Simon And Garfunkel may have produced five studio albums, four live albums and one soundtrack, but all have played second fiddle to the astonishing success of their Greatest Hits collection. Released in 1972, it sold fourteen million copies, sealing Simon And Garfunkel’s status as the ultimate singles band. The re-release of their full catalogue, remastered as a box set (including Greatest Hits) is a good chance for a spot of re-evaluation. Have the ultimate odd couple been unjustly remembered for just fourteen classic songs?
Simon And Garfunkel exist to a great extent in their own musical and cultural space. Their songs, from ‘Scarborough Fair’ to ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, are so well known and universally popular as to have blended with the cultural narrative of their time. It is very difficult to hear ‘Mrs. Robinson’ or ‘I Am A Rock’ or ‘59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)’ afresh, and almost impossible to separate them from personal associations and context. Simon And Garfunkel’s collaboration was a mere six years long, beginning with Wednesday Morning 3AM (1964) and ending with Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970) – although sadly there is no room here for evidence of their previous existence as Tom And Jerry. However, while bands such as The Beatles squeezed an epic journey of psychedelic self-discovery and meltdown into the second half of the ‘60s, Simon And Garfunkel did no such thing. They emerged at the other end of their career sounding pretty much the same as they always had, with the addition of a discrete band and a piano ballad or two.
The S&G formula is in place from the first track (‘You Can Tell the World’ – a gospel cover with harmonies-and-acoustic-guitar makeover) to the last (‘Song For The Asking’ – harmonies and guitar, less cheerful). For Paul and Art there was to be no discovery of mind-expanding new sounds, no free-form 10-minute wig-outs, and no proto-heavy metal. Instead, each album consistently delivered three or more classics built on their trademark sound. The results were often exceptionally effective, and their songbook features both undeniable, era-defining music such ‘Sound Of Silence’ and distinctive, deceptive songs about a changing America such as… well ‘America’.
There is a shift in repertoire from the early days. Wednesday Morning 3AM includes five covers and a traditional song, and there is an emphasis on the explicit protest song. It features three of the best tracks missing from Greatest Hits: ‘He Was My Brother’, an impressive civil rights song written by Simon; ‘Bleecker Street’, one of his effortlessly atmospheric New York songs with weird echoes of John Cooper Clarke’s ‘Beasley Street’; and ‘Sparrow’, a neo-folk earth song. Classics aside, Sounds Of Silence features an unsuccessful shift into ‘Eleanor Rigby’-esque social realism, with ‘Richard Cory’ and ‘A Most Peculiar Man’, and an odd mash-up of ‘Wednesday Morning 3AM’ and Davy Graham’s finger-picking standard, ‘Anji’.
The third and fourth records are the weakest. Parsley, Sage, Rosemary And Thyme contains ‘Scarborough Fair’, perhaps their most overrated track, which strips the pagan eeriness and the imperfections from Martin Carthy’s version and serves it up as comfort listening. Other songs include ‘The Dangling Conversation’, which Art Garfunkel thought was pretentious. He was right. Lines such as “We sit and drink our coffee / Couched in our indifference” have not stood the test of time. Follow-up, Bookends, contains its quota of classics: ‘America’, ‘A Hazy Shade of Winter’, ‘Old Friends’. However, there are also the intolerably quirky ‘Punky’s Dilemma’, the equally annoying ‘At The Zoo’, and ‘Voices Of Old People’, which is literally just that.
Final studio album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, is the one everyone’s parents owned, but it is an uneven experience. ‘The Boxer’ is irresistible, with its combination of rumbling brass, epic drums and absurd self-dramatisation (‘the boxer’… he’s Paul Simon!). ‘The Only Living Boy In New York’ is another surprising omission from Greatest Hits, although perhaps it sounded too much like Simon solo material. ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ itself is impossibly familiar. Other tracks include not one but two ill-advised comedy blues songs (‘Baby Driver’ and ‘Keep The Customer Satisfied’), and the ludicrous ‘So Long Frank Lloyd Wright’, apparently S&G’s break-up song.
Of the remaining albums in this box-set, The Graduate soundtrack is only notable for ‘Mrs Robinson’. The four live albums that make up the remainder of the S&G discography cover their career from Live 1969 to 2004’s reunion album, Old Friends In Concert. They are generally of interest to enthusiasts, with songs sounding at their best in the studio. The Concert In Central Park (1982) is an intriguing artefact, with Paul Simon audibly taken aback by the size of the half-million strong audience. Musically, S&G were not happy with their performances, but the recording includes the duo playing on a number of Simon solo tracks, including ‘Me And Julio Down In The Schoolyard’. Live from New York 1967 is the live album that exudes the most energy, and contains the non-album civil rights track “A Church Is Burning”.
By spreading their best songs evenly through their output, Paul and Art made their Greatest Hits an essential purchase. Their catalogue reveals a truer picture of the Simon And Garfunkel phenomenon, ups and downs, hits and misses. Perhaps listening to the albums is the only real way to escape the Greatest Hits stranglehold and see the pair as they really were, warts and all.