Happy Hump Day and welcome to another installment of Song Musings where I take a closer look at tunes I’ve only mentioned in passing or not covered at all to date. My pick for this week is Kodachrome, a great song by Paul Simon I was reminded of the other day when putting together a post about notable albums turning 50 this year.
One of these records is There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, his third solo album released on May 5, 1973. Not only is Kodachrome the opener of the album, but it also became its first single on May 19 that year. I’ve always loved the tune’s upbeat melody. Additionally, When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school is among the best memorable opening lines of a pop song I can think of.
Kodachrome became Simon’s highest-charting solo single at the time, peaking at no. 2 on both the U.S. and Canadian pop charts. Elsewhere, it climbed to no. 8 in France, no. 15 in The Netherlands and no. 40 in Australia. It was one of three charting singles off the album that altogether spawned six singles.
The tune also helped fuel the success of the album, which topped the charts in Sweden and climbed to no. 2, no. 3, no. 4 and no. 5 in the U.S., Canada, the UK and France, respectively. It also charted in Norway (no. 6), Australia (no. 7) and Finland (no. 17) – yes, I had to count them all! Here’s a nice live version from Simon’s 2012 gig at the Hard Rock Calling Festival in London’s Hyde Park.
Simon, who last October turned 81, officially is retired from touring. He played his final regular concert in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens, New York, on September 22, 2018. But apparently, Simon is not done with music. Last August, Spin reported he is working on a new album provisionally titled The Seven Psalms. It would be Simon’s first with new material since June 2016 when he released Stranger to Stranger.
Following are some additional insights about Kodachrome from Songfacts:
Kodachrome is a registered trademark of the Kodak company. It is a method of color transparency, but more commonly known as a type of color film the company started marketing in 1935. Paul Simon was working on a song with the title “Coming Home” when the word “Kodachrome” came to him. He had no idea what it meant, but knew it would make for a much more interesting song than “Coming Home.” The song became an appreciation of the things that color our world, and a look at how our memories are framed to fit our worldviews.
This was not a hit in England, partly because UK radio stations rarely played it. The BBC had very strict rules about commercial endorsements, and they would not allow stations to play songs that seemed to push products. It’s the same reason The Kinks had to re-record part of “Lola.” The lyrics were, “We drink champagne and it tastes just like Coca-Cola,” But Ray Davies had to redo them as “…Just like cherry cola” so the song could get airplay in Great Britain.
Paul Simon recorded this at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama with the famous Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. He sought out the musicians when he found out they played on “I’ll Take You There” by the Staple Singers, and was surprised to learn that they were not Jamaican musicians, but four white guys from the South. Simon went to Muscle Shoals to record just one song: “Take Me To The Mardi Gras,” but when they finished that one much sooner than he expected, he also recorded “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like A Rock.” Simon was the first big rock artist to record at the studios – Bob Seger and The Rolling Stones were some of the others who recorded there in the ’70s.
David Hood, the bass player in the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, told us this story: “When Paul Simon walked into our studio, he thought, God, what a funky place. Because it was. He was used to working at A&R and Columbia Studios in New York, and studios in England and different places. And when he came and saw our little place, he probably thought, man, this is a rat trap.
It just so happened that the roof leaked in our studio right over the recording console, and as a short term fix, we taped sanitary pads across the ceiling just to absorb the water so it wouldn’t drop down on the recording console. So we had Paul Simon, who’s got hit record after hit record walking in and seeing this place with Kotex on the ceiling. He must have thought, what in the world have I gotten myself into? But we cut this track for him in two takes, and I think he thought, wow, well these guys know what they’re doing. It doesn’t really matter.”
In the song, Kodak film gets the title, but Simon uses a Nikon camera. That’s because it scans well in the line “I got a Nikon camera” – try inserting Kodak or Canon in there and it won’t sound right.
Simon sometimes sings the line “Everything looks worse in black and white” as “Everything looks better in black and white.” He changes it a lot, and claims he can’t remember which way he wrote it.
On June 22, 2009, Kodak officially retired Kodachrome color film after 74 years. Photographers had turned to more recent Kodak products and digital technologies, which led to Kodachrome’s decline.
Sources: Wikipedia; Spin; Songfacts; YouTube