Bookends revisited

When I was thinking what to blog about I had the idea of revisiting albums I hadn’t heard for a long while and reviewing them.

By chance I heard a track off Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bookends’ album on the radio a couple of weeks ago, hauled out my copy which I hadn’t played for about 10 years and then was totally blown away by how good it still sounded. Anyway, I thought it might be a good first album to review and mentally filed the notion away.

When I heard that the acoustic guitar genius Davey Graham had died, it brought the Bookends idea right back.

Why?

Because Paul Simon was a big Graham fan and recorded his signature composition ‘Anji’ on one of the albums he did with Art Garfunkel and the same friend who turned me on to Davey Graham turned me on to ‘Bookends’.

So, here goes…a re-appreciation (does that word even exist?) of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bookends’.

I didn’t used to like Simon and Garfunkel.

Whilst Dylan’s first forays into folk rock had drive and far more of a rock feel, tracks like ‘I am a Rock’ and ‘Sounds of Silence’ just seemed a bit lame and ‘pretty’.

However, something about ‘Bookends’ just grabbed my attention from the moment I heard it. The album cover didn’t look very impressive – a black and white photo of two rather nerdy looking guys had no chance in the visual stakes against the garish and trippy exterior of something like ‘Axis Bold as Love’ or ‘Disraeli Gears’…but when you got to the music…

I’ve heard the album described by some as a – eek! – ‘concept album’ and I suppose that the first side (remember vinyl?) has a loose suite of songs bookended with…er…the Bookends tracks. That leaves Side 2 which still, somehow, maintains a sort of continuity with side 1 that may or may not have been intentional.

The album opens with the Bookends Theme – just a brief and simple guitar instrumental that sets the tone of what is essentially a very acoustic album when you strip away everything apart from the guitar, bass and drums. These three instruments are the instrumental ‘core’ of the whole album. There’s Hal Blaine’s perfect drumming – never overpowering but always bang on the money – Joe Osborn’s subtle but inventive and propulsive bass guitar and Paul Simon’s excellent acoustic guitar.

Everything else that’s added is like the ‘seasoning’ to the basic dish served up by the rhythm section and sometimes it’s a bit of OOMPH like cayenne pepper and sometimes it’s a mild fragrancy like rosemary.

The first ‘proper’ track has the cayenne…’Save the Life of my Child’ crashes in with what was back then a very new instrument – the Moog synthesiser. There are also gospel choirs drenched in reverb sitting back in the mix which sometimes sound close, sometimes very distant, sound effects, a bit of backwards ‘Sounds of Silence’, lots of simultaneous spoken accompaniment to Simon’s singing and the whole track just sounds vast. That’s because there’s space in the overall arrangement and mix and underneath it, all the time, the rhythm section with Simon’s rock steady guitar.  The subject matter is a suicide which has various bits of comic relief with the spoken words and the cod Irish accents from Simon. I have no idea why, but the main character always seems to me to be almost the same person as in ‘The Boxer’ – a troubled, buffetted soul who finds some sort of peace at the end. The cyclic codas of both songs seem similar too and ‘The Boxer’ has that same cavernous reverb. A magnificent track and possibly my favourite on the whole album.

‘America’ next, which fades in gently as the previous track fades out. It has some Leslie guitar on it which I’m assuming is acoustic by the sound of it. I don’t recall that effect ever being used before except on electric guitar. So, into what is really a sort of road movie set to a song with some great lyrics ranging from the banal – ‘So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner pies’ – to the deeply personal – ‘Kathy, I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping. I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why’. It’s a song about being lost and trying to find where you are both literally and metaphorically I think and it also has a cyclic coda which may be there to emphasise the lost theme – running around in circles with no way out. And, yet again, lots of reverb which is becoming a sort of extra ‘instrument’ on the album.

The sound of a cigarette (maybe even a joint?) being lit opens ‘Overs’. This is the rosemary, tinged with a bitterness; a short and simple song with double tracked acoustic guitars and a chord sequence that shows that Simon was no three chord strummer like Donovan at the time. More of Don later…Not my favourite track by a long shot. It’s OK, doesn’t outstay its welcome and is ‘over’ quickly. Good relief though after the intensity of the previous two tracks. Well sequenced, whoever did it!

Next up, a track called ‘Voices of Old People’ which is exactly what it says on the tin. Garfunkel recorded the collage voices and whilst it’s very appropriate thematically it’s also very skippable most of the time.

Lovely acoustic guitar chords and a distant string section bring us into ‘Old Friends’ which climaxes in a very strange coda with dischords and variations on the main theme from the strings which eventually take over the whole track. Beautiful, gentle and unexpected, but with a hint of menace about the overall feel of the string arrangement. I think the coda is actually meant to be the act of dying (maybe an invading cancer?) represented by the strident strings and then resolves to a calmness (the peace that follows death?) leading into a vocal version of the ‘Bookends Theme’. Again this ends with more cyclic musical motifs this time from the guitar behind the final lyrics: ‘Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you’.

I’m not too sure how I really feel about the ‘old people’ theme of the last half of side 1. I was going to say that I don’t really rate it and that it’s the part of the album I tend to skip, but I think I may be fooling myself. It’s not – to my ears at least – very comforting and it vaguely disturbs me. I guess it’s that old ‘intimations of mortality’ thing rearing its ugly head and when you’ve had more of your life than you have left that can really throw you a curve. I think that Paul Simon may have scared me and what seems something to be avoided is simply something I don’t want to face up to.

