Tag Archives: CBS

Kathy’s Song (Songbook version) – Paul Simon

Managed to score tickets for Paul Simon’s farewell gig in Hyde Park this summer. To celebrate, here’s a look at one of his most beloved early songs. If you enjoy this post, you might like this old one too:

Paul Simon’s first solo record was not his self-titled album from 1971, made in the wake of his split from Art Garfunkel (and one of my favourite records ever). The first album to be released by Paul Simon as a solo artist was 1965’s The Paul Simon Songbook, recorded in London, released in the UK only, and deleted from catalogue at his own request in 1969, at which point he and Garfunkel were among the biggest stars in the world of music, following the back-to-back triumphs of the Graduate soundtrack and Bookends.

In 1964 and 1965, Simon made several trips to the UK on his own, to tour provincial theatres and folk clubs. While he and Garfunkel had already released two albums by January 1965, they weren’t available in the UK. Sounds of Silence would not be released in the UK until 1968, and was available on import only when Simon came over on his solo tours. So the UK arm of Columbia Records (named, confusingly, CBS – confusing because CBS stands for Columbia Broadcasting System, the parent company of the American Columbia Records label of which CBS was the UK offshoot) decided to capitalise on Simon’s growing popularity by having him bash out a quickie album in a cheap studio for UK release only.

Simon cut 12 songs for the record in an upstairs studio on New Bond Street. Compared to his lavish albums with Garfunkel, which were meticulously recorded and produced by the pair’s genius engineer and guiding hand Roy Halee, The Paul Simon Songbook was a low-key, lo-fi affair. Songs were recorded in just a couple of takes each with one microphone, with Simon playing and singing live and minor flubs left in. This is how countless albums by the UK folk scene’s big names were recorded (live to tape, usually in an afternoon), but it’s fascinating to hear immortal Simon songs like I Am a Rock, The Sound of Silence and Kathy’s Song in this more intimate, less controlled setting, the balance favouring his voice over his guitar playing. And of course it’s fascinating in an alternate-history kind of way, too – this is what his records might have sounded like throughout his whole career if he’d stayed at the level of a Davy Graham, Bert Jansch or Jackson C Frank, beloved only by a cult audience and subsisting on the proceeds of small gigs more than from the sales of albums.

Kathy’s Song is one of Simon’s finest early compositions, one of his most deeply felt and most mournful. Simon met Kathy Chitty and the Railway Inn folk club in Brentwood, Essex, in 1964 and was smitten. They began a relationship and are pictured together on the cover of The Paul Simon Songbook, sitting cross-legged on a wet cobbled street, playing with puppets. If that sounds a bit precious and twee, well, Simon was a bit precious and twee in those days. The main fault of early S&G was the duo’s relentless ra-ra earnestness, which clashed with and undercut their wish to be seen as intelligent and bohemian. Yet Simon’s affection for Chitty was real enough; she reappears in one of his greatest songs, America, and he was hit hard when she ended their relationship. While travelling around on tour with him in the US, she realised how big he and Garfunkel were becoming off the back of The Sound of Silence and she wanted nothing to do with that life.

So she returned to England and now lives in a village in Wales. Simon re-recorded Kathy’s Song for the S&G album Sounds of Silence and went on to become one of the best-selling artists of all time. The first version of Kathy’s Song captures him at a moment before he chose the life of a star over the life of a folk singer whose heart lay not just in England, but in my own county of Essex.

The Paul Simon Songbook was recorded at Levy’s Sound Studios. If the history of recording technology interests you, or of the British music industry generally, read this article by a former mastering engineer at the studio.

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Water Colors – Janis Ian

Janis Ian achieved national prominence at an incredibly early age. At the age of 13, she wrote Society’s Child, a song about a romance between a white girl and a black boy (and more specifically about the hypocrisy of teachers and parents who put a stop to it without ever quite coming out and saying why, and the narrator’s failed attempt to defy their wishes). Released several times between 1965 and 1967, the song was eventually a substantial hit, despite resistance from radio programmers in many markets. A lot of this had to do with Leonard Bernstein and his producer, who, impressed with the song, featured it in his CBS special, Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution (the same show that also featured an early version of Brian Wilson’s Surf’s Up).

Society’s Child is an honourable song, impressively written for someone so young, but it pales when set beside the best of her work from the mid-1970s, by which point she was a different songwriter entirely. Between the Lines (1975, 1.9m sold in the US, Billboard #1) was the high point, containing both At Seventeen and the astonishing Water Colors.

As enduringly poignant as At Seventeen is, Water Colors cuts deeper still. Rich with detail, heavy with sadness and regret, and possessed of a centre of completely still self-confidence, this is the work of a singer and songwriter at the top of her game. The arrangement is, likewise, considered and perfectly executed (I like the subtle nods to Bookends-era Simon & Garfunkel: the descending sequence into the first verse echoes the chord sequence to America, the string arrangement in the second verse seems to quote Old Friends and the bridge, with its shift to Cmaj7 (the song is in D) again recalls America.

