Story of the Song: The Boxer by Simon & Garfunkel

From The Independent archive: Robert Webb on one of the folk-rock duo’s most enduring songs

Friday 20 August 2021 21:30
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<p>Ring masters: the pair perform to fans in Madrid in 1982 </p>

Ring masters: the pair perform to fans in Madrid in 1982

It took five months, 100 hours of studio time, a lift shaft and a church. “The Boxer” is an extraordinary acoustic achievement for the time. The tale of defiance and survival, about a boy who fights his way from poverty with his fists, tumbles out in a flourishing cadence, played by the country session guitarist Fred Carter Jr, and unfolds into slow-build wall of sound.

Paul Simon began the lyrics on a plane, after opening a Bible and finding the phrase “workman's wages”. Unhappy with increasing criticism, Simon was in belligerent mood: “The song was about me,” he said. “Everybody's beating me up, and I'm telling you now, I'm going to go away you don't stop.” When the usually non-composing Art Garfunkel heard a melody line in his head and suggested using it, Simon was so impressed he ditched a whole verse (“I am older than I once was/ And younger than I'll be”) to make way for the middle-eight. Garfunkel's gliding solo was first recorded in Nashville, with Pete Drake on pedal steel, and then cut again in New York on a piccolo trumpet, the two instruments blended in he studio by Roy Halee.

For the chorus, Halee was chasing a specific percussion sound. The drummer, Hal Blaine, took his kit to the CBS building on 7th Avenue (a street named in the song) and took it up by a lift. When the tape rolled and Simon Garfunkel sang “lie-lae”, Blaine came down on his snare as hard as he could. “Right next to this open elevator shaft it sounded exactly like a cannon shot!” he recalled. As Christmas neared, Simon and Garfunkel visited a church, a location for a TV special. Knocked out by the ambience, the duo decided to record the vocal harmony overdubs there, and the song was complete.

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