Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Paul Simon wasn’t even 30 years old when Simon & Garfunkel parted ways in 1970, and he began his solo career two years later. Actually, in 1965 he recorded an album of solo acoustic performances (most of which would be re-recorded by Simon & Garfunkel) called The Paul Simon Songbook, which was released in the UK and briefly in the US several years later, but didn’t receive a full worldwide release on CD until 2004. Since I wasn’t aware of it until then, I will discuss that album here in a later post. So although it’s the second record to be released under his own name, Paul Simon (1972) is generally regarded as his debut solo album.
About 2 months ago I played this album, not knowing when I would be revisiting his catalog; I was just in the mood to hear it. It had a very subdued feel, and other than the well-known hits, nothing really jumped out at me. That was not the case when I played it several times last week. It gets off to a bouncy start with the hit single “Mother And Child Reunion,” possibly one of the earliest recordings of a rock/pop musician playing with a Jamaican reggae/rock-steady groove (although its catchy melody would work with almost any rhythm). I just discovered that several of the musicians on this song also played with reggae legends Jimmy Cliff and Toots & The Maytals. “Duncan” follows with a completely different sound. Here he brings back the Peruvian group Los Incas, who previously played on the Simon & Garfunkel song “El Condor Pasa (If I Could),” and it’s a very pretty song with a nice story about a poor fisherman’s son who finds his way through the world.
A great discovery for me was “Run That Body Down,” a slow shuffle (with fantastic brush work by studio drumming icon Hal Blaine) that sounds like something Paul McCartney might have included on his first solo album. It also has a surprising wah-wah guitar solo that came out of nowhere. The other hit single was “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard” which is, to paraphrase a later Simon song, still catchy after all these years. “Peace Like A River” is a folk-blues with a dark, sparse arrangement, and a great fingerpicked guitar pattern from Simon. Here’s where I started to realize what an underrated instrumentalist he is. This song would’ve worked nicely with a Garfunkel harmony vocal.
Another standout track is “Paranoia Blues,” which sounds like a John Lee Hooker talking blues with added slide/bottleneck guitar. It’s a political song with a catchy melody and some of his most impassioned vocals, especially when he sings, “There’s only one thing I need to know, whose side are you on?” The remaining songs are good, but mostly seem like sketches or partially formed ideas. The best of these is the instrumental “Hobo’s Blues,” with a memorable violin melody from co-writer Stephane Grappelli. Overall, this is an excellent first solo effort. Most artists would kill to have written just the two hit singles, but the album is filled with many other excellent songs and he would have a lot more of those on the way.
In my first post on Paul Simon, I mentioned how important the song “Kodachrome” was throughout my early years. I’ve never grown tired of hearing it, since it’s such a fun & catchy song with an excellent groove by the Muscle Shoals rhythm section. It was the opening track on his second album, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1973), a record that not only showed improvement over his debut but which is also an early contender for the best album of his career. Only the second track, “Tenderness,” failed to make an impression on me, although it’s a nice slow country blues featuring vocals by the Dixie Hummingbirds. Things really pick up after that. “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” is an excellent midtempo song with a wonderful melody and notable guest appearances by Rev. Claude Jeter (he provides those falsetto vocals) and The Onward Brass Band (they play that New Orleans jazz outro). The next track, “Something So Right,” is a quiet song that really grew to be a favorite of mine. It seems to be a love song to someone who had to break through his emotional wall, and he’s finally allowing love into his life. It was co-produced by Phil Ramone, who would soon go on to produce Billy Joel’s best albums. Ironically, I believe Joel used a melody from the bridge here for his mid-80s song “Big Man On Mulberry Street.”
Possibly the bluesiest song he ever recorded was “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor,” and it’s one of my favorite discoveries so far. Not only does it feature some top-notch musicianship (once again featuring those Muscle Shoals guys), but the lyrics are equally as strong. It can be taken as a statement about people’s attitudes toward their place in life, but more obviously it’s about apartment living, where someone’s almost always above & below you. “American Tune” was a minor hit when it was originally released, but it’s since become a Simon concert staple, both as a solo performer and during his subsequent reunions with Garfunkel. Although the studio version doesn’t feature his former singing partner, it’s clear that the song would’ve reached greater heights with his involvement, as it has a similar arrangement to “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
“Was A Sunny Day” is another song with an instantly catchy melody, and has a Caribbean flavor that’s marred slightly by Simon’s affected vocals. The Latin rhythm is embellished by the great Brazilian jazz percussionist Airto Moreira. Simon’s guitar-playing abilities are highlighted on the back-to-back songs “Learn How To Fall” and “St. Judy’s Comet.” The former is set to a midtempo shuffle and has a nice swing, while the latter has a lullaby quality. I’m guessing this was written for his son, who was born a year earlier. The album closes with the huge gospel-infused hit single “Loves Me Like A Rock,” once again featuring vocals by the Dixie Hummingbirds. It’s hard not to think that Billy Joel had this song playing when he wrote “River Of Dreams” nearly 20 years later. From blues to folk to Caribbean rhythms to gospel-pop and more, this album has just about everything, but with songs this good they would work in almost any context.
During the subsequent tour, he recorded a live album: Paul Simon In Concert: Live Rhymin’ (1974). It features some excellent versions of songs from the previous two solo albums, as well as six Simon & Garfunkel songs. The album is split into three sections. The first features solo acoustic performances of three songs, and is followed by three songs with the traditional Peruvian group Urubamba. The final section (all six songs on side 2 of the original LP) features The Jessy Dixon Singers, including a performance by that group of the gospel song “Jesus Is The Answer.” This is a fine document of Paul Simon in concert at that stage of his career, but none of the versions here outshine the originals. The Simon & Garfunkel songs in particular are missing Garfunkel’s sympathetic harmonies and soaring leads (especially on “Bridge Over Troubled Water”).
I had originally intended to include my thoughts on his next studio album, Still Crazy After All These Years, but with so much to discuss about his first two solo albums this post is already long enough. I’ll return shortly with a new post that follows Paul Simon into the ‘80s, during a time when his career took a downturn before a hugely successful (and controversial) return to the spotlight in the middle of the decade. Until then, thanks for reading. Let me know what you think of those first two albums, and if you agree that the second one is among his best.