The Story and Meaning Behind “Slip Slidin’ Away,” a Paul Simon Leftover that Became a Huge Hit

Paul Simon was such a juggernaut in the 1970s that he even scored a big hit with a song he felt he didn’t quite get right. Left off a studio album but then used to fill out a greatest hits package, “Slip Slidin’ Away” hit the Top 5 in 1977 when released as a single and has proven to be one of Simon’s most durable hits.

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What is the song about? Why didn’t Simon think it was up to snuff? And how was the song related to a struggle that Simon was undergoing with his record company at the time? Here are all the details surrounding “Slip Slidin’ Away.”

Simon Wants Out

Paul Simon had been a fixture at Columbia Records from the beginning of his recording career, including his time with Art Garfunkel and his first several solo albums. Considering that Simon’s solo LPs churned out hit singles and won the love of critics everywhere, you would think the label would be falling over to make him happy.

But Simon and CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff clashed. Simon thought Yetnikoff was brash and didn’t value him as much as he did other label artists like Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen. Yetnikoff thought Simon was pompous and had betrayed Art Garfunkel when he forged his solo career.

Simon owed the label one more album on his contract following the 1975 LP Still Crazy After All These Years. But he didn’t quite have enough material, nor did he feel much like appeasing Yetnikoff. At one point, Simon suggested he’d fulfill his contract by putting some Elizabethan sonnets to music.

It was decided a greatest hits album would do the trick. Greatest Hits, Etc., released in 1977, collected some of the top songs of Simon’s solo career to that point. To add some juice to the package, two new songs were included, although one of them, “Slip Slidin’ Away,” wasn’t all that new. Simon had recorded the song for Still Crazy After All These Years, but decided it didn’t belong.

As usual, Simon chose the musicians wisely, and they add a great deal to the recording. Anthony Jackson’s bass burbles right alongside the melody line in inventive ways, while Steve Gadd’s drums and Ralph McDonald’s percussion create a quirky rhythmic bed. The backing vocals are performed by country band The Oak Ridge Boys, although here they sound more like a doo-wop group.

Why did Simon not include it on the previous album? He felt that the song lacked something, as he tried to explain in a 1990 interview with SongTalk Magazine (as reported by Songfacts):

“The last verse is a powerful one, but the chorus, it keeps coming back to the chorus. You know what that chorus is going to say. I always felt it should be shorter, but I didn’t know which verses to take out. Either the last verse or the father/child verse. But they all seemed like they had to be in there, so I left it. But I always felt that the record and the song stayed on a plateau. It didn’t build.”

What is the Meaning of “Slip Slidin’ Away”?

Simon was right in one respect: You really can’t take any of the individual vignettes out of “Slip Slidin’ Away” without lessening its impact. If you wanted, you can imagine they’re all part of the same, sad family story: The husband whose identity is subsumed in his love for his wife, the wife who wants more than just domesticity, and then, if things fall apart between the two, the man returning to see his young child, only to bail out before the reunion.

But if anything, the chorus feels necessary to tie these stories in a bow, especially with those lines that can apply to every one of us: You know the nearer your destination / The more you’re slip slidin’ away. The final verse then allows Simon, the omniscient narrator, to speak in generalities about life’s frustrations. The information’s unavailable to the mortal man, he insists to those who would look for answers.

Worse yet, we are often unaware of how quickly it can all unravel: Believe we’re gliding down the highway / When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away. It’s a pessimistic outlook, but the gentleness of the music and those soulful vocals render the song more a benevolent shrug than a cry to the heavens. “Slip Slidin’ Away” proved that even when Paul Simon thought he was off his game in the ’70s, he was undeniably still on top of it.

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