The Sound of Silence is, of course, one of the most influential songs of our times. Not only did it dominate the music charts around the world, but it became the anthem of an entire generation, striking a rare chord with its haunting message of alienation and loneliness. In fact, the song had such a deep cultural impact that there are people today who play the game of “What were you doing when you first heard The Sound of Silence?”
The song has even been saved in the US Library of Congress for its cultural and historical importance. So it’s strange to think that it could have so easily vanished without a trace.
Simon & Garfunkel first recorded The Sound of Silence (originally titled Sounds of Silence) in March 1964 for their debut album, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM. But the album was an instant flop when released in October 1964 – to the extent that the duo, believing they had no future, split up.
Simon went off to England, and Garfunkel went back to college. And thus, it seemed, Simon & Garfunkel were dead at birth.
But, in 1965, the song’s producer, Tom Wilson, detected a curious little trend: The song seemed to have inexplicably caught on in small pockets of the US, like Florida and Harvard. To capitalise on this, Wilson decided – without telling Simon or Garfunkel – to re-mix the track, and give it a more contemporary feel, along the lines of recent hits like the Byrd’s Turn, Turn, Turn and Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone.
So he called in a couple of Dylan’s backing musicians and asked them to overdub the track with rock instrumentation. Thus Simon & Garfunkel’s simple folk melody was transformed into one of the greatest folk-rock songs of all time.
This remixed version of the song quickly skyrocketed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Paul Simon himself was in Denmark at the time, performing at a small club. He happened to pick up a copy of a music magazine and discovered that his song had become a huge hit. (When he later heard the new version, however, he would be horrified by the instrumentation and how it had screwed up his gentle, introspective song.)
According to musical legend, when The Sound of Silence finally hit the No 1 spot, in 1966, Simon and Garfunkel were sitting in a parked car in New York, smoking grass. Hearing the news on the radio, Garfunkel turned to Simon and remarked, ironically, “That Simon & Garfunkel – they must be having a really great time”. It could have almost been a line out of Richard Corey.
The Sound of Silence soon hit the charts all over the world, from Japan to Zimbabwe, and stayed there for nearly four months, jostling for the No 1 spot with the Beatles’ We Can Work it Out.
Two years later the song got another, wholly unexpected new boost: when Mike Nichols was making his film, The Graduate, he asked Simon & Garfunkel to write the soundtrack for it. The duo’s tardiness made them miss Nichol’s deadline, so he simply took The Sound of Silence and incorporated it into his soundtrack, along with some of their other numbers. The song suddenly gave a whole new dimension to the film, helping to make it a huge cult success – while the success of the film, in turn, pushed the song on to new heights of popularity. The fit between the two was mutually perfect.
A rumour has persisted that The Sound of Silence was written as a reaction to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, despite Simon denying it.
The way it happened, Simon has described, was simply this: He used to go into the bathroom to play his guitar because of the slight echo effect he got there, switching off the light to help him concentrate better. And there, one night, the first line came to him:
“Hello darkness, my old friend,
I’ve come to talk