HE is one of the 20th Century’s most successful singer-songwriters having shifted an estimated 150 million records and whose best known songs – Mrs Robinson, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Homeward Bound, The Boxer, The Sound of Silence, Mother And Child Reunion among them – have become part of the fabric of popular culture.

But it is a little known fact – so little known that not even those who compile his websites, have written books about him and have dedicated themselves to documenting every aspect of his career – are aware that half-a-century ago Paul Simon twice performed in Swindon.  

As a troubadour in his early 20s Simon emulated fellow New York-based folkie Bob Dylan by heading for London, “suitcase and guitar-in-hand,” to immerse himself in a thriving folk scene where clubs had sprung up in smoky basements, skittle alleys, and backroom bars.

Leaving his old school-pal and musical cohort Art Garfunkel back in the States to continue his university studies, Simon lived on-and-off in London and elsewhere in England from 1963 to 1965, earning as little as £3 for some gigs of which he played scores.

Aged 22 in 1963 he famously wrote Homeward Bound at Liverpool railway station.

“It has a very clear memory of Liverpool station and the streets of Liverpool and the club I played at” he later recalled.

Many shows – from countless London gigs at long forgotten dives such as Bunjies, Tinkers Club, Hole in the Ground and The Zigzag Club to regional dates from Grimsby to Exmouth – have been dutifully compiled and listed for posterity. 

But as one website ‘Time It Was… It Was,’ which assiduously chronicles the life and times of Simon and Garfunkel says: “The time Paul spent in the UK playing the folk clubs is like exploring the Middle Ages. There’s hardly any evidence… Paul will be the one who knows.”

However, the man who poetically reflected in Homeward Bound “each town looks the same to me/the movies and the factories…” has almost certainly forgotten his brief sojourn in Swindon.   

But in the summer of ’65 with his career gaining momentum, the artiste who later performed with Garfunkel for half-a-million fans in Central Park, appeared at the Sunday Night Folk Club at The Castle in Old Town

Maybe 40 or so folkies crammed into the pub’s moderate upstairs room for a performance that is only remembered today through word-of-mouth.

Swindon musician Pete Cousins recalls some fleeting fragments of the gig: “He told an anecdote about a song, I’m pretty certain it was Homeward Bound.”

Simon, he says, also spoke about a photo shoot that was scrapped due to obscenities scrawled on a subway wall – a reference to a shoot in New York for Simon and Garfunkel’s first LP Wednesday Morning 3AM, recorded in 1964.

The future recipient of 12 Grammys also related how instruments had just been dubbed onto a track whilst he was in the UK – alluding, almost certainly, to producer Tom Wilson’s revamp of The Sound of Silence which a few months later opened the door for worldwide success.

Pete said the gig was co-organised by Swindon optician/impresario, the late Nick Pritchard, adding – amazingly: “As I understand, he (Pritchard) almost managed Paul Simon.”

Pete also saw Simon perform at McIlroys department store – which The Beatles and the Stones had already played – as a spin-off from the successful Castle gig.

Another regular on Swindon’s early Sixties folk scene, Pete Devlin, now of Texas where he fronts The Texas Moon Band has great memories of The Castle’s “little upstairs room with the dangerous staircase.”

It was customary for local singers to perform before the main act and Pete, casting envious looks at Simon’s Martin guitar, asked if he could borrow it. 

“I sort of remember talking to him (Simon), a very friendly chap. He must have been to put up with me talking about his Martin, a make of guitar that I wanted to own –letting me look at it and eventually letting me play it. 

“Unfortunately I can’t remember what he played or even what I played on his guitar that night… so long ago. He was just another of a long line of folk singers on the European trail, way before he became a household name.”

The club, he adds, had “obligatory candles on the table” and “you could hear a pin drop before an artist was about to perform.” 

So what did Simon perform at The Castle and McIlroys? No record exists but the set  would almost certainly have included tracks from his new solo LP, The Paul Simon Songbook such as I Am A Rock and The Sound of Silence, as well as Homeward Bound… songs that later became S&G classics.

I remember that night at The Castle...

SWINDON folk scene regular John Compson was among those who squeezed into The Castle’s upstairs room for Paul Simon. 

He says: “Even as early as 1965, Paul Simon was one of the rising stars in the contemporary folk world and to have him appearing at The Castle was a golden opportunity not to be missed.

“It was going to be a popular night so I got there early. The Castle on a Sunday night was always busy but clearly this was going to be even more popular.

“There wasn’t much seating in the upstairs room so getting there early was always a priority.

“If you didn’t get a seat you had to either stand in the crush by the bar at the back, or in the gangway. If you managed to get a seat you didn’t leave it.

“The local amateurs always opened the evening, in typical folk club style, to warm up the audience.

“There was no stage, performers simply sat or stood at the front on the same level as the audience.

“Paul Simon must have wondered what he had agreed to when he arrived at The Castle.

“He was expected to wait in a spare room in the pub itself and charge up the external staircase and enter through the door that the paying customers had used.”

John goes on: “Despite his short stature, he was a tremendous performer.

“He had a dry and extremely funny sense of humour and his songs were incredibly well received.

“It was clear that we were listening to a new singer/songwriter who was on his way to greater fame.

“I can remember one anecdote concerning a meeting with Ready Steady Go presenter Cathy McGowan.

“He had clearly clashed with her during a TV show and his dislike for her became very obvious.

“Many of the songs performed at The Castle related to his experiences whilst living in London.”

John, who later heard that Simon was paid £75 for the show, added: “How The Castle managed to secure the services of Paul Simon, and indeed many others, has always baffled me.”

“The bigger entertainers, at that time, did play the smaller venues but The Castle was nothing more than a pub room designed for small parties.

“I like to think that it had such a great reputation that folk singers, who wanted to be taken seriously, felt that it was an important venue.”

  • CASTING around for gigs in 1964 Paul Simon wrote to a number of clubs offering his service for £7 plus expenses – among them the Swindon Folksingers Club.

    Ten years ago Simon’s type-written missive to the Bridge Street based folk den emerged at the Wiltshire and Swindon Record Office.

    In it he wrote: “I record for Columbia Records in the States and will cut my first LP for Topic Records over here.

    “I would appreciate any work that you could give me between the first week of August and the first week of September.”

    Ted Poole, who launched the club in 1960 and still attends its weekly sessions in Ashford Road had earlier met Simon in London.

    Ted told us in 2005: “He wrote to us to ask if he could perform at the club then we happened to meet him at the Pinder of Wakefield Club.

    “He was just a youth at that time and was just emerging onto the folk music scene. He was a nice enough guy.”

    Ted offered him a gig but the singer, upon discovering the premises were located in the basement of the Swindon Communist Party branch, declined.

    America was in the grip of anti-Communist paranoia which saw any “red related” artists blacklisted.

    Ted added: “Paul Simon said ‘no’ because he didn’t want to get on the blacklist. It was during the Macarthur era in America which was a terrible time for the arts.”