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Savouring some fine old wine - Simon & Garfunkel

Some acts seem so much a part of one’s generational mind that they seem spot-welded to your memory banks. Most obviously, The Beatles - I only really developed a proper Beatles record collection when my son got heavily into them at the turn of the millennium. Prior to that, they seemed omnipresent, to be recalled at will whenever one fancied visiting one’s cortical library. Similarly, I had until very recently no Simon & Garfunkel recordings, since selling off Bridge Over Troubled Water at the height of post punk Puritanism (a daft gesture, as it was both one of the very first vinyl albums that I ever bought and remains a timeless classic to boot). ‘The Graduate’ was the very first ‘X’ film that I ever got into the cinema to see,in 1969  at the age of 14, so Mrs Robinson became an especially redoubtable track in my teenage mind, and it still sounds great, fifty years down the line.

As part of my re-immersion into sixties singer/songwriter material over the past few weeks (as recent blogs demonstrate), I bought  Simon & Garfunkel’s 1966 ‘breakthrough’ album, Sounds Of Silence and 1968′s Bookends, which is often critically cited as the best of their five studio recordings. Like savouring a fine old wine, which has been lying forgotten in the cellar, I rediscovered just how good these records are: even though both are only thirty minutes long, as was much vinyl product of the period - the aspirations and pretensions of the ‘rock generation’ were just around the corner, although Highway 61 Revisited gave advance notice of what was about to come, coming in at 50-odd minutes, including, of course, the massive Desolation Row. S & G kept it shorter and simpler, giving us a treasure trove of classic melodies and lyrics that are all too easy to take for granted as they have become a part of the weft of modern cultural history. 

I love ‘links’, and I particularly enjoyed one that I discovered for myself on the Sounds of Silence title track. In terms of warps and wefts, the link was with Highway 61 Revisited itself, and perfectly highlights the ‘little world’ that was forming in New York in mid-1965. Just when you think you’ve heard it all, up springs a thread or a connection that makes the scene of that era come to life again. The link emerges briefly at 39 seconds into The Sound of Silence, when a snare drum lick kicks up the pace of the track, after the gentle introduction of the duo’s vocals accompanied by a filigreed electric guitar (the latter being the idea of producer Tom Wilson, and it also kicked up the pace of S & G’s career to a previously-unimaginable degree). The penny dropped that the snare crack was exactly the same as the famous intro to Like A Rolling Stone, the signature opening track of Highway 61 Revisited

Thinking it all through, it all soon became blindingly obvious - Sound of Silence and Like A Rolling Stone shared the same drummer, Bobby Gregg; the tracks were recorded on the same day in Columbia;s New York studio (June 15th. 1965); both were the opening tracks of their respective albums and were, furthermore, both produced by the late very great and very maverick Tom Wilson. To complete the ‘coincidences’, the vast majority of both records were in fact produced by Bob Johnson. However, Wilson’s particular magic ensured that both tracks were, arguably, the most memorable of two memorable works. Just to recall, Wilson produced the first two Velvet Underground albums (whatever Andy Warhol claimed about The Velvet Underground and Nico), the first three by The Mothers of Invention (Freak Out, Absolutely Free, We’re Only In It For The Money) and Nico’s debut (Chelsea Girl, a greatly under-rated work). On the avant-jazz side of things, he produced the recording debuts of Sun Ra (Sun Song) and Cecil Taylor (Jazz Advance). This is a fairly unparalleled set of achievements, and Wilson was clearly an inspirational figure for both younger and more experienced experimental musicians, and it is strangely touching that he should also have been the facilitator of both such a classic ‘catchy pop song’ as The Sound of Silence and of a track which has been seen by many as the midwife of rock music and/or ’serious’ pop chart music. The ever-prolix Greil Marcus even wrote a whole book on the song, called, with admittedly less prolixity than usual,’ Like A Rolling Stone’.

It serves to prove that there is always something to be said for never assuming that you know everything about even the most well-worn of material. On a very different tack, I will have to re-explore the music of Mark Hollis, especially the eponymous solo effort, now that he has sadly passed away. R.I.P. to a most unusual artist.

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