Side 2 opens with ‘Fakin’ It’. A strange high note brings it in which sounds like a mellotron but I’m guessing Larry Knethchel on organ with the brass section added. This sound provides the strong flavouring which is maintained through most of the track and is repeated with another long note at the end. Halfway through there’s a sort of dream sequence during which a nod is made to Donovan – ‘Good morning Mr Leitch, have you had a busy day?’ – and the whole lyric gets very trippy with references to ‘the tailor’ the meaning of which eludes me, but the rest of the song  seems to be sung by the same guy as in ‘America’ – and he’s still lost…

‘Punky’s Dilemma’ starts with a jazzy, swinging chord sequence from Simon with nice use of the major 7th in the tonic chord and goes on to some surreal lyrics -‘Talkin’ to a raisin who ‘casion’ly plays L.A., casually glancing at his toupee’ – which seem to be about a whole range of totally disconnected subjects such as draft dodging, treating your neighbours well and imagining what’s it’s like to be a cornflake. I don’t understand the lyrics but it doesn’t matter – especially with Osborn’s great bass lines which are inventive but propulsive. Great S&G harmonies in the middle, by the way.

The best known song on the album comes next – ‘Mrs Robinson’ – originally written for ‘The Graduate’ film. Great ensemble playing from the rhythm section, particularly the guitar. Now a bit over familiar but still a great song with minimal instrumentation and great harmonies. It doesn’t really seem to have much to do with the film and I seem to recall hearing somewhere that it was shoehorned into ‘Bookends’ because it was a hit single. In fact, it would have fitted rather well into side 1. Strange…

‘A Hazy Shade of Winter’ was a single too. Simon has switched to his Guild 12 string for this. I seem to recall an interview in which he professed not to like the guitar although it sounds good here. He makes it sound a bit like a harpsichord with the arpeggios and chord inversions he employs. Nice arrangement with a wind and brass section in evidence and Knetchel is back with the Hammond. The song comes across as a distant relative of ‘Californian Dreamin” by the Mamas and the Papas. A sort of happy/sad type song – uptempo with rather dark lyrics.

The album concludes with ‘At the Zoo’ which has a very cute bossa nova type opening which could be from a children’s song although the lyrics soon contradict that mood with their anthropomorhic descriptions of the various animals. So, maybe Simon is talking about us humans as zoo animals. It works either way – as an amusing look at the zoo or at the human race in general. Very piano-based with Simon’s guitar mixed fairly well back most of the time. The phasing at a couple of points was all the rage at the time but it doesn’t date the track at all. I’m guessing here, but it sounds as if it was one of the last tracks to be recorded as it has a sort of similar feel to a couple of tracks on their next album – ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’.

Well, that’s it for ‘Bookends’ as originally released and that’s the end as far as I’m concerned. The album has been reissued lately with a couple of bonus tracks which add nothing (like most bonus tracks) and just bugger up the end for me.

For me, the star of the album has to be Paul Simon with his amazing compositions, singing and guitar playing. Sure, there are one or two nice harmony moments with Art but, as he showed with his solo career, Simon could make solo albums as good as any he made as a duo.

The other stars are the production and arrangements. Together they introduce variation into the basic tracks of guitar, bass and drums with often minimal use of other instruments and nothing ever gets crowded or messy like it sometimes did in the next album.

I suppose ‘Bookends’ is very much of its time, but it still sounds amazingly fresh to me and not dated. It’s an incredibly dark album for much of the time and would be depressing if it wasn’t for the brightness of the production, often very upbeat arrangements and the occasional spot of humour.

Comparisons are often odious, but if we’re thinking that The Beatles’ ‘Seargeant Pepper’ and The Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ and The Byrds’ ‘Younger Than Yesterday’ were around at roughly the same time then ‘Bookends’ stands up really, really well. ‘Pepper’ seems cluttered and messy with some genuinely embarrassing moments which date it terribly. ‘Sounds’ shows that you can use a whole shedload of sessionmen and produce great, great music. Then you hear ‘Bookends’ and you realise that you can produce equally good results with a mere handful. The Byrds album is possibly the closest in terms of overall feel (folk rock innit?) but the compositions really let it down with some real turkeys from David Crosby.

(There’s a strange continuity here – Blaine, Knetchel and Osborn all played on both ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Bookends’…hell, Blaine and Knetchel even played on the Byrds’ ‘Mr Tambourine Man single…)

As I’ve mentioned, after ‘Bookends’ came the ‘Bridge’ album and it started to all fall apart. From what I can gather, the two albums were both recorded rather piecemeal – I seem to recall reading that that ‘Bridge’ in particular was cobbled together from demos and tracks they weren’t too sure they should include – but whereas ‘Bookends’ has a cohesion that forces you to listen to the whole thing at one sitting, ‘Bridge’ just sounds like a collection of very variable songs that you can dip into at will. It has ‘The Boxer’ which is an amazing track and will one day get an entry here of its very own – but it also has ‘El Condor Pasa’ which might be embryonic ‘world music’ and a precursor of the later ‘Graceland’ album but I just can’t stand the track. It also has ‘Bye Bye Love’ which just has to be padding. I can’t think of any other reason for its inclusion on the album.

If you like the first few solo albums that Paul Simon made then ‘Bookends’ is probably the closest duo album in terms of a similar sound and I unreservedly recommend it as the best Simon and Garfunkel release.

A classic 10!

The next ‘revisitation’ will be on The Tubes’ ‘Completion Backwards Principle’ album.

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One Response

  1. […] into Hendrix, the Who, Cream and newly-electrified Dylan. The album gets heavy coverage on my blog here, with a full critique. ‘Save the Life of my Child’ still strikes me as a fantastic creation […]

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