Bridge Over Troubled Water – 50 years on

Tonight the eyes of the music world will turn to their screens for what is largely considered as America’s major music awards. Following the announcement of nominees and the more recent reveal of the evening’s performers, the build-up to this year’s GRAMMY Awards has been loaded with rejoice, controversy, excitement and outrage. Women dominating the nominations? Hear, hear. The Weeknd being ‘snubbed’? Dear, dear. Last minute addition of Anderson Paak and Bruno Mars to the night’s performances? SO HERE. But whilst the world gets caught up in the annual la-di-da, I invite you to turn the clocks back to 1971, to the 13th Annual Grammy Awards. 50 years ago at the Hollywood Palladium, the awards belonged to Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel and the album that sealed their legacy.

Bridge Over Troubled Water was written during one of the most tumultuous, divisive decades in American history. (I think we’re all fairly up-to-speed on the 60’s but see here if you need a recap). Over the course of the decade, artists reflected the unrest of the times in their work. Listening to the music written by Simon & Garfunkel between the years of 1964 and 1970, it doesn’t sound like the ‘music of rebellion’. Even at the time, many of the cool kids and hippies deemed the cleanliness of their sound too sterile, too tasteful. But whilst the beginnings of psychedelic/prog rock overtly channelled the spirit of rebellion, Simon & Garfunkel’s delicate sounds and more personal, lyrical approach offered something that was just as treasured: comfort, and a momentary escape from a world wrought with tension.

Considered their most ambitious album, a range of influences can be heard in each of the 11 songs. The Beatles-inspired rock ’n’ roll on ‘Baby Driver’ and ‘Keep the Customer Satisfied’, traditional South American folk in ‘El Condor Pasa (If I Could)’, and of course the gospel orchestration that fills ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. Were this in the reviews of a contemporary album written last year, no doubt there would also be terms such as ‘cutting-edge’, ‘avant-garde’ and ‘genre-defying’ thrown in with it. But the artistry of Simon & Garfunkel lied in their ability to create music that was all at once epic yet somehow so subtle. Garfunkel was the stand-out vocalist no doubt; his voice carried a purity and softness that seemed to fall out of his mouth so effortlessly, and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ was his song as a result. But like peanut butter and jam, the real magic happened when both voices joined together to create those iconic harmonies. The cleanest harmonies in the game that, when listened to in isolation from the music, could make Ant Middleton cry. 

But where Garfunkel steals the limelight in the vocal department, Simon and producer Roy Halee earn their glory in the actual song-writing and overall sound of the album. In The Harmony Game, the documentary telling the story of how the album was written, we are shown the genius that went into the recording of each song. Most commercial popular recordings are mixed and mastered to be reverberation-free ie. a slick and clean-cut sound. But what characterises the sound of Simon & Garfunkel’s album is the music’s colour and depth created in the recording process. ‘Only Living Boy in New York’ was recorded in an echo chamber and ‘The Boxer’ in a church. In the latter, it is what makes the epic drum crash of the chorus sound distant, and as if you’re hearing the song live. In ‘Cecilia’, the quirky hand-clap beat was recorded on a whim in Simon’s home one evening, and the xylophone that we hear in the second half is Simon playing completely random notes with the tonality softened – he didn’t even know how to play the xylophone. All of these layers meld with Simon & Garfunkel’s harmonies so delicately, and give the album its muted grandeur. 

And now, with all the flair of a true university student, I bring us back to the present day. Tonight we applaud a new wave of artists who continue to change the game, create moments of musical magic etc. etc. blah blah I’ll let the speeches do the spiel. Yet the past week, I have listened to ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ more times than I care to admit to. Perhaps it speaks more of my sensitivity and emotional susceptibility (I’m fine.), but I am on the verge of tears every time the final verse reaches its climax. For all the reasons it was so moving at its time of release, it seems to be as pertinent as ever today. It might not be the politically charged anthem that empowers a generation or the song that breaks new ground with its innovation, but it is beautiful. Fifty years ago, that was enough to win five GRAMMY awards, and a further two for the album. It was to be Simon & Garfunkel’s last work together, but ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ will remain one of the most enduring songs from the past four decades. 

Happy GRAMMYs.

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