Thursday, August 25, 2016

Goin' to Graceland

I know several people who think Paul Simon's "Graceland" album, which hit the music stores on this day in 1986, was his greatest musical achievement.

It's hard to argue with that. It had probably been more than a decade since Simon enjoyed real commercial and critical success (with 1975's "Still Crazy After All These Years"), and he had kind of disappeared from public view — "Graceland" was something of a comeback for him. And what a comeback it was. It won the Grammy for Album of the Year and sold more than 16 million copies.

And it had five singles that vied for public attention on the charts.

Probably "You Can Call Me Al" was the biggest hit on the album. With Chevy Chase lip syncing the lyrics, the song shot up the charts and earned significant airplay.

It was the first of five singles to be released, hitting the stores nearly two weeks after the album did. Sales were sluggish initially, but the song enjoyed a revival after the album's Grammy success and rose to #23 on the charts.

The second single was the title song, "Graceland," and in my opinion it is one of Simon's most eloquent songs — at least in his solo career. It was an expression of his thoughts following the breakup of his marriage to Carrie Fisher.

"Graceland" wasn't the hit that "You Can Call Me Al" was — but it didn't have the same joyful feel to it, either. It did, however, have a whisper of redemption in it and cracked Billboard's Hot 100 but only reached #81.

The third single from the album, "The Boy in the Bubble," was released as a single about seven months after the album was released. Unless you had the album, you might have assumed the song was part of a new one.

I was surprised to discover, years later, how well it did. I don't really remember hearing it on the radio, but it reached #15 on Billboard's Rock Tracks chart. Still, it only reached #86 on Billboard's Hot 100.

I always thought it was kind of a contradictory tune, with lyrics about such topics as terrorism (which was still, at that time, a subject that had not touched Americans directly) and hunger, infused with shots of humor and even cheer.

Still, compared to the rather dour "Hearts and Bones," which had been Simon's previous album, "Graceland" was positively giddy.

The fourth single, "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes," charted well in Canada, and I remember hearing it on the radio more than I heard "The Boy in the Bubble""Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" was released as a single about a month later — but it doesn't seem to have made a ripple on Billboard's Hot 100.

The song featured South African backup singers, giving most Americans their first real exposure to South African music.

A few weeks after the song was released as a single, Simon and the South African singers performed the song on Saturday Night Live, giving it national exposure.

Simon expanded on the African theme in the fifth and final single from the "Graceland" album, "Under African Skies."

"Under African Skies" was released as a single about a year after the album came out.

And it featured Linda Ronstadt with additional vocals. She got top billing with Simon on that single, too.

Of course, she was Linda Rondstadt, perhaps the most successful female recording artist ever.

But he was Paul Simon, and he had been in the public eye longer than she had. They made a heavyweight combination.