A couple of times already, I’ve written about pop music as hymn. ‘Hey Jude’ was one. Here’s another. The one, and only, British chart-topping single for America’s foremost pop duo. (Sorry Don and Phil, Hall and Oates…)
Bridge Over Troubled Water, by Simon & Garfunkel (their 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, from 22nd March – 12th April 1970
I’m only going to write good things about ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, but I have to get off my chest first and foremost that I didn’t always like this song. It was a big presence in my childhood – my parents are big fans – but for a long time I thought it was a bit proper, a bit overwrought, a bit… too much like a hymn! Art Garfunkel certainly does enunciate his lines properly (the cut-glass ‘t’ in when tears are in your eyes…) and, if you were being cruel, he does sound a little like a choir-boy.
But you’re allowed to make dubious musical choices when you’re young (*cough* Kid Rock *cough*). I have since come to see the error of my ways. This is an undeniable classic, from the understated confidence of the opening piano, to the giant crescendo of an ending.
And, fittingly for a song that sounds angelic, the lyrics are apparently sung by an angel. Someone looking out for you, someone who’s on your side. Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down… They will follow you even at your lowest ebb, down and out on the streets, as darkness comes. Theories abound that the voice singing is that of heroin, the drug, and that the listener is an addict, which would be a spectacular twist in such a Christian sounding song. Simon and Garfunkel have always denied it.
After two verses of just voice and piano, in come the drums, like gunshots in the distance. And we start to build… I think the moment that this goes from being a great song and becomes one of the greatest is when Art’s voice dips: Oh, If you need a friend… Then the chorus comes in, and what was a simple ballad has grown into something massive without you even really noticing. Suddenly it’s ending with strings, and cymbals, and what sounds like fireworks. Suddenly it’s midnight on New Year’s Eve.
It’s superb. It’s timeless. It’s a classic. To think I used to prefer ‘Cecilia’. Seriously, though, I think ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ does sometimes lose something in its ubiquity. Twice in the past few years – decades after it originally hit #1 – the song has reached the top of the UK charts in the form of well-intentioned but fairly dreadful charity singles. It’s kind of easy to lump this record in with other easy-listening, uplifting MOR hits, but that would be a mistake.
And, like many of the best pop songs, there’s a friction working under the surface of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. Simon and Garfunkel weren’t the best of friends by this point, and would split up later in the year. Simon apparently resents the fact that he wrote their biggest hit but Garfunkel gets remembered for singing it. When he performed it on his farewell tour, in fact, he introduced the song by saying “I’m going to reclaim my lost child.”
Actually, I have to confess that I’ve been slow to realise the merits of not just this song, but of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s entire back-catalogue. I was force-fed them on childhood car journeys and, while I’ve come to recognise that ‘The Sound of Silence’, ‘Mrs. Robinson’ and ‘Homeward Bound’ are great, and ‘The Boxer’ a work of art, I still find the likes of ‘I Am a Rock’, ‘America’ and ‘Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.’ a bit twee. I can’t stand their version of ‘El Condor Pasa’. And part of me is still seven-years-old, and still loves the outright catchiness of ‘At the Zoo’ and ‘Cecilia’. In fact, there probably is no other act about which I am so undecided. I genuinely have no idea whether or not I like Simon and Garfunkel! I do definitely like ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, though, and definitely think you should press play below and enjoy it one more time…