Words and photos by Rafe Arnott
Heavy Rotation is a monthly column focused on an LP in my collection. This month I’m discussing Paul Simon S/T, (originally released on Columbia Records, 1972, KC 30750), DCC Compact Classics, 1998, reissue, remaster, numbered, limited edition, LPZ-2060.
By Christmas 1969, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were tired. Tired of touring, tired of filming a TV special, tired of the grind that recording Bridge Over Troubled Water had become, but mostly, they were tired of each other.
Overdubs for BOTW were finished in January, 1970 and Simon felt that was it, after five albums the partnership was over. Citing a distinct delight at not having to write a follow-up to their final LP, Simon looked to take a gamble with his first solo record. He wanted to break away from success and expectation and turn this freedom into a revealing self portrait drawn without the compromise Simon & Garfunkel had exerted on his creativity. So, he did what anyone does after a breakup; he took time out to reassess.
Photo above: The Steve Hoffman-mastered version of Simon's solo offering has proven to be a satisfying choice.
Throughout 1970 Simon’s interest in world music was growing and explorations into new musical directions were being pursued as concepts for the upcoming album. Simon’s eclecticism in musical taste came from travel, this had revealed to him that many Americans were provincial in their music catalog. He found Europeans, or the Japanese to have a much broader knowledge base of music through exposure to different cultures. Whether it was themes of Peruvian-influenced traditional South American folk (that had been touched on with “El Condor”), Latin American Samba percussion entreaties or Jamaican-based reggae and ska – and everything in-between – Simon was throwing his arms wide to take it all in. Despite this global embrace, he was still crafting deeply personal expositions within those larger musical constructs. Looking upon himself through songwriting gifted Simon an ability to draw listeners in to examine performances and existential queries within that music.
Running on a creative high in early 1971, Simon’s focus turned back to recording. Sessions took place from January through March of that year, and here, further to doing things his own way, he relaxed the intensely detail-oriented process that had been a hallmark of S&G production. The multiple takes that Garfunkel and engineer/producer Roy Halee championed – and Simon was not a fan of – were passed over in favour of getting the right feel rather than sweating if it had been perfectly mic’d or not. Many tracks for the album were recorded in different studios, these included the CBS studios in San Francisco and New York, Western Recorders in Los Angeles, Studio CBE in Paris, France and Dynamic Sound in Kingston, Jamaica where much of “Mother and Child Reunion” was laid to tape. Simon credits the Torrington Bridge experience in Jamaica using Jimmy Cliff’s backing band as a valuable lesson in learning to let go during the recording process. He told rock journalist Jon Landau “That’s the key thing. Let [local session musicians] play whatever they want, and then you change,” he said. “You go their way. That’s how you get that [sound].”
That’s the key thing. Let [local session musicians] play whatever they want, and then you change... You go their way. That’s how you get that [sound].”
Despite most of the album being of a deeply personal nature, with references to his own troubled relationship at the time, Simon remained humble, albeit once removed from the work. Having grown up listening to this album, and There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (along with the whole S&G catalogue), I realized several months ago I was lacking a vinyl version, and set out to correct this. Digging around online, many seemed to consider the limited edition DCC Compact Classics, Steve Hoffman-mastered reissue to be the definitive version (on the Legacy Whisper Speaker System w/VAC Renaissance One-Forty Monoblocs), so Discogs was the next stop, where I managed to grab a NM version. This pressing is dead quiet in the groove and has outstanding dynamics and resolution, coupled with clearly separated and sound staged instruments/vocals. Tonal/timbral coloration is some of the most enjoyable and realistic I’ve heard – if tilted ever-so-slightly warm. Having always been a huge fan of the album’s opening cut, it was a surprise to learn Simon took the name from a Chinese restaurant in downtown NYC that featured a chicken and egg dish called “Mother and Child Reunion.” Said Simon,“Oh, I love that… I gotta use that one.”
Photo above: The 1998 remaster by DCC Compact Classics is worth seeking out.
Clifton Jackson’s thrumming, rolling bass line and Lynford Brown’s tight, heartfelt guitar juxtaposed against the prescient stick work of Winston Grennan, whose shimmering cymbal/high hat strikes anchor the song, “Mother and Child Reunion” rolls out like Simon’s block-party introduction to mid-sixties rock steady for white people. While sound systems would later take over the East Coast of the United States and spawn rap and hip hop – and in the ‘80s propel Simon full circle to his African rhythm/percussion-based Graceland album – its influence in 1972 was still only a glimmer of what was to come. The fat, goosed-up organ Neville Hinds pounds on offers a foundation to the ethereal backup singing and vocal harmonizing of Deirdre Tuck, Renelle Stafford and Von Eva Sims with a real sense of the recorded space around both them and Simon’s voices – which were recorded and mixed later at CBS in New York. “Reunion” has rhythmic flow, with a real-life sense of propulsion and exquisite spatial imaging of instrumentation and vocals.
