The medium of song has often been used as a conduit for explaining one artist’s feelings about another. This can be full of love, hatred, or somewhere in between. Alternatively, a song can be used as a way of ripping off one’s heroes in an effort to sound the same, following the faint hope of reaching the same level of success.
We’ve even seen artists in the same band write songs about one another, such as The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac and The Libertines, to name but a few. There have also been the likes of Tupac and Biggie taking a deadly gang rivalry into the realm of song, and we’ve also witnessed artists such as Nick Cave really lay into themselves via a track of their own making.
Song is a versatile concept that can really be in the image that the beholder wants it to. The proliferation of joke songs or parodies in the modern era should be the clearest example of this. Remember The Wiggles, anyone? It is in this vein that we get our story today.
One of the most surreal and iconic examples is Simon & Garfunkel’s number, ‘A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)’. Taken from the duo’s third album, 1966’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, it is an odd delight that shows both Simon and Garfunkel to be what we all know they are, somewhat envious, soft-boi types.
It was who the parody song was aimed at that makes it all the more spectacular. The target was no other than ‘The Bard’ himself, Bob Dylan. Simon & Garfunkel’s effort comes from the momentous time when Dylan was starting to truly establish himself as an icon.
During this mid-1960d period, Dylan had already released his most iconic hits such as ‘The Times They Are a-Changin'” and had exhausted his acoustic troubadour guise, thus starting to experiment with electric music. Recorded in June 1965, Simon & Garfunkel were just one of many of Dylan’s contemporaries that were weighing in on his newfound fame and experiments with the electric guitar. Objectively, Simon & Garfunkel were the first to take a swipe at Dylan’s newfound measure of success.
The two expertly added the instrumentation of the day, with the twists of the organ and swirling psychedelic guitar sounds creating a perfect pastiche of the type of folk-rock that Dylan was producing at the time.
Simon, being the perceptive eye that he is, also uses the lyrics to take a forensic look at Dylan’s songwriting style. He seems to mock Dylan’s unique penchant for throwing in obscure lines and his ability to reel off an extensive list of literary and pop culture references.
In a Dylan-esque vocal delivery, he drones: “Not the same as you and me, he doesn’t dig poetry / He’s so unhip, when you say Dylan / He thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas, whoever he was.”
Although at first inspection, this might seem to be quite a thinly veiled dig at Bob Dylan, Simon has always maintained that it was actually written as a satirical exploration of his artistry rather than a full-on dig at a man whom he has frequently hailed as an inspiration. He told Rolling Stone: “One of my deficiencies is my voice sounds sincere. I’ve tried to sound ironic. I don’t. I can’t. With Dylan, everything he sings has two meanings. He’s telling you the truth and making fun at the same time.”
There we go. Of course, there has been ample vitriol shared between both Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel over the years, but it’s hard to imagine the pair formerly known as Tom and Jerry getting in a spat with anyone apart from themselves. Simon has always come across as a gentle, self-effacing character, and it’s highly unlikely that his words were intended to be anything but ironic.
This story is another clear reflection of just how massive Bob Dylan‘s influence has been. To count a pair of musical icons such as Simon & Garfunkel amongst your disciples is genuinely a mean feat.
Listen to ‘A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)’ below.