Songs have been written about a lot of different things, but the subject of camera film isn’t one of the most well-trodden areas for lyricists.
In fact, in the world of camera phones, I’m surprised anyone still writes songs about that subject at all. However Jonas Blue, Liam Payne and Lennon Stella have recently done exactly that with their song “Polaroid” (here if you’d like a listen… https://youtu.be/77RmU8QcM4k ).
“Polaroid” is a perfectly nice song. But if we’re going to cover the topic of camera film in a song, for me there isn’t a better choice than Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome”.
Until recently, that was the last time a song about camera film got anywhere near the pop charts.
“Kodachrome” was the lead single from Paul Simon’s 1973 album “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon”, which also contained a couple of big hit singles for Paul Simon, “Loves Me Like A Rock” and “Take Me To The Mardi Gras”.
But “Kodachrome” presented some unique problems. First of all, the song’s title was a registered trademark. So trademark owners Kodak insisted the little trademark symbol was attached to the song title and an explicit reference made to its trademarked status on the sleeve notes.
In the UK it was even worse. The BBC still largely controlled the airwaves back then and had strict rules against advertising and product placement on their network, so “Kodachrome” wasn’t allowed on the radio at the time…although you’ll be glad to know this requirement has been relaxed since and the BBC do play it from time to time nowadays.
I’m not really a camera person, but the special quality of Kodachrome film was apparently that it made everything look bright and colourful. A picture taken on an overcast autumn day would look like it was taken in the middle of summer.
For a world that was used to black-and-white photographs…and, a little later, rather washed out colour film…the invention of Kodachrome back in 1935 was quite something for both amateur and professional photographers.
Commercial photographers taking pictures for the print media, in particular, were drawn to the brightness of colour reproduction Kodachrome could achieve for glossy magazines and the like. Unsurprisingly, Kodachrome quickly became very popular and went on to dominate the colour film market.
But the qualities of that brand of camera film made an ideal metaphor for the song “Kodachrome”…
When we think about our life, do we think of it as a series of grainy black-and-white pictures, or do we think of it as a bright, over-saturated palette of vibrant colours?
Are our memories dull and one-dimensional or vivid and exciting?
Most of my memories are things I’d largely prefer to forget, if I’m honest, so I’m very much in the moody black-and-white mode. I’m always slightly jealous of people who have the “Kodachrome” version of their life available to recall when the mood takes them…
They give us those nice bright colours
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away
Yes, no wonder the BBC were concerned about product placement. Paul Simon didn’t just title his song with a brand name, within the lyrics there was also a reference to a high-end camera brand too! I’m sure the lawyers at Broadcasting House had a fit when the lyrics for “Kodachrome” passed across their desk…
The funny thing about perception, though, is that once you see the world as a perpetual summer’s day, the last thing you want is anyone to come along and burst your bubble. We probably all know people who maintain an unjustifiably cheerful demeanour in the face of disaster after disaster…often of their own making…
Of course, we’d all prefer to see the world through rose-tinted…or perhaps Kodachrome-tinted, if there is such a thing…lenses. But this worldview can become as addictive to life’s unjustifiably optimistic people as grainy black-and-white becomes to those of us who normally see the world in more sombre hues.
Either way, we’re all in danger of spending too much of our time divorced from reality.
We’re either overly cheerful, with no objective basis for feeling that way, or we’re perpetually gloomy in the face of a world full of bright, exciting experiences we don’t think we’re meant to be part of.
And don’t forget, Paul Simon was talking about the world in 1973. Things have changed since.
When “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” came out there was only a choice between Kodak film and Polaroid film, each handled exclusively by their respective camera systems.
Nowadays with Instagram, Snapchat and goodness knows what else, with all the filters, retouching and special effects those systems have built in, a teenager with a few minutes to spend on their iPhone can burnish a snap to the standard professional photographers in 1973 would have had trouble achieving in an analogue world.
As a result, however distorted our view of reality might have been in 1973 when we only had the bright, vibrant colours of Kodachrome to affect our perception, it’s considerably more distorted today.
That’s why I’ve always seen “Kodachrome” as containing a bit of a warning to us all.
Sure, the song highlights the wonderful vibrant colours Kodachrome was renowned for. But Paul Simon also reminds us that seeing the world in a way that doesn’t completely accord with reality can be addictive, perhaps unhealthily so…
If you took all the girls I knew
When I was single
And brought them all together for one night
I know they’d never match
My sweet imagination
Everything looks worse in black and white
This is a great piece of lyric writing. Paul Simon highlights the way our imaginations play tricks on us. Reality is never as good as we imagine it to be…nor as bad…
But either view of the world can become powerfully addictive.
No wonder a good 50% of the lyrics of “Kodachrome” go…
Mama don’t take my Kodachrome
Mama don’t take my Kodachrome
Mama don’t take my Kodachrome away
A bit like Pandora’s Box, once you’ve been shown a bright, vibrant version of the world around you, it’s really hard to go back again to what you had before.
From that point onward, you’re either chasing an ever-greater high, by turning up the colours brighter and brighter, or you’re crashing down to somewhere worse than where you started when you realise you’ve been sold a bill of goods and the world doesn’t match up to the “sweet imagination” of your memories.
Wrapped up in a jaunty melody, I often felt “Kodachrome” was seen as more superficial than many of the other great songs Paul Simon has written over the years. But “Kodachrome” is a song that, if you let it, will take your mind in some surprising directions and perhaps make you think a little more deeply about how you customarily see the world.
And if a song can do that, it certainly gets my vote. Not just “ear candy”…or “Kodachrome” for your aural senses, if you like…songs that make you think, especially when their message isn’t immediately obvious and preachy, are songs I always enjoy.
Which is why, 40-odd years after its initial release, I think “Kodachrome” is still one of Paul Simon’s best. I hope you think so too…
Just before we get to the tune itself, I can’t leave the story of “Kodachrome” without mentioning that the song was recorded with one of my all-time favourite studio bands in one of my all-time favourite recording studios.
The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section… “the Swampers” to music fans around the world…play the instruments you hear on “Kodachrome”. And what a great job they do. Somehow the brightness of the Muscle Shoals sound is the perfect complement to a song about the brightness of a visual representation of the world.
Originally the house band at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section set up their own studios in that little corner of northern Alabama and played on many of the greatest songs in popular music history.
The song they recorded which always surprises people is Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”. Even many music fans suspect was probably recorded somewhere like Motown or Stax.
But Aretha Franklin’s defiant, intensely soulful, classic wasn’t conjured up in the iconic hitmaking studios of Detroit or in one of the most soulful recording studios in Memphis.
The soul sound you hear on “Respect”…one of the most intensely soulful records of all-time…was in fact conjured up by half-a-dozen white guys at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in rural northern Alabama, a million miles away from the epicentre of the world’s music industry.
But, of course, we’re not talking about Aretha Franklin today…wonderful artist though she was. We’re not even talking about the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section…much as that’s one of my favourite topics of conversation.
Instead, we’re saluting the creative talents of Paul Simon…one of the 20th Century’s greatest songwriters…and his generally underappreciated 1973 song about the dangers of letting a bright shiny view of the world distort our sense of reality.
Here’s Paul Simon…with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section…and “Kodachrome”…
(If you want to get a better take on the musicianship, I’d recommend the Spotify track, as the YouTube version isn’t quite so well-balanced. However, as usual, both versions are provided for your listening pleasure, whatever your preference might be.)
The video is below, but if you prefer you can listen to the track on Spotify here… https://open.spotify.com/track/3f0U5NaD1bCk8nmKpn2ZJY
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