This was the opening track on Paul Simon's landmark Graceland album, and the first song he worked on when he went to South Africa in 1985 to record with musicians from the townships. Simon immersed himself in the music of South Africa before his trip, and came across a song by a Sotho group called Tau Ea Matsekha that he wanted to record. The group leader and songwriter was Forere Motloheloa, who played the piano accordion, which is an accordion with piano keys on one side (in 1989, it became the official musical instrument for the city of San Francisco). When Simon arrived at Ovation Studios in Johannesburg, he started recording with the group, reworking their song.
Motloheloa is from an area called Lesotho, which is about 350 miles from Johannesburg, and he doesn't speak English. Despite their vast cultural and musical differences, Motloheloa and Simon were able to create the tracks for this song, but it took a while. The African group was used to recording quickly, but Simon did take after take, rolling tape continuously. "We got a really great sound. It was kind of all over the place and needed to be edited," Simon said of these initial sessions. When they emerged from these sessions with the distinctive sound Simon was after, it set the stage for the rest of his trip, where he worked with other African groups and met some of the musicians who would accompany him on the Graceland world tour.
Simon wrote the lyrics for this song when he returned to America - in South Africa his concern was recording the music. The words had to intertwine with the complex track that Simon's producer Roy Halee assembled from the reels of tape they returned with. It took Simon a long time to finish the lyrics, working in clever lyrical phrases like "the boy in the bubble and the baby with the baboon heart" in a way that would mesh with the African rhythms.
The words were not specifically about Simon's African experience, but more about his own observations that life is filled with so much potential (days of "miracle and wonder") but also so many challenges. Speaking with Rolling Stone, he explained, "'The Boy In The Bubble' devolved down to hope and dread. That's the way I see the world, a balance between the two, but coming down on the side of hope."
Paul Simon had to navigate a political minefield when he traveled to South Africa. There was a United Nations cultural boycott in place that was designed to pressure political leaders into giving up their racist Apartheid policy. The crux of the boycott was keeping popular musicians away from places like Sun City where they played to the white ruling class in South Africa. The problem was that any violation of the boycott could undermine the sanctions, and many locals were not happy with Simon's visit.
There was also the contention that Simon was using African talent for personal gain - just another white guy pillaging their people - but Simon paid the musicians well and gave songwriting credits to the authors of the songs he based his tracks on; "The Boy in the Bubble" is credited to Simon and Forere Motloheloa.
These South African sanctions didn't just keep outside musicians away from the country, but it also kept their local music from getting out - Simon only heard it because a friend gave him a bootleg cassette tape. Graceland was historic because it brought the sound of South Africa to the world, and in doing so, focused attention on their political struggles. Simon ignored politicians every step of the way, and took some of his favorite South African musicians on tour with him, putting them in violation of their country's sanctions, which they were willing to do for the unique opportunity to play in packed stadiums around the world. Exiled South African musical legends Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela also joined the tour and lent support to Simon.
In the Under The African Skies documentary, which details the making of Graceland, Simon says that his South African collaborator Forere Motloheloa told him that the groove he came up with on the piano accordion was "paying tribute to a beautiful woman who he found and is happy with." Motloheloa worked in the mines for Lesotho before learning to play traditional melodies on the unusual instrument. "The solitude of the place combined with the landscape gives him beautiful things to translate into the music," he said.
The Graceland album sold about 5 million copies in America - far more than anywhere else - but the singles had surprisingly little chart success, as they didn't fit neatly into any radio formats. When the first single from the album, "You Can Call Me Al," was released, it stiffed in America but went to #4 in the UK. "The Boy in the Bubble" was the second UK single. The video, which was an elaborate, computer generated affair, never caught on with MTV.
The artist/filmmaker Jim Blashfield created the video using techniques he also used in "And She Was" for Talking Heads and "Leave Me Alone" for Michael Jackson.
Philip from Akron, OhThe band YES formed when Jon Anderson met Chris Squire in a bar, discussing their mutual admiration of Simon and Garfunkel. The reverence was still apparent years later when Jon wrote the lyrics for "Quartet" off the first/last/only album by YES touring company number 2 (Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe): "'We are living in days of wonder,' Simon said."