Happy 40th Anniversary to Carly Simon’s eighth studio album Spy, originally released June 30, 1979.
Just four months after its arrival in record shops nationwide, the Recording Industry Association of America awarded Carly Simon’s seventh album Boys in the Trees (1978) a platinum certification on August 7th, 1978. For Simon’s then-label Elektra Records, this was good news that confirmed her positive standing, commercially speaking. But, for Simon it was the creative triumph of Boys in the Trees that mattered most.
Beginning with Carly Simon (1971), Simon emerged as one of the definitive voices of the ‘70s side by side with Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, Carole King and Janis Ian; their model stands as the archetypal singer-songwriter blueprint that others follow even today. However, Simon politely separated herself from her peers with a flair for stepping over the assigned genre boundaries she was expected to abide by. This playful musical curiosity revealed itself on her fifth LP, Playing Possum (1975). This project—and its follow-up Another Passenger (1976)—kicked off a creatively fertile period for Simon, though the latter did not get the warmest reception on the charts.
It was the solid sales of Boys in the Trees—the third of an eventual seven album movement—that demonstrated that Simon could indulge in her experimental cravings and navigate the trends. This practice was put to use on the successor for Boys in the Trees, the enticingly titled Spy.
Recorded from December 1978 through April 1979 at New York City’s Atlantic Studios, Simon’s eighth outing had her cutting its sides with Arif Mardin again. The late producer/arranger had enjoyed plotting out ideas on Spy’s precursor with Simon—this collection was no exception.
Simon’s desire for broader sonic furtherance became the record’s evocative center. Spy’s pleasantly roiling soundscapes are rendered by an accomplished crop of session instrumentalists—assembled and directed by Mardin—that lend the LP its eclectic disposition; Simon plays acoustic piano on two sides.
Brawny, but beautiful rock (“Vengeance,” “Pure Sin”), filmic adult contemporary balladry (“Never Been Gone”) and creamy pop-soul that darts from jazz (“Just Like You Do”) to disco (“Spy”) all simmer on this progressive set that has Simon going straight for the experimental pop gusto. Vocally, Simon’s contralto wondrously commands the diverse range of pieces gathered for Spy with an ease of a woman aware of what she does best.
Barring four co-write collaborations with longtime friend Jacob Brackman, Frank Carillo (of Doc Holliday fame), Libby Titus, Arif Mardin and her first husband James Taylor, the bulk of the song script finery is primarily supplied by Simon; they anchor Spy. An Anaïs Nin reference—“I am an international spy in the house of love”—on the sleeve notes for Spy evinces Simon’s faithful writing methodology for observational-narrative driven works that seductively blur the lines between fact and fiction.
Simon’s marriage to Taylor shapes “Coming to Get You,” “Love You By Heart” and “We’re So Close,” the last of which Simon elaborates on further in her bestselling 2015 memoir Boys in the Trees, explaining “The state of our marriage gave me the lyrics to what is perhaps the saddest song I’ve ever written…which I wrote one day in 1979 on the Vineyard while James was keeping me waiting for an hour in the car as he pulled his sailboat from the water. By the time he had returned to the car, more than anything I wanted to read the lyrics back to him—'We’re so close we have a silent language / We don’t need words at all…He says: We’re beyond flowers / He says: We’re beyond compliments…We’re so close we can dispense with love / We don’t need love at all’—but something stopped me. What would James have done if I’d read him those lyrics aloud? Most likely nothing.” The sobering reality of their fracturing union pushed Simon to new heights of expression and as their relationship continued its sad decline, it informed the next three albums that followed Spy from 1980 to 1983 to gripping effect.
As for the fictional elements of her songwriting, Simon gleefully exaggerates the real-life situations of those around her to transform them into engrossing story songs; Spy’s concluding number “Memorial Day” is one such selection. When asked by a fan sometime in 2006 on her now defunct “Ask Carly” section of her official website about the rumored meaning of “Memorial Day,” Simon coyly stated that the entry was sourced from the autobiographical tale of her taking her inebriated drummer home—post-gig—one morning only to watch from her limousine as his girlfriend accused him of a non-existent affair with Simon.
Released toward the end of June 1979, Simon had no reason to believe that Spy wouldn’t commercially connect in the same way that Boys in the Trees had—she was wrong. In a stunning about face, the general record buying audiences gave Spy the cold shoulder even with its mostly solid critical notices. And while she made three promotional video clips for “Vengeance,” “We’re So Close” and “Never Been Gone,” only two commercial singles were actually lifted from Spy: “Vengeance” and its title track. Neither performed well.
Though Simon earned a Best Rock Vocal Performance, Female nomination for “Vengeance” at the 22nd Annual GRAMMY Awards, the muted reception for Spy overall brought a disappointing end to the singer-songwriter’s lengthy tenure with Elektra Records. Simon wasn’t without a deal for too long as Warner Bros. beckoned. Taking up residence at this prestigious imprint, the ensuing triptych of Come Upstairs (1980), Torch (1981) and Hello Big Man (1983) brought a satisfying finish to Simon’s streak of imaginative long players.
Yet, within this iconic stratum of seven albums that Simon yielded to the public between 1975 and 1983, it’s Spy that is the true lost classic. The song cycle is an effort so aurally palatial and lyrically sophisticated that it proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that Carly Simon was—and continues to be—a thrillingly distinct presence in popular music.
Read more about Harrison’s perspective on Carly Simon in his book, ‘Record Redux: Carly Simon,’ available physically and digitally now. Other entries currently available in his ‘Record Redux Series’ include the Spice Girls, Donna Summer and Madonna. His forthcoming book ‘Record Redux: Kylie Minogue’ is available November 2019.