in The People's Album

FYI, this will probably be a pretty half-assed installment of The People’s Albums because 1) I just wanted to get this one out of the way before the all-out post-a-thon that will hopefully be this year’s Shocktober commences, and 2) this album seems pretty uninteresting/inessential considering it’s filled with a bunch of songs we’ve all heard a million times, while also 3) it feels even more uninteresting/inessential when taking into account that most of Simon & Garfunkel’s proper albums are worth listening to instead of some greatest hits comp.  In fact, the most interesting thing about this album is probably it’s cover photo, which apparently was taken during Simon & Garfunkel’s short-lived proto-Gallagher & college mime professor phase.

Album: Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits
Artist: Simon & Garfunkel
Release Date: June 14, 1972
Copies Sold In The U.S.: 14 million

Why Was This Popular?

Because America Loves Remembering The ’60s Fondly

Or at least, America did during the time that people where buying physical albums.  Because as you’re probably aware, every decade that followed in the wake of the 1960’s was in some way affected by the overt cultural and social revolutions that happened during this country in the ’60s.  So because of that, we’ve often had much reason to look back at this pivotal decade through the always reliable lens of nostalgia.  In fact, it’s only now that I’m starting to feel like we’ve become far removed enough from the decade — as boomers are now getting too old to have much cultural sway — that the influences of the ‘60s have become more and more muted as more and more people that actually lived through this decade make their way off of this mortal coil.

But before we get too mired in this depressing train of thought, how about I remind you that Simon & Garfunkel’s music remained such a popular slice of the ‘60s because it offered a pleasant and breezy snapshot of the decade.  I can’t really speak with much authority on this subject, since even my parents were a little too young to be considered part of the boomer generation, so the myth of the ‘60s has always been this distant, intangible thing to me.  But I have to assume that the popularity of Simon & Garfunkel endured throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s because unlike a lot of the more important art of the ‘60s, their music was easily digestible and you could hum along to it while doing household chores while your kids were out of the house.  So what better way of experiencing this than by putting on a copy of Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits and letting Paul and Art’s soothing harmonies take you back to a somewhat rosier vision of the decade that changed America?

Did It Deserve To Be Popular?

Even though Simon & Garfunkel do seem like such a quintessentially ‘60s group (it helps that their final album came out in 1970 and their music serves as the soundtrack to one of the quintessential ‘60s films, The Graduate), when I first discovered them, they didn’t strike me as a group that necessarily made sense in the grand scheme of that era.  I remember first having this thought as a teenager, when I was reading through The Beatles Anthology (the book that was released around the same time as the CDs and documentary of the same name).  And there was a part where Paul McCartney mentions that at one point The Beatles were recording in a studio that Simon & Garfunkel had just used, and I thought, “Huh, that’s weird.  To think that The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel were going on at the same time”.  I’m not sure why exactly I had this thought, and it’s been less easy to understand since I’ve become even more aware of Simon & Garfunkel’s discography as well as ‘60s music in general. 

However I think it does help point out that when you think about it, Simon & Garfunkel were fairly out of step with a lot of the music that was going on around the same time as them.  Because sure, the emergence of folk music and then folk-rock after that was a big part of the early to mid-‘60s, and Simon & Garfunkel were pretty darn folk-y.  But at the same time, it seems like they started to emerge just as these other folk-based artists were fading away, while their songs were a lot more paired down than any of the LA bands that were labeled as folk-rock, and a lot more poppy than most of the prominent folk singer/songwriters of the era.  Which perhaps explains why the duo had so many half-realized stabs at a music career before stumbling into the success of the “The Sound Of Silence”, as they were kind of a hard act to market, due to their inability to sound like anyone other themselves, which also happens to be what made their songs so great.

I know one criticism that’s been lobbed at Simon & Garfunkel (including by Paul Simon himself) is that some of their studio recordings were mishandled a bit production-wise.  However, I think that trilogy of albums that make up the heart of S&G’s discography (Parsely, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme, Bookends, and Bridge Over Troubled Water) have a pretty perfect balance of sonic sparseness and just enough backing by studio musicians to have been radio-friendly at the time, but not feel like they were pandering to what then constituted as pop music.  Which is a big reason why even though Simon & Garfunkel do feel like one of the more iconic American ‘60s pop artists, their songs nonetheless have the ability to feel kind of timeless and contemporary, and therefore to comfortably exist both within and outside of the decade in which they were birthed.

And because Simon & Garfunkel are such a timeless group, who have at least a few albums every serious music fan should check out at some point, I was pretty much ready to dismiss this 1972 greatest hits compilation outright.  After all, it does reek of being a product that Columbia Records released at the time to cash in on S&G’s then-recent breakup, and possibly the then-recent death of the ‘60s (though this would be more of a slow burn, as the album wasn’t a huge seller upon release, but sold steadily as the years went on and ‘60s nostalgia intensified).  However, I have to give whoever compiled this album some credit for including live versions of four of the album’s lesser known hits (“For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her”, “The 59th Street Bridge Song”, “Homeward Bound”, and “Kathy’s Song”).  These songs not only break up the monotony of hearing the same god damn versions of the same god damn songs you’ve already heard a million times, but it also helps to illuminate what a potent thing it was to hear these two guys singing and making music together.  Because all you hear on these tracks is the sound of Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon’s interweaving voices over Simon’s acoustic guitar in front of an audience, without any sort of backing band at all.  And yet, that’s all these guys really needed.  There’s just something kind of pure and magical about the way Paul Simon wrote those songs and the way him and Garfunkel sang them together, so much so that the fact that they were really popular seems almost beside the point.

Would I Pay Money For This?

Though the inclusion of these live tracks does keep Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits from feeling like a total cash grab, I still can’t imagine needing to ever buy this album.  Especially when I own most of the Simon & Garfunkel studio albums in one form or another, and will probably hear one of these songs the next time I’m at Trader Joe’s or Starbucks or any of the various places that white people tend to congregate.

Next Time On The People’s Albums: Oh baby, baby.  Somebody hit me in the face, because I’ll be listening to …Baby One More Time by Britney Spears.