But while its musically enthralling (with a magnificent performance from double bassist Richard Davis, who played with such diverse jazz players as Charles Mingus, Cal Tjader and Elvin Jones), what’s most striking for me is Ian’s willingness to portray herself as behaving poorly in one of her own songs, but not with any irony towards or distance from her from her creation. Or, if one reads the song as not autobiographical, to do so knowing that’s how it would probably be heard.

In the song, Ian’s lover, aware of his own jealousy and finding it hard to be apart from his famous girlfriend while she tours, tries to end things between them. His words go beyond regretful into reproachful (his allusion to “stagehand lovers” suggests that she’s already strayed, but that may be his own paranoia). Despite his passive agression, the character is not drawn unsympathetically. The narrator, though, escalates things with a melodramatic outburst (“I said, ‘Do you wish me dead’?”) and a mean-spirited questioning of his masculinity, in which he is accused of riding her coattails. However one interprets the events, it’s fair to say that neither is guiltless and it’s a braver portrait of the artist than just about any other songwriter has ever managed, with characters so acutely drawn that I feel like I know these people from one 5-minute song.

Between the Lines, in fairness, doesn’t contain anything else as good as Water Colors, but this is the kind of song that a writer can spend a whole career trying to match without success. It is no crime to achieve perfection only once.

Janis
Janis Ian

*It’s a measure of the lyric’s quality that a different reading is very possible, in which the narrator’s anger is justified by her lover’s passive aggression. Certainly it’s fair to say that neither is guiltless in the episode the song relates.

The author’s new EP, for streaming or pay-what-you-want download:

Still Crazy After All these Years – Paul Simon

It probably says a lot about me that I think this, but one of the greatest pleasures in being a music fan is having the opportunity to help a fellow fan find their way into a favourite artist’s body of work. Especially a long-standing favourite. It helps you hear their songs with fresh ears.

There’s no longer-standing favourite for me than Paul Simon. I’ve been listening to the man since I was about five years old. My parents had Greatest Hits Etc. on cassette and it accompanied virtually every long car journey we made. Why jazz harmony and songs about life as a divorced man in New York City should connect so strongly with a five-year-old British child is maybe a matter best left to a psychologist, but for whatever reason, Paul Simon became – and remains – my guy.

Mel asked me to put together a CD of Simon tunes she’d listened to on YouTube after I’d put Something So Right on a mix for her. This I did, but wanting to fill in the blanks and use up the remainder of the CD sent me scurrying back to my Simon albums, to hear these old songs as I imagined she might. I am, of course, knocked out by these songs all over again.

It’s the high points of Simon’s mid-seventies output that still hit me hardest: Something So Right, American Tune, Still Crazy After All these Years, I Do It For Your Love, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, Slip Slidin’ Away. They’re spread over several albums, rather than concentrated into one record. If you’re not a Simon obsessive, the records to get are his solo debut album (Paul Simon, written about here), Graceland and a good compilation to fill in the gaps (Greatest Hits Etc. was the best but is out of print – the double-CD Paul Simon Anthology will do in its stead). Simon rewards a conscientious compiler.

The question is, why? Was this stuff too complicated to be able to bash out 10 similar tracks for one LP in any abbreviated time frame? Did it take too long to write a Still Crazy After All these Years or an American Tune? Did he feel that to make a palatable album, he had to lighten things up with some faux gospel (Loves Me Like a Rock is terrific, by the way; Gone at Last is significantly less so). It’s hard to tell. But it’s interesting to me that, when I listen to the Still Crazy album, the gap between the peaks and troughs is fairly huge: Night Game comes off bathetic; Have a Good Time, which is elevated in the context of Greatest Hits Etc., sinks on the second side of Still Crazy

As dark, as idiosyncratic, as spotty, as Still Crazy After All These Years Was, it connected hard: it reached number one on the US Billboard Album Charts, it won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1976, it went gold. But long term, it hasn’t been embraced as its more outward-looking peers in Simon’s discography have. It never went platinum in the US. That staggers me. Perhaps listeners realised that the best songs off the record were on the radio plenty and they didn’t need the album. Perhaps that CBS compilation did away with the need to have whole albums, despite not including My Little Town, the much-ballyhooed reunion with Art Garfunkel (better than it could have been, but more than a little out of place, sandwiched between Still Crazy and I Do It For Your Love – the muscularity of the drummer’s performance comes off rather startling).

I can’t help but feel Simon’s jazzy 1970s output will in time come to matter less and less in the reputation he has among younger fans; his career will likely be reduced to Bookends/Bridge Over Troubled Water and Graceland. Those sounds and arrangements are more copyable and are more copied by younger artists, allowing new fans a gateway to the original. And plenty of people my age and younger grew up with Graceland as their car-journey record. It’s a phenomenal album, as are Bookends and Troubled Water – don’t get me wrong for a second – but they have never left me gasping the way I Do it For Your Love or Slip Slidin’ Away do.

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Paul Simon, mid-seventies
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