This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #33: The Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel.
“The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel is one of the most well-known songs of all-time. It is difficult to find someone who, upon learning the opening line…..”Hello Darkness, my old friend”….doesn’t know exactly what song is being sung. The opening to “The Sound of Silence” is almost universally known, at least in the English-speaking world. And yet, many misinterpret what Paul Simon meant when he wrote those words as a twenty-one year old man, way back in the early 1960s. So, settle in for a story about a song that is loved and reviled in equal measure, a song that was included in one of the most iconic movies of all-time, one that was covered recently in one of the most successful cover attempts of all-time and finally, which, as I mentioned, a song which is often misinterpreted by those who sing its words aloud to the Heavens. Here is the story of “The Sound of Silence”.
As a teenager, I was very lucky because we had an excellent stereo system in our house. After my father passed away when I was eleven, I became “the man of the house” and, in order to allow my mother (who was a nurse) to be able to continue working, I became responsible for watching over my sister (who was six years younger than me). Sometimes, that meant that my mother would go to work for the overnight shift and my sister and I would be left at home. As dodgy as that sounds, nothing bad ever happened. In fact, a lifelong habit of mine was borne out of those moments and that was, listening to music in the dark after everyone else in the house had gone to bed. Back then, I loved nothing more that to feel the house fall quiet, to turn out the lights, don my headphones and listen to my favourite songs. To me, it was the most peaceful of times; it allowed me to listen to the stories being told to me in song and to use those images to create my own versions of those stories in my mind. I developed my love of writing and music and storytelling from those moments spent listening to tunes at night in the dark.
I was not alone in enjoying the solitude of darkness. So did Paul Simon. When he was a late teen, about to enter his twenties, he struggled to find an outlet for his burgeoning creativity. He wanted to write and to think his thoughts in an isolated manner, undisturbed by the outside world. So, how did he accomplish this, you ask? Well, according to the man, himself, Paul Simon used to go into the bathroom of his house, turn off the lights, sit on the floor and play his acoustic guitar in the dark. In this environment, free from external distractions, he was able to focus on his poetry, his storytelling and, in the end, create the masterpieces that came to define the early song catalogue of Simon and Garfunkel. So, if you listen to “The Sounds of Silence” in light of this new information, you can easily see that it isn’t about Depression or dark, violent impulses that lay inside all of us or society, at large but, instead, it is about creativity and how Paul Simon’s creative mind needed to work in order for him to express himself to his fullest extent. So, when he sings, “Hello Darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk to you again“, he is talking about creating the conditions that were necessary for him to emote properly.
“The Sound of Silence” was one of the very first songs the duo, Simon and Garfunkel, recorded and released. Unfortunately, at that time in their career, they were entirely a Folk act and, as such, the first version of “The Sound of Silence” was completely acoustic. That initial recording did not connect with an audience and ended up being a dud. That seems hard to believe but, the song just seemed bland and wordy and people were not into the message that Paul Simon was trying to put out through this song. So, Simon and Garfunkel, prepared to disband and go on with their lives as university students. The lucky break for them and, for us, came via a music producer named Tom Wilson. As it turns out, Tom Wilson was one of the most pivotal figures “behind-the-scenes” during the 1960s. His initial claim to fame was in helping to convince Bob Dylan to go “electric”. As you may recall, the whole “Dylan-Goes-Electric” controversy was one of the early paradigm shifts that happened as the 1960s unfolded. Bob Dylan was a major star as a Folk singer so, his decision to move away from pure, acoustic Folk music and transition into to more electric rock, horrified many of his fans. But, as Wilson knew, the future of music was in going electric and, eventually, in going digital and becoming computerized. So, when Tom Wilson helped to convince Bb Dylan to “go electric”, it was a seismic shift in the musical landscape. Fast forward few years and there was Tom Wilson again at the right moment in time. He came into possession of the master tapes from Simon and Garfunkel’s initial recording session for “The Sound of Silence”. By then, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had moved on and abandoned the song. So, unbeknownst to the duo, Wilson began to play around with it in his own studio; adding overdubs and various orchestral flourishes and then, when he was finished (with the version we have all come to know and love), he played it for Simon and Garfunkel, as well as for some record executives. The improvement in the song was obvious. This new version was re-released and the song became a modest hit. This new development caused Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel to give their career another shot and, as we all know, that renewed opportunity and commitment resulted in a Hall of Fame career that ranks as being one of the best and most-important of all-time.
What further helped solidify the success of this song was when Hollywood Director, Mike Nichol approached the duo for the rights to use this song, along with three others *(One of which was “Mrs. Robinson, which you can read about here), in his new movie called, “The Graduate”. According to Nichol, the “sound” of the music that Simon and Garfunkel were creating fit his movie to a tee and, more than that, had captured the mood of an entire generation and nation. Thus, “The Sound of Silence” took on an anthemic quality that raised it up as a statement of belief on how life should be lived in America at the time. This is where some of the pushback against this song started.
To hear Paul Simon tell the take, “The Sound of Silence” was never meant as a commentary about War or Capitalism or racial harmony and social justice….instead, it was simply an ode to the creative process by which he, and perhaps others, could more fully express their inner emotions. Remember that when he wrote this song, Paul Simon was just turning 21 years of age. He was still a young man who had very little in the way of worldly experience. But yet, here was his song, a few years later, being held up as a mantra for how to live a successful life. Needless to say, there were many critics who took umbrage with the notion that some wet-behind-the-ears college boy felt the need to be lecturing anyone on how they should be living their lives. That Paul Simon didn’t intend that to be the case at all seemed to get lost in the blowback.
Fortunately, most people took the song for the poetry that it is. One of those who recently stood up in defence of “The Sound of Silence” was completely surprising; it was a heavy metal band called Disturbed. A few short years ago, Disturbed recorded their own interpretation of “The Sound of Silence”. It became very popular in the early days of the pandemic when we were all reduced to interacting with the world from the relative safety of our homes and our internet connections. Disturbed’s cover version of “The Sound of Silence”, with its nod to solitude in a time of isolation for many, raced to the top of the charts. Paul Simon dropped the band a congratulatory note, stating that he felt they had done a great job and had captured the essence of his song well. In reply, the band said that Paul Simon’s deal of approval was worth more than any Gold record that came their way as a result of recording their cover.
Like many songs that are coming up toward the end of this countdown, “The Sound of Silence” is a song that has come to define that period of time when it was released. From the very first notes, the song takes the listener on a journey within their own mind…..not to that place where dark impulses lay but, instead, to that part of all of us where our mind is clear and our thoughts can form fully and completely. Even to this day, I enjoy being the last one to bed…..alone in my home, in the darkness, with good music flowing into my ears and inspiration brewing as a consequence.
So, without further delay, here are Simon and Garfunkel, with their very first hit, “The Sound of Silence”. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Simon and Garfunkel, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “The Sound of Silence” as covered by Disturbed, can be found here. ***This video is the most watched video in the history of The Conan O’ Brien Show.
The link to the official website for Disturbed, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.