Graceland, he decided that he would focus on the lyrics.  And the words would deal with big themes – love, belief, mortality, our place in universe.  I can’t think of any other songwriter who could embark on a project so ambitious and  end up producing music of such wit, profundity – and joy. Despite its portentous themes, the album is a thing of beauty, its sound shimmering and its lyrics life-affirming.

The cover art, with its sense of swirling galaxies and DNA’s double helix, announces that as Paul Simon approaches his 70th year he has mortality on his mind. Many of these songs address the inevitable, but offer solace by way of love and spirituality (God features in several songs, though this is far from being a preachy album in the style of Dylan, and it would be hard to figure out what Paul Simon actually thinks about God).  All that can be said is that Simon fuses existential concerns as wide as the universe with little cameos of quotidian human struggle.

On opening track, ‘Getting Ready for Christmas Day’, which samples and is constructed around a 1941 sermon by the Southern Baptist preacher Reverend J.M. Gates,  Simon finds no solace in material things:

From early in November to the last week of December
I got money matters weighing me down
Oh the music may be merry, but it’s only temporary
I know Santa Claus is coming to town

Instead, the voice of Rev. Gates warns ‘when Christmas comes you may be laying in some lonesome grave … the undertaker is getting ready for you’, and Simon concludes:

If I could tell my Mom and Dad that the things we never had
Never mattered we were always okay
Getting ready, oh ready, ready for Christmas Day

Oh – and there’s the music.  The album is a joyous blend of old R&B, gospel, and African rhythms, adorned by mellifluous guitar playing by Vincent Nguini and Simon himself. One Amazon reviewer hits the nail on the head when they describe Simon as:

the king of sprezzatura, defined as ‘a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it’.

The album is full of remarkable musical arrangements, incorporating touches that draw on the decades of Simon’s musical exploration and experience.  For example, in the witty ‘Rewrite’, a writer announces –

I’m gonna change the ending
Gonna throw away my title
And toss it in the trash
Every minute after midnight
All the time I’m spending
It’s just for working on my rewrite
Gonna turn it into cash

– and to underscore the writerly concept, Yacouba Sissoko injects some typewriter-like kora sounds that I knew reminded me of something.  Ah, yes: 1950s, Children’s Favourites and Leroy Anderson’s ‘The Typewriter’.

Apologies for that diversion.

With ‘The Afterlife’ we’re back with God and death.  ‘After I died and the makeup had dried’, sings Simon, ‘I went back to my place’, but ‘it was odd, there was no sign of God’.  Then a voice from above booms:

You got to fill out a form first
And then you wait in the line

So – before glimpsing the divine, there’s the bureaucracy to contend with.

Well, it seems like our fate
To suffer and wait for the knowledge we seek

And when that’s done, and the Lord God is near, what do you say?

Face-to-face in the vastness of space
Your words disappear
And you feel like you’re swimming in an ocean of love
And the current is strong
But all that remains when you try to explain
Is a fragment of song
Lord, is it Be Bop a Lula? Or ooh Papa Doo?
Lord, Be Bop a Lula? Or ooh Papa Doo?
Be Bop a Lula

‘Dazzling Blue’ might just be the most beautiful song that Simon has written, enriched with Indian vocal chant and tabla percussion, that begins with unanswered questions about love and existence, and ends with the refuge of love itself and the marriage bed:

Truth or lie, the silence is revealing
An empty sky, a hidden mound of stone
But the CAT scan’s eye sees what the heart’s concealing
Nowadays, when everything is known

Maybe love’s an accident, or destiny is true
But you and I were born beneath a star of dazzling blue

There’s a similar trajectory in ‘Love and Hard Times’ that shifts from the fantasy of God paying a courtesy call on Earth one Sunday morning but deciding he needs to leave, fast –  ‘these people are slobs’ – to what, to my mind, is the most beautiful verse on the album:

The light at the edge of the curtain
Is the quiet dawn
The bedroom breathes
In clicks and clacks
Uneasy heartbeat, can’t relax
But then your hand takes mine
Thank God, I found you in time

On ‘Love is Eternal Sacred Light’ Simon manages to compress the whole of creation, from the ‘big bang’ to terrorism, into six lines:

How’d it all begin? Started with a bang
Couple of light years later, stars and planets sang
Fire warmed the cold, waves of colours flew
Moonlight into gold, earth to green and blue

Earth becomes a farm
Farmer takes a wife
Wife becomes a river and the giver of life
Man becomes machine
Oil runs down his face
Machine becomes a man with a bomb in the marketplace

But then, before things get too portentous, Simon’s dry wit kicks in.  It turns out that it’s God himself telling this tale, and he’s just joking:

Big Bang
That’s a joke that I made up
Once when I had eons to kill
You know, most folks
They don’t get when I’m joking

On the album’s title track, Simon cooks up a gumbo in the first verse, then reads his kids a bedtime story, telling them

…life is what you make of it:
So beautiful or so what

– only for this image to erupt violently into the song:

Four men on the balcony
Overlooking the parking lot
Pointing at a figure in the distance
Dr. King has just been shot
And the sirens long melody
Singing saviour pass me not
Aint it strange the way we’re ignorant
How we seek out bad advice
How we jigger it and figure it
Mistaking value for the price

In her album review for The Observer, Kitty Empire wrote:

A great many of Simon’s contemporaries – Dylan and Neil Young, to name but two – have grappled with the most un-rock’n’roll business of growing older and taking stock. In turns playful and gently profound, Simon doesn’t regard the future with dread or the past with regret. He re-emphasises the need for love, a good time and a sense of perspective. When we are all gone, he notes three-quarters of the way through this lustrous record, no zebra will shed a tear.

If every human on the planet and all the buildings on it
Should disappear
Would a zebra grazing in the African Savannah
Care enough to shed one zebra tear?

Questions for the angels
Who believes in angels?
Fools do
Fools and pilgrims all over the world

In his liner notes, Elvis Costello writes:

These wonderful songs refuse to despair, despite the evidence all around us. “So Beautiful Or So What” rejects the allure of fashionable darkness and the hypnosis of ignorance – better to contemplate and celebrate the endurance of the spirit and the persistence of love.