When Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel took the stage on April 24, 2010 at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, it's doubtful that many in the audience knew they were witnessing the end of one chapter in the story of Simon & Garfunkel. That concert marked the final time that the famous duo have performed together to date, but over five years later, the specter of Simon & Garfunkel still looms large over both men. It's no surprise; the question of a reunion cropped up almost immediately after their initial split in 1971, and indeed, the first of many such events came the very next year. If one wonders why Simon and Garfunkel are so inextricably connected, the answer can be found in the striking new vinyl box set, The Complete Columbia Albums Collection, from Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings, as well as its companion release of 1981's The Concert in Central Park. This set presents the music of Simon & Garfunkel as originally released and heard on those big, round, black platters. But pressed on heavyweight 180-gram vinyl, with remastered sound from the original analog master tapes, these remarkable records just might sound even better than they did the first time around.
Unlike last year's CD release of The Complete Albums Collection, this new vinyl box presents the S&G discography in succinct, powerful form. Whereas the 12-CD box included four live albums and the soundtrack to the film The Graduate, this collection has just the core discography on which a lasting legacy was built - a mere five LPs plus the 14x-platinum Greatest Hits album which featured some unique performances.
Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., originally issued in fall 1964, heralded the duo's introduction. Though the Queens, New York schoolmates had recorded together and apart in the years prior, their major label debut found their Everly Brothers-inspired vocal blend having coalesced into a spine-tingling sound of their own. A collection of acoustic folk songs produced by Tom Wilson, Wednesday Morning included originals by the precociously-talented Simon, covers of Bob Dylan, Ian Campbell and Ed McCurdy, and even traditional tunes like the holiday perennial "Go Tell It on the Mountain." But at the height of the British Invasion, its low-key style failed to grab much attention. Simon retreated to England, composing notebook in hand, 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 & Garfunkel were presented with ample reason to reform: the song was climbing its way straight to No. 1. No less a personage than Dylan had gone electric on July 25, 1965, plugging in at the Newport Folk Festival and igniting a revolution. Why shouldn't Simon & Garfunkel have followed suit?
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, beautiful yet edgy 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 debut solo LP The Paul Simon Songbook, recorded in raw, simple fashion during his time in London (and subsequently unavailable for decades) but Garfunkel's participation and the duo's enhanced arrangements took them to the next level.
The stage had been set for the duo's subsequent triumphs. 1966's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (again a collaboration with Bob Johnston) returned to Simon's Songbook material for three tracks; other songs still had their roots in that creatively fertile period. "Scarborough Fair/Canticle," arguably Simon & Garfunkel's most haunting recording, melded the traditional melody 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 & 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 Paul and Art were exploring on record were the themes director Mike Nichols sought to illuminate in his Academy Award-winning 1967 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." You can hear the hit single here as the opening track of Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits.
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 album's themes in a visceral manner. "Overs" and "Punky's Dilemma" were also penned for The Graduate, but when Mike Nichols opted not to use them, they were shuttled to 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 & 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 "Cecilia," rollicking "Keep the Customer Satisfied" 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 lovely, Peruvian-influenced "El Condor Pasa." In "Bridge Over Troubled Water," Paul Simon could fairly claim divine inspiration, channeled through the voice of Garfunkel in his pristine lead vocal. If Simon & Garfunkel had to pursue separate paths, there could have been no finer conclusion to their story than Bridge Over Troubled Water which not coincidentally became their best-selling studio album and a multiple Grammy winner.
Of course, Bridge wasn't really a conclusion, though it will likely remain Simon & Garfunkel's studio swansong. Even as both men's solo recording careers flourished, the remaining years of the 1970s were dotted with various reunions on record (Top 10 hit "My Little Town," included on solo albums from both artists; guest vocals on James Taylor's revival of "Wonderful World"), television (Saturday Night Live, The Paul Simon Special) and the concert stage (a benefit at Carnegie Hall). So if the concert held at Central Park's Great Lawn on September 19, 1981 might have seemed inevitable, it was no less of a capital-E Event for it.
Featuring Simon & Garfunkel classics as well as a number of Paul Simon solo songs reinterpreted with the duo's golden harmonies, The Concert in Central Park is still a singularly enjoyable item in their catalogue. (Garfunkel only got one of his solo recordings in the set list - Gallagher and Lyle's "A Heart in New York.") Though it's not included in the box, Concert has been released as a stand-alone 2-LP set by Legacy. It, too, is pressed on 180-gram vinyl and has been remastered (like the CD in the new CD/DVD package also available) by Vic Anesini at Sony's Battery Studios. The LPs are housed in a replica gatefold sleeve; the album's original 12-page booklet (with lyrics and photographs) is also reprinted. The CD/DVD edition - which includes the original Fox Video DVD of the concert - also has Anesini's exemplary remastering on the CD but adds new liner notes by Arthur Levy in addition to the lyrics and photos.
The Complete Columbia Albums Collection presents its albums in high-quality, attractive style within its strong, sturdy slipcase. Each of the albums (all in stereo) replicate the original releases including the red period Columbia labels; the actual LPs are all in protective clear sleeves. The main attraction, naturally, is the sound. Originally remastered by Vic Anesini from the original analog tapes and mastered for vinyl by Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound, the audio on all titles is crisp, vivid, detailed and with the warmth that vinyl naturally brings. A 20-page LP-sized booklet has Bud Scoppa's sleevenotes as adapted from the notes of last year's CD box set, plus numerous additional photographs (many in vibrant color) and credits for each album.
Whatever the future collectively holds for Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, there's no doubt that the five albums and one enduring greatest hits compilation in The Complete Columbia Albums Collection will continue to inspire and entertain. Deserving of a spot on the shelf of a longtime fan reliving the vinyl experience or a young collector seeking out this seminal music in its original format, this set should keep the customer satisfied.
The Concert in Central Park is available in the following formats: