Graceland At Twenty Five

Twenty five years later, it’s easy to forget that Graceland, the album many consider to be Paul Simon’s finest musical achievement, was mired in controversy because of the continuing disgraceland that was apartheid South Africa. Nelson Mandela was still jailed and protests erupted on college campuses and in the halls of government around the world.

Simon visited South Africa at around the same time “Little Steven” Van Zandt had also gone on a musical mission to South Africa to plan for a new album. Van Zandt was appalled by what he witnessed generally but specifically at Sun City an interracial gambling resort not unlike the ones we have today in America run by Native American tribes. It was an oasis of Las Vegas style glamor surrounded by grinding poverty.

Much as our Native American resorts exist on tribal land and so are exempt from many federal and state laws, Sun City was located in the Bantustan (black ‘homeland’) of Bophuthatswana, which was declared an “independent state” by the South African government, so banned activities like gambling and topless dancing could take place.

Van Zandt discovered that apartheid was modeled after America’s Indian reservation system and decided to take action, but not before some of the biggest musical stars from Frank Sinatra to Rod Stewart to Elton John and Queen and Black Sabbath, to Dionne Warwick and Tina Turner had played there.

Van Zandt decided to write a song (“Sun City”) about the place but at the behest of my old WBCN-FM compatriot Danny Schechter “your news dissector” (then at ABC News), turned it from an obscure protest song into a worldwide phenomenon with help from everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Miles Davis, Keith Richards, Jackson Browne and U2 (the list stretches on). The artists pledged to not play the resort and Jonathan Demme made a documentary.

Meanwhile Paul Simon quietly went about his decidedly non-political business, traveling to South Africa with engineer Roy Halee to discover the musical scene he’d first heard on Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, Volume II, a cassette a friend had given him in 1984 that sounded remarkably like the 1950’s rock’n’roll he’d grown up on in Queens, New York.

Simon met with the musicians like the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo and guitarist Ray Phiri and his group Stimela and recorded there a great deal of what became the Graceland album with the remainder recorded in New York with some of the same musicians. This despite a United Nations boycott then on against making cultural contact with the toxic regime, even though it was the musicians and not the government that would get hurt in the political crossfire.

While most of us happily consumed the album as a sunny, productive collaboration between a white American musical star and his new South African friends that went on to became a huge worldwide hit, Simon’s tour supporting it was met with picketing protesters and claims of “musical colonialism” by African-American college students and others in the “politically correct” community.

And as Simon later went on to admit, though he treated the musicians as collaborators and not as “hired hands,” and though he was expecting some in-studio difficulties because of cultural differences, it turned out to be more problematic than he’d anticipated, despite the joy laid down on tape.

Time and the end of apartheid have healed most of the political wounds, though Los Lobos still claims Simon stole from them—a charge he vehemently denies.

Apartheid is thankfully gone along with the controversies surrounding the creation of this album, and while the song “Sun City” and the album Van Zandt released containing it have been placed in the musical dustbin (which is not to diminish the quality of the music or its historical and political significance), Graceland sounds as fresh as the day it was first released.

What was in the grooves that could not be denied then has only gotten better with age both musically and in this superb vinyl reissue, sonically as well. Like a great dish that tastes better the second day thanks to the ingredients all blending better together, Simon’s joyous mix of “township jive” American country, Zydeco and Tex-Mex sounds even more remarkably seamless and “worldly” than it did in 1986. And the metaphorical poetry throughout soars.

If there’s an album easily pointed to as one that not only stood the test of time, but sounds fresher than ever, it would be Graceland. Repeated plays do not diminish the listening pleasure thank to the musical content and Roy Halee’s superb engineering. Getting into, and digging out all of the hidden production nooks and crannies requires a great turntable properly set up. I’ve found that as both my set up skills and my equipment improve, there’s always more to pull from the grooves of this great production.

For this 25th anniversary reissue, original recording engineer and vinyl fan Roy Halee, went back to the original analog master tape and worked with original mastering house Sterling Sound and the young George Marino protégé Ryan Smith.

Greg Calbi, who mastered the original LP is still at Sterling but he’s no longer cutting lacquer (or in the case of the original Graceland DMM—direct metal master cut to copper disc). But Calbi did have input and did monitor the work as it progressed.

The original was a decent sounding record that could sound thin at times with a bit of over-thumpy bass, but that’s being pretty hard on what was, for that time, one of the better sounding rock releases.

Calbi visited me a few years ago and I played for him the original Graceland. When it was over he said “It was a better sounding record than I remember it being. In fact, I heard things here on vinyl I hadn’t heard on the original tape!” Don’t let anyone tell you audio systems haven’t improved over the past twenty-five years!

