Sometimes listening to music is like putting on an old coat or pair of shoes. Music from when we were younger can be comfortable and just feel right. Some music makes you recall a moment, a period; other music can make you recall events that were happening, and some music.. well, some music just was. So it is with Simon & Garfunkel’s melodies, harmonies and lyrics. They weren’t just part of the 60’s and early 70’s, they helped make the 60's and 70's what they were. Along with artists such as Dylan, the Stones and Santana, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel are still doing today what they do best.
Kodachrome, released by Paul Simon in 1973, is one of my S & G favourites. Hearing it brings back memories of when they (and I) were a lot younger. We knew then that the lyrics of Sounds of Silence were heavy poetry, even if like Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, we didn’t know what the lyrics meant. Nonetheless, being in high school, we all understood the opening lines of Kodachrome: “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school/It's a wonder I can think at all ..” Today, the familiarity of the opening notes and the opening lyrics immediately sets my foot tapping and the psyche grooving.
So sit back for a moment, click on:
and listen to Simon & Garfunkel at the Reunion Concert in Central Park sing about simpler days, before 9/11, before economic global downturns, before global warming and pollution… Mind you, they were also the days of the Vietnam War, racial bigotry, oppression, gay intolerance, women’s inequality, US covert destabilisation of governments… However, as Simon and Garfunkel say, those days don’t match imagination, everything looks worse (or better – see below) in black and white…
When I think back on all the crap I learned in high schoolIt's a wonder I can think at allAnd though my lack of education hasn't hurt me noneI can read the writing on the wall
Kodachrome, it gives us those nice bright coloursIt gives us the greens of summersMakes you think all the world's a sunny day, oh yeah!I got a Nikon camera, I love to take a photographSo momma, don't take my Kodachrome away
If you took all the girls I knew when I was singleBrought 'em all together for one nightI know they'd never match my sweet imaginationEverything looks worse in black and white
Momma, don't take my Kodachrome away (3X)Momma, don't take my Kodachrome (2X)Momma, don't take my Kodachrome away
Momma, don't take my KodachromeAnd leave your boy so far from homeMomma, don't take my Kodachrome away
Momma, don't take my KodachromeMmmmmmMomma, don't take my Kodachrome away, Okay
- Kodachrome was a brand of film used to take slides. For those readers who don’t know what a slide is, back in the “olden days” photos either came in a hard copy print out (prints) or in a format where they could be put into a projector and displayed on a screen or on the wall (slides). Families regularly had slide nights, get togethers where people would show slides of their kids, their trip etc. Someone would put on a bbq and then people would retire to the lounge room with the curtains shut to look at each others’ slides. Slide nights and slide film were big in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
- Kodachrome used to promote itself as having the brightest colours and used the slogan “Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day”.
- Paul Simon is reminiscing about wanting back the days when the colours seemed brighter, even though it may be illusory that his memories make those days seem brighter and warmer than they really were. He recognises that himself in the last verse, that putting together for one night all the girls he knew when he was single still wouldn’t match his sweet imagination.
- Originally all photos were in black and white. Then Kodak brought out colour photographs with the slogan “Everything looks better in colour”. The last line – “Everything looks worse in black and white” – is a twist on that slogan.
- Ironically, the US and British radio stations refused to play this song because Kodachrome was a trademark of a company. For the same reason the Kinks had to re-record Lola and change “tastes just like Coca Cola” to “cherry cola”.
- One commentator has suggested that in the context of the lyrics, the slide film Kodakchrome is his memory and the Nikon camera is his mind retaining the images as memory, snapshots of his life. “Speaking to others about his life (maybe his mother), he finds that situations cannot be summed up with black and white (good/bad) filters. Things look worse in black and white because you are forced to take sides. Look at your past in full colour and be objective.”
That comment makes a lot of sense to me. The essence of the song is that memories, like photographs, don’t match reality. The photos are moments frozen in time, lacking context. They record the happy moments, not unhappy ones, a romanticised picture of the whole. His mind is the camera that colours his memories.
He himself realises it but wants to keep his nostalgia and coloured memories - “Momma don’t take my Kodachrome away”. In this context “Momma” is life, the real world.
The lyrics suggest that there’s nothing wrong with having coloured and nostalgic memories as long as you don’t delude yourself - “see the writing on the wall”. He recognises that memories make those days seem brighter and warmer than they really were as he explains in the last verse: that putting together for one night all the girls he knew when he was single (much like a slide show) still wouldn’t match his sweet imagination.
“Black and white” here is the harshness of reality.
- Paul Simon has stated that when he was writing the song he was going to call it Going Home. However he thought that too conventional and changed it to Kodachrome because of its similar sound and greater creative potential.
- Sometimes (as in the video link above) Simon and Garfunkel change “everything looks worse in black and white” to “everything looks better in black and white”. Paul Simon has said that he now can’t remember which way he wrote it.
A final note:
On June 22, 2009 Eastman Kodak Co. announced the end of Kodachrome production, citing declining demand in the digital age. Many Kodak and independent laboratories once processed Kodachrome, but only one Kodak certified facility remains: Dwayne's Photo in Parsons, Texas. It will cease processing at the end of 2010. The last rolls to be made will be donated to the Kodak museum.