Queens Boys Make Good, a headline might have read of young Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel when “The Sound of Silence,” a bleakly beautiful, acoustic snapshot of disillusionment and isolation, sat atop the Billboard Hot 100 on New Year’s Day 1966. Simon and Garfunkel were unlikely candidates for pop stardom. Neither English major Simon nor fine arts (later architecture) major Garfunkel hid their cerebral, intellectual tendencies. As the era of the singer-songwriter blossomed in the wake of Bob Dylan’s ascendancy, Garfunkel was, vocally speaking, the anti-Dylan. His pristine high tenor would have found him gainfully employed as a singer in any era. Yet these two articulate young men were also relatable. Fusing a street corner doo-wop sensibility with social consciousness, their music existed at the crossroads of folk, rock and pop, a product of beautiful harmony and well-publicized tension. Roughly six years together yielded just five proper studio albums, plus nine competitive Grammy Awards, seven Top 10 hits, and over ten standards not just of the rock era but of American popular song – not a bad track record at all. Simon & Garfunkel: The Complete Albums Collection, a new box set from Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings, brings together those five studio albums, the duo’s chart-topping soundtrack to The Graduate, their first, 14x Platinum-selling Greatest Hits album, and four live recordings to create an overview of these old friends’ remarkable career.
Paul Simon met Art Garfunkel in the halls of Queens, New York’s P.S. 164 in the sixth grade, with both young men cast in a school production of Alice in Wonderland. They soon bonded over a mutual love of music, and by 1956, Simon and Garfunkel were performing locally as “Tom and Jerry,” modeling themselves on the Everly Brothers, with whom they would later collaborate. Though he and Simon briefly split in the early 1960s, they reunited for 1964’s Wednesday Morning 3 AM, the album which opens the new box set. This low-key, acoustic collection of folk songs included originals by the precociously-talented Simon, covers of Bob Dylan, Ian Campbell and Ed McCurdy, and even traditional tunes like “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Despite the already-apparent magic of their vocal blend, Wednesday Morning was lost in the shuffle of the British Invasion. Simon retreated to England and Garfunkel resumed his studies. When Columbia Records and producer Tom Wilson decided to reissue the album’s “The Sound of Silence” with electric overdubs in September 1965, however, Simon and Garfunkel were presented with ample reason to reform: the song was climbing its way to No. 1. Bob Dylan had gone electric on July 25, 1965, plugging in at the Newport Folk Festival and igniting a revolution. Why shouldn’t have Simon and Garfunkel?
Sophomore LP Sounds of Silence was recorded with producer Bob Johnston in December 1965 during that heady time when “Silence” was making waves in the music industry. Simon’s incisive songwriting was becoming sharper by the day as both his musical and lyrical palettes expanded – taking in gently romantic paeans (“Kathy’s Song”), unconventional character studies (“Richard Cory,” “A Most Peculiar Man”) and an anthemic statement of emotional detachment and alienation (“I Am a Rock”). Many of these songs had first appeared Simon’s solo The Paul Simon Songbook, recorded during his time in London and unavailable for decades, but Garfunkel’s participation took them to the next level.
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The stage had been set for the duo’s subsequent triumphs. 1966’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme again returned to Simon’s Songbook material for three tracks; other songs still had their roots in that era. “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” Simon and Garfunkel’s most haunting recording yet, melded the traditional song Simon learned in London from Martin Carthy with a reworking of Simon’s own anti-war song from Songbook, “Side of a Hill.” The melancholy, yearning “Homeward Bound,” composed in London in a bout of homesickness, tapped into a vein of universal truth. Simon and Garfunkel were acerbic on the satirical “The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine,” breezy and wistful on “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” gorgeously yearning on “For Emily Wherever I May Find Her” (with a stunning Garfunkel solo vocal) and exquisitely sad on a requiem for a relationship, “The Dangling Conversation.”
The same themes Simon and Garfunkel were exploring on record were the themes director Mike Nichols sought to illuminate in his film The Graduate, the story of disaffected, young Benjamin Braddock’s quest to avoid a world of “plastics.” The duo’s songs were chosen to represent Benjamin’s inner thoughts in the film, and one new song was introduced in the film: a lament for the loss of idealism by the name of “Mrs. Robinson.” (“Overs” and “Punky’s Dilemma” were also penned for The Graduate, but when Nichols opted not to use them, they were shuttled to the Bookends LP.) The original soundtrack to the motion picture, which juxtaposes the S&G songs with ironic yet delicious lounge music from composer Dave Grusin, was released on Columbia’s Masterworks imprint. It receives its first-ever remastered edition here. (For more on the soundtrack of The Graduate, see our in-depth Friday Feature here.)
