Wednesday, June 10, 2015
TMFW 92 - Simon and Garfunkel, Reunited by a Remix
Simon and Garfunkel were one of the biggest acts of the 1960s. Their last record of that decade (released in January 1970, so close enough) - Bridge Over Troubled Water - was the highest selling record of 1970. It was on the US charts for 85 weeks and the UK charts for 285 (!!!) weeks. It reached #1 in 11 countries, and included as singles "The Boxer," "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and "Cecilia." It sold 8 million copies in the US, and was briefly the best-selling album of all time. It's still in the top 50 all time.
More broadly, each of Simon & Garfunkel's 5 studio records are certified platinum, and 4 of the 5 are multi-platinum. "Mrs. Robinson" was the first rock song to win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year. Their 1981 concert in Central Park was for a crowd of 500,000 people, which was then the biggest of all time. They are members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Paul Simon is in there as a solo artist too. They've had an impressive career, to say the least.
But it almost didn't happen.
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were old friends, since they were in grammar school together in Queens, New York. They started playing together as "Tom & Jerry," and at the age of 15 they had a national hit with "Hey Schoolgirl." Supported by a $200 payola payment to legendary DJ Alan "Moondog" Freed, the record sold 100,000 copies and got them a trip on American Bandstand. Pretty good for a couple of teenagers. But subsequent Tom & Jerry records failed to make any impact, and after high school the two went their separate ways.
After Simon graduated college (Garfunkel was a senior at Columbia), the two reunited and were signed by Columbia Records. They recorded their first record, called Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., over the course of only 3 days in March 1964, and released it in October, 1964.
One would think that their timing was excellent - TMFW 48 subjects Peter, Paul, & Mary had huge success in 1963 with "Puff, The Magic Dragon" and TMFW 65 subject Bob Dylan had just a year earlier released The Freewheeling Bob Dylan. Folk seemed like the Next Big Thing. But then in February 1964, the next Next Big Thing landed in New York City, by way of Liverpool. The Beatles took over popular music, and ushered in the "British Invasion." By the end of that year, The Beatles accounted for 18 weeks at #1 on the charts, and fellow British groups Peter & Gordon, Manfred Mann, and the Animals rode the wave for 6 more.
Against that backdrop, when Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. came out it landed with a thud. The record sold only 3,000 copies at initial release, and the duo's first single was mocked by their peers. The legendary folk singer Dave Van Ronk recalled in his memoir: "'Sounds of Silence' actually became a running joke: for a while there, it was only necessary to start singing 'Hello darkness, my old friend...' and everybody would crack up."
After failing so prominently, Simon & Garfunkel seemed to accept that success as a duo wasn't in their future, and they broke up (again). Simon moved to England to pursue a solo career, and Garfunkel went back to Columbia to pursue a graduate degree in math.
And it almost certainly would have ended there if it weren't for a producer at Columbia Records named Tom Wilson. Wilson had big success in 1965 as the producer of Bob Dylan's song "Like a Rolling Stone," which, with rock instrumentation behind it, was an early "folk rock" hit. In the summer of 1965, he was looking for the next one. Wilson heard from a DJ friend in Boston that Simon & Garfunkel's song "The Sounds of Silence" (they changed the name to the singular later) had started to draw some modest airplay. Wilson had produced the original version of the song, which was sparse and quiet with just an acoustic guitar and vocals, and he heard commercial potential. So he took the record and, totally unbeknownst to Paul Simon or Art Garfunkel, brought in several of the musicians that had worked on "Like a Rolling Stone." On June 15, 1965 - 50 years ago next week - they added rock instrumentation and turned the song from a quiet lament to a folk rock anthem. Then, still without the involvement of Simon or Garfunkel, Columbia released the dressed-up song as a single and sent it to radio stations around the country.
Paul Simon first learned about the release when he picked up a copy of Billboard magazine in England and saw his song - the song from the album that had flopped so hard that it broke up the band - at number 86. He got a copy of the record in the mail a few days later, and was allegedly "horrified" by what Wilson had done to it. But less than four months after the re-release, "The Sounds of Silence" reached #1 and sold enough copies to merit a gold record.
With a sudden hit song, Simon returned from England and re-teamed with Garfunkel (again) to capitalize. The duo quickly recorded a second album - scrounged for time, to fill the record they re-recorded five songs that Simon had released as a solo artist in England just 7 months earlier. The second record was titled Sounds of Silence. It was a hit, and Simon & Garfunkel were on their way to a Hall of Fame career.
So there's your TMFW for today: Simon & Garfunkel's first record flopped so hard that it broke up the band. And their career was saved by a producer who fundamentally altered their song and released it without their knowledge or permission.
BONUS FACT 1: Paul Simon insisted that, for Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., the group would use their real names. It was the first time they had done so. Up to that point, they'd performed variously as (1) Tom & Jerry (Garfunkel was Tom Graph and Simon was Jerry Landis), (2) True Taylor (Simon, as a solo release during the Tom & Jerry days, which supremely pissed off Art Garfunkel), (3) Artie Garr (Garfunkel, after Tom & Jerry broke up), (4) Paul Kane (Simon, after Tom & Jerry broke up), and (5) Kane & Garr (when they first got back together and leading up to their Columbia deal).
BONUS FACT 2: "The Boxer" features ferocious and now iconic snare drum strikes in its refrain. To get the desired sound, the session drummer Hal Blaine set up his kit right next to an open elevator shaft at Columbia's studio. When it came time for his part, he bashed the drum as hard as he could. He recalled: "in that hallway, right next to this open elevator shaft, it sounded like a cannon shot! Which was just the kind of sound we were after."
BONUS FACT 3: Though they were friends since the age of 12, Simon and Garfunkel frequently and famously fought over the course of their careers. One notable instance of tension was Simon & Garfunkel's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1990. At that time, the two had not been on good terms since at least 1986. After being introduced by James Taylor, the duo took the stage for a speech. Garfunkel lead off, and as his closing remark he took the high road, thanking Simon for their partnership and saying "and I want to thank most of all the person who's most enriched my life by putting these great songs through me...my friend Paul, here." He then embraced Simon and turned over the mic. Simon seized the opportunity and started his speech by noting "well, Arthur and I agree about almost nothing, but...it's true I have enriched his life quite a bit, now that I think about it." He went on awkwardly from there (you can watch the whole thing at the link right above), with Paul alternately reminiscing warmly and taking little shots at his partner. He ended his speech by saying "So, uh, how could I be happier than to be inducted into the Hall of Fame with my oldest pal, and we can join those other happy couples Ike & Tina Turner, the Everly Brothers, Mick & Keith, Paul and...all of the other Beatles, and uh, maybe they'll have a separate wing for all of us, you know? [It will] probably be completed in time for the Eagles to be in. Thank you very much." Pretty crummy, Paul Simon.
BONUS FACT 4: For good measure, here's The Lemonheads' cover of "Mrs. Robinson," which was recorded for the 25th anniversary of The Graduate and was tacked on to later releases of The Lemonheads' magnum opus It's a Shame About Ray. I loved it as a younger man, and I love it still.