This lacquer cut processed and pressed at RTI on 180 gram vinyl sounds dramatically superior to the original in every way. The overall tonal balance is far superior. The low bass is as powerful as on the original but much better controlled. If the opening drum “thwacks” on “Boy In the Bubble,” don’t sound deep, ultra-tight and tuneful, blame your system, not the record. You are guaranteed to hear heretofore hidden musical details and parts that on the original slipped through the musical cracks.

This reissue has an overall tonal richness and clarity as well as dynamic impact only hinted at on the original. I played the test pressing at the recent New York City audio show and everyone who heard it was wowed.

The album includes a large, well-produced on heavy stock full color poster and a high bit rate MP3 digital download with bonus tracks. There’s also a Collector’s Edition Box Set that you can read about here.

Music Direct Buy It Now

vinyldaze's picture

I picked this up last week and it is really so well pressed, mastered, etc...... a stunning release.

alan james's picture

I am listening as I type and it is a great remastering job.  It was nice to buy new vinyl in a retail store, our local Mall's FYE at $22, which I think is a very fair price.  I going to be listening to this quite a bit. 

alan james's picture

It was nice to get a free digital download of Graceland.  It does have greater clairity, but less full bass, and the mids seem more front and center, but the Graceland track is 49mb's, so it is a better MP3 than most give out for free. 

Very nice album, but I am surprised that there is no commentary of the how the re-issue came about or the process that went into it.  Thanks for Mikey for doing it for them.  

anomaly7's picture

I love the original version of Graceland and often use it as a demo disc for people not familiar with vinyl who've only heard this album on CD.

Listening to FM radio the other day while doing something else I heard a song from this re release. It was punchy. It caught my attention. I knew it was new as I'd never heard the bass so hyped up before, on any system. I emailed the DJ asking what version that was. She replied back that it was Paul Simon. Thanks, I knew that.  A Google search turned up Michael's review. I ordered the album. I listened to the album. I kind of hate the album. To my ears it's a bit like an MP 3.

I brought it to a friends house where 3 people listened. We all heard the enhanced bass, which on some parts of some songs seemed catchy, but at times so saturated it was a bit muddy. We also heard the repression of cymbals and some of the back up vocals from the Ladysmith singers. We all agreed the original is a much more vibrant and balanced recording. I guess that's a hazard of buying a re mastered version of a well recorded album

Oh well, this one is now "in my collection."

---Michael. You are truly an original. I hope they never re-master you. ---

Michael Fremer's picture

I can tell you that Roy Halee, who engineered the album to begin with and Greg Calbi who mastered the original to DMM think this reissue kills the original in every way. And of course I agree. The bass isn't "hyped up", it's what's on the tape!

Michael Fremer's picture
Is right! I find the reissue superior in every way.... so does Roy Halee who engineered it as does Greg Calbi who mastered the version you prefer. But with audio since there are no "standards" as there is in video, results can vary with the listener and his or her system.
anomaly7's picture

I recently heard the Qobuz hi-rez issue of the 25th anniversary, and yeah, dang. It's all there. My vinyl pressing of the 25th, for whatever reason, is missing the highs. But at least I know I can hear the proper bass and the highs by listening to the digital 96/24 release. Although, I would have preferred it if my 25th Anniversary vinyl copy had it all too.

AnalogJ's picture

I finally got myself a copy of this new reissue.  By the way I saw a reissue is this with a sticker for this year's (2013!)  Record Store Day.

Clearly, there is more to hear on this reissue.  Mikey is right that you will hear more of the mix than on the original, There is also more weight and greater dynamics.  However, there is quite a bit of sibilance here.  It sounds fairly bright in my system,  but not unpleasantly so.   if you like this album, it's worth getting the reissue.  The music is actually made to be even more interesting.

ksulliva01's picture

Detailed in another post here, but I had originally meant to respond to you - I'm hearing this as well, its unbearable in "Diamonds." I have a purposefully warm sounding system and the S's are jumping way out (not all tracks, but a few).

archiekaras's picture

QUESTION:...I dont mean to criticize you, but lets criticize you. Is this album full analog, is there a digital lookback, digital mastering??? These are the details I would love to know when reading these reviews. Of course your writing style is great and I enjoy you giving some background but the digital-vinyl-VS-Full Analog Vinyl thing is critical. Please please please can you tell us if this was full analog or not...oh and do that for EVERY RELEASE AS WELL. Thanks, appreciate it, all the best. and Mikey, you are AWESOME!

archiekaras's picture

Hey, Mikey my question is above, you used to answer them. I know what your thinking " I was a nice guy, before I met you people" (Dice clay)....but come on sir, lets hear it.