The close mic’ing of either Simon or his guitar on “Duncan” reveal a few physical bumps while recording that might have forced a retake in S&G days, but not so here, allowing Simon’s reverential E-minor ballad of sadness, introspection, and ultimately physical salvation to be captured in all its melancholy glory. Andean flutes and traditional rattles played by Los Incas (whom Simon had worked with on “El Condor Pasa”) blend seamlessly with the two lilting, up-high guitars, and tuneful, slappy bass. Hoffman’s mastering places a wide, deep sound stage with flute, one guitar and Simon’s voice dead centre, and the rest nicely spread out horizontally on a Cartesian axis. Vocals were a bit sibilant through the Shure M44-G mounted at the time, but a switch to the Shure M97XE and its elliptical profile stylus brought a noticeable refinement to the presentation, smoothing things out in the midband and noticeably decreasing any sibilance – at the cost of some scale, and punch down low.
“Everything Put Together Falls Apart” showcases an intimate in-the-room reproduction of Simon’s six-string fret work/picking/strumming and palpable resonance to the guitar body itself, with spot-on pitch to the light piano flourishes/organ noodling that accompany his jangly slightly loose-tuned playing. Big, room filling thumb plucks off the low-E metal strings showcase transient speed and the beautiful decay to notes the original masters captured. On “Run That Body Down,’ the fat bass work sets the tonal colour with its authoritative down-picking working hand-in-hand with the rhythm guitar and Simon’s high-action plucking. Tempo is rock steady, while Simon’s diaphanous overdub harmonies segue the steel lap guitar for bridge work. The lilting, fun, carefree melody is beautifully at odds with the caution-tinged lyrics. “Armistice Day” rounds out the first side and once again the loose tuning on the lead guitar adds big, blown out jangle with exquisite reverb and decay to Simon’s strumming. Simple, stripped-down instrumentation with maraca/castanet work stereo-panned as percussion and fiddle work build the song up. The Güiro notches subtly beneath the other instruments.
Photo above: Four vintage Shure cartridges to choose from for pairing with the Technics SL-1210 GR.
Side two of the album opens fast with propulsive dynamics and rolling melodic swings as stereo-panned, latin-flavoured rhythm guitar and ukulele flank the huge, dredging bass line buoyantly driving “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.” A cut paying homage to Simon’s upbringing in Queens, New York and one which often leaves listeners wondering what it was that “… the mama saw/It was against the law.” Simon’s multi-tracked vocals sit above the mix to float high-centre along with his whistle solos. The tight, urgent slam of Airto Moreira’s percussion work is laid bare through outstanding recording detail, and reveals various castanets, tambourines, cuica, (Brazilian friction drum), etc. peeking through Simon’s giddy ukulele strumming. Referenced as a take on the changing demographics of the once predominantly Jewish neighbourhood where he grew up, Simon’s lyrics and uplifting emotional tenor suggest change, while inevitable, can be a good thing – perhaps reflecting Simon’s embrace of varied musical cultures, and his own changes while writing the album.
Photo above: The Audio Note Conqueror Silver 300B stereo power amplifier.
The call and response of Simon’s lead guitar to the rhythm section supporting it on the opening of “Peace Like a River” reminds one of train tracks over arching Roman bridges; they’re taking you somewhere, yet it is important to recognize the context of the terrain you’re crossing to get there. While its lyrics touch on the civil unrest that accompanies political change, the track’s melody and cadence are a bit surreal, and seem at odds with the intensity of the messaging; a rock anthem like “Ohio” seems more apt. Then there’s the fact the bulk of the cut is comprised of recorded loops of instrumentation, which seem to create an unsettling base to build further live overdubs upon during the sessions. Citing the song as a “serious” one, Simon also noted part of the track’s dreamlike nature is based around a sound effect he created for it by recording himself banging out piano notes with his fist and then playing it back reversed at half-speed. “…it creates a tension, and that thing is just in there,” Simon said in an interview. “It’s in the track. You can’t hear it…It’s just a dark color.”
Photo above: An Audio Note M3 Phono and 300B Conqueror Silver stereo amplifier are handling current review system duties.
“Papa Hobo, Hobo’s Blues, Paranoia Blues” and “Congratulations” round out the rest of the LP with those first three seeming to drift into one another as they roll downhill along with Simon’s outlook. The playful, wooden-box percussion and Django Reinhardt-inspired guitar tuning on “Hobo’s Blues” pours forth without effort before mining a vein of cynicism with lyrics such as “I’ve got some so-called friends/but when my back is turned/they like to stick it to me/I just need to know whose side you’re on…” The well-worn rules of songwriting which keep Paul Simon’s musical world in order just as easily mess things up for him, allowing the listener to learn the ropes along with him. “Congratulations” is a fitting wrap for the LP as Simon dwells on the difficulties of love, of living with someone, of building a life together – themes that once again touch on adult responsibility. It weighs upon him, and he shares this by peeling back layers of veneer that experience has lacquered him with, creating a window onto his waning youth and ongoing struggle to make sense of the problems which now populate his life. This is an album which doesn’t allow your attention to waver from its performances, it is the sum of its parts. But man, what parts.
Paul Simon DCC Compact Classic LP can be found HERE.
* Quotes taken from Jon Landau for Rolling Stone (1972); republished in The Rolling Stone Interviews: 1967-1980 (1989) edited by Peter Herbst.