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Music

How the album that Joe Strummer said took music to a “new dimension” changed songwriting forever

@TomTaylorFO

Culture comes in cycles. Joe Strummer and his punk cohorts gave life to vital youthful music once more and The Clash brought a healthy dose of cognizance to the chaos too. As Patti Smith once said, “I was young, but I felt our cultural voice was in jeopardy and needed an infusion of new people and ideas. I didn’t feel like I was the one. I didn’t consider myself a musician in any way, but I was a poet and performer, and I did feel that I understood where we were at, what we’d been given and where we should go, and if I could voice it, perhaps it could inspire the next generation.”

However, this wasn’t the first time. In their own way, the gingham clad denizens of the Greenwich Village folk scene had done much the same some 15 years earlier when Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Joan Baez and co, tackled emerging pop culture away from commercialism and filled it with a sense of timelessness and societal wherewithal. They might have had a message that seemed old beyond their years, but they were filled with the passion of youth, nevertheless.

This is why Joe Strummer once told the Los Angeles Times in 1988, “I don’t like the idea that people who aren’t adolescents make records. Adolescents make the best records. Except for Paul Simon. Except for Graceland. He’s hit a new plateau there, but he’s writing to his own age group. Graceland is something new.”

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Continuing to eulogise Simon’s so-called South African record, which was released two years earlier, Strummer said: “That song to his son is just as good as ‘Blue Suede Shoes’: ‘Before you were born dude when life was great.’ That’s just as good as ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ and that is a new dimension.”

It is worth noting that by this point punk in its original form was dead and buried and Strummer was 36 himself when he was making these comments. His own revolution was over – it had, in many ways, won – but much like Simon, his creative output didn’t have to wane along with it. Thus, Strummer vowed to mix up his songwriting as did many other artists around that time. 

By no means was Simon the first artist to tackle more mature forms and new melodic sensibilities with Graceland, but the success of the record in every sense made it very notable. Adolescents are often innovative in their music because they are reckless with their progressiveness, but this is not a look that sits well on older shoulders. Simon, however, proved you can pen odes of great maturity and move forward with innovation all the same. 

As Simon said of making the record, “My typical style of songwriting in the past has been to sit with a guitar and write a song, finish it, go into the studio, book the musicians, lay out the song and the chords, and then try to make a track. With these musicians, I was doing it the other way around. The tracks preceded the songs. We worked improvisationally. While a group was playing in the studio, I would sing melodies and words—anything that fit the scale they were playing in.” 

Thus, it came to pass that during the sessions, Simon would transpose old folk toplines on classic African contours and rhythms. This might sound jazzy, but in actual fact, the recording process was quite similar to some sort of primitive live version of sampling. Sonically this innovation gave the album a similar musicological freshness that punk offered, but the lyrics of fatherhood and the rejuvenation of rekindling relationships was a timeless twist on top that proved to Strummer and hundreds of others that you can be thematically mature without becoming stilted in your sound. 

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