Michael Fremer's picture
It's difficult to monitor every comment. In any case, I thought what's below made clear that it was mastered from the original analog master tape and was AAA all the way. It was! "For this 25th anniversary reissue, original recording engineer and vinyl fan Roy Halee, went back to the original analog master tape and worked with original mastering house Sterling Sound and the young George Marino protégé Ryan Smith."
archiekaras's picture

That was not clear to me. It is possible that he went "Back to the master tape" then mixed it in the digital domain, bounced it to an anlog tape, then fed it into a press with a digital delay head. You see the scenarios for one "Going back to the tape" can result in multiple conversions to digital. The signal chain can easily get digitized, as you know. Hence the misunderstanding.

Why not monitor every comment, dont you get email updates for your posts? It is your forum Mikey? Oh and it is the 21st centry...21st century where elase have I heard that...21st centry vinyl maybe LOL. Well thanks for clearing that up.

The second part of the question was what about every other sony legacy release ( or just the ones you have reviewed) like the Miles Davis Cuts (think it was sketches of spain)?? Are they also FULL ANALOG through and through or is there some digital in the line path?

Ultimately, just about every label out there even the audiophile reissues labels have not made this clear on their websites, on the sleeves themselves, or anywhere else. It is very frustrating at times to find out if the fresh reissue I just shelled out $30-80 is actually an analog record. I am glad to read your reviews but it should be a mandatory thing to convey. It is a major selling point, as the audience paying that kind of money for records does care.

Michael Fremer's picture
The only way to "monitor" every comment is when I spend way too much time removing spam from the site. Then I can see comments posted by legitimate contributors like you. Otherwise there is no way to monitor comments that can be made to any story old or new….. Some of the Sony/Legacy RSD releases are from high rez digital. However going forward I will be more EXPLICIT when I have information regarding source and how it was cut...
archiekaras's picture

Spammers, yeah, I get it, sucks...Yes please do include that digital/analog thing as field in your analysis it only serves to make your reviews more enriched and useful. Thanks!

PS: Were you not a Comedian at some point? Let me get away with poking fun at your 21st century vinyl release? Well thanks again, for being nice.

Michael Fremer's picture
Yes I did stand-up for a while. I played Max's Kansas City. I opened for Television and The Jam among others…. I enjoyed that. BTW: let the DVD play out after the credits….after it goes to black. Just let it keep playing and you'll see…..
archiekaras's picture

Yes you must have a good sense of humor, after all you have the hot stamper guy in your add space on the top right of your website. LOL.

geoffpiano's picture

and another album sold. :-) Mike, I'm thoroughly enjoying the site and your reviews. As a lot of us highly value your opinions, how about a page containing - say - your fifty or so indispensable reissues? Just a thought....

ksulliva01's picture

This pressing sounds quite good all around - always welcome a little boost to the excellent bass work by Bakithi Kumalo. However there's multiple areas where there's some serious sibilance/high freq. distortion in vocals. "Diamonds" is particularly bad and it seems to vary by verse - anyone else hear this? Over on ye olde Hoffman forums some have mentioned as well, but doesn't seem common. Could be pressing related, it's not a consistent issue in my setup. I may live with it, or try and get another copy, but the "SHHHH" sounds kind of jolt me out of the enjoyment as they seemingly tear my tweeters to shreds.

ec2.2007's picture

This is a first post from a mainly non-social media user, years after this thread had stopped, but I need to break my pattern to say: I wish I had found this site and read this post years ago!! It would have stopped me tearing my hair out in recent years thinking the sibilance on the Graceland album and a couple of others indicated distortion in my system (crossover?, room effects?, etc) and thinking how many thousands of dollars I needed to spend to get rid of it! This is not an analogue comment specifically, but a problem I heard on all sources, including cd and now streaming.
Started my hi-fi journey in the uk in 1969, had countless bits of equipment since (mostly uk) and spent years lusting after kit I couldn’t afford. Probably a common story, eg I had a Thorens 160 but couldn’t afford Linn, etc, etc. although I did manage to afford Spendors after having many other brands. Cruelly, now that I can afford better gear, my ageing ears are becoming the limiting factor but they are not so far gone that I can ignore poor recording.
There’s a longer, and quite funny, story there but suffice to say this thread helps me sit back and enjoy what I do have (a fairly clinical sound that I think my ears now need).
Current kit includes Cambridge Audio CXA81, CXN V2, Dynaudio Excite 32, Kimber Kable interconnects and speaker cable. Thanks to everyone for their previous posts on the sibilance issue, my retirement funds live to fight another day!.