1968’s Bookends, the first collaboration by co-producers Simon, Garfunkel and engineer Roy Halee, was every bit as stark as its black-and-white cover. Simon and Garfunkel’s most sobering meditation yet on love, loss, and the inevitability of the passage of time, Bookends traced the life cycle from childhood to old age. It introduced on LP the elegiac, anthemic musing on the American Dream simply called “America” along with the striking “Old Friends,” rocking “Hazy Shade of Winter,” reflective and funky “Fakin’ It,” and whimsical “At the Zoo.” The sonic montage of “Voices of Old People” underlined the themes being explored on Bookends.
Paul Simon holds that he didn’t intend 1970’s Bridge Over Troubled Water as a eulogy for the soon-to-break-up duo, and the songs weren’t written to conform to a theme of farewell. (The fact that they were composed over a long period of time seems to confirm Simon’s recollection.) Still, Simon and Garfunkel’s final studio album to date is filled with achingly beautiful valedictories. “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” finds Simon addressing his partner, a one-time architecture student: “So long, Frank Lloyd Wright/All of the nights we’d harmonize till dawn/I never laughed so long.” In “Song for the Asking,” a Garfunkel favorite, Simon wrote, “Thinking it over, I’ve been sad…Ask me and I will play/All of the love that I hold inside.” The album’s one cover version is, appropriately, the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love.” Not that it’s all plaintive; nobody could claim that of an album including the boisterous “Ceciilia,” rollicking “Keep the Customer Satisifed” and exuberant “Baby Driver.” For a beautifully-crafted album with no filler, however, the title track still towers over the rest, even the indelibly poignant “The Boxer” and Peruvian-influenced “El Condor Pasa.” In “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Paul Simon could fairly claim divine inspiration.
Following the release of Bridge Over Troubled Water and Simon and Garfunkel’s well-publicized break-up, Paul and Art have periodically reunited onstage. Even today, nearly 45 years later, with both men having embarked on distinguished solo careers, it’s rare to find an interview with either in which the “reunion” question isn’t asked, followed by a question about the state of the famously fractious old friends’ relationship. Two of the reunion performances are documented here on The Concert in Central Park (1981) and Old Friends: Live on Stage (2004). Two more live discs capture the team during their original hitmaking period: Live from New York City, 1967 (2002) and Live 1969 (2008). The former features just Simon and Garfunkel, acoustic-style. They’re joined on the latter by Wrecking Crew veteran musicians Joe Osborn on bass, Hal Blaine on drums and Larry Knechtel on keyboards as well as Fred Carter, Jr. on guitar.
Sonically, The Complete Albums Collection offers a number of upgrades to previous CD releases. Most significantly, it reverts to the original mixes of the first three albums; the previous CD box set release of these albums, The Columbia Studio Recordings 1964-1970, utilized new remixes for those LPs. In fact, all five of the studio recordings have been remastered by Vic Anesini for the very first time from the first-generation, original analogue tapes. The resulting sound is both warm and vividly detailed. In addition, The Graduate (as noted above) and The Concert in Central Park are first-time remasters on CD.
However, The Complete Albums Collection is actually less complete in one respect than its 2001 predecessor. The Columbia Studio Recordings added bonus material to each of the five studio albums; all of those bonus tracks are missing here. While preserving the original album sequences is understandable, an additional disc collecting the previously-issued material would have made this set much closer to “complete.” As a result, fans and collectors have to hold onto those 2001 discs. (A deluxe edition of Bridge Over Troubled Water was issued in 2011, but the bonus content there was limited to an exclusive DVD.)
Legacy proves again that it’s the leader when it comes to quality packaging of these one-stop-shopping box sets. The CDs are housed in a sturdy, attractive slipcase which contains all of the albums in mini-LP sleeves with white borders. A 48-page booklet is also included, with a fine introductory essay by Bud Scoppa, numerous photographs, and full credits for each album. All of the original Columbia albums have appropriate label artwork on the discs, as well.
As long as songs are sung, the music of Simon and Garfunkel will cut through the sound of silence. The Complete Albums Collection is an ideal introduction to the music of two artists who remain among America’s most cherished national treasures.