Cover of the Week: Peter Gabriel & Paul Simon

Paul Simon


Cover of the Week is back in action after it’s long break, too long I hear you crying out, obviously the name is less apt now but ‘Cover Of The Week’ sounds a lot better than ‘Cover Whenever I Feel Like It’.

So now onto the long awaited second pair of covers from Peter Gabriel’s two companion covers albums; 2010’s ‘Scratch My Back’ and 2013’s much delayed ‘And I’ll Scratch Yours’.

Peter Gabriel

The first album, ‘Scratch My Back’ consists of 12 covers by artists ranging from David Bowie to Randy Newman performed by Peter Gabriel with an orchestra. The concept behind the album was a song exchange in which the 12 artists Gabriel covered on Scratch My Back would reciprocate by covering one of his songs, to be released on the album initially entitled ‘I’ll Scratch Yours’ which would be released simultaneously to ‘Scratch My Back‘ acting as a companion piece. However several artists were late in delivering their songs or ultimately declined to participate, necessitating changes to the companion album’s concept. With several new artists aboard and a lot of momentum and interest lost, the slightly retitled ‘And I’ll Scratch Yours’ was released in September 2013.


Peter Gabriel – The Boy In The Bubble

For ‘Scratch My Back’, Peter Gabriel chose to cover ‘The Boy In The Bubble’, the opening number on Paul Simon’s seminal and universally praised 1986 album ‘Graceland’. Gabriel said he chose the song because of its “extraordinary” lyrics, stating “I think it’s one of the best rock/pop lyrics written in the last 20 years. But it’s quite dark and troubled and stripped back in the way we’ve done it I think you hear the words in a different way.” And boy is he right. The emotional and sparse piano arrangement Gabriel brings to the originally upbeat African number really draws out the brooding lament in the song, to breathtaking affect.


Paul Simon – Biko

Both Simon and Gabriel concluded that Biko, from Gabriel’s eponymous 1980 album was an obvious choice of cover because the two had already played it together at a benefit concert for WITNESS, Gabriel’s Human Rights charity.

But there are more reasons than this why the song is a significant link between the two legends. The song itself is about the noted Anti-Apartheid Activist, Steve Biko, who in 1977 was arrested by police and during an interrogation severely beaten and left with serious head injuries, after being transferred to a prison with no medical care he tragically died. The content of the song was resonant for Simon, not only because of his own involvement in South African politics during the Graceland era, when some accused him of breaking the Anti-Apartheid Cultural Boycott that was in place by going to South Africa to write and record ‘Graceland‘ but also because Simon’s guitarist Ray Phiri who played on and toured the album was an avid supporter of Biko and knew him personally.

Biko is also an early example of World Music breaking its way into the mainstream, with both the album and single versions of the original song bookended by traditional African songs sang at Biko’s funeral. Both Gabriel and Simon have become known and widely acclaimed for championing World Music by incorporating it into more traditional rock and pop forms and bringing the sounds of different cultures to a wider audience.

Paul Simon

With Simon’s cover of the song he stated that the version of the song himself and Gabriel did live “Felt right, and so I went to try and recapture that rather than do a big session with a lot of musicians. There’s a nice sound going on here, it’s a 12 string guitar tuned down to a C, so all the strings are real floppy sounding, and its got a banging that mixes with the cello in a way that’s nice. I just went to sing it live in the same way as the Witness event and try and capture the same feeling, so if it’s not exactly perfect maybe it makes up for that in some kind of ease that I have, when I’m singing and playing.” And once again boy is he right. Simon’s version comes off with a lovely effortlessness; it’s a great example of the quiet grace that he’s always possessed that has only strengthened with his greater years, his tender, untempered voice relating the lyrics with all the poignancy that Gabriel did and that wonderfully pure cello line floating over the top. Two great artists doing great things with great songs, what more could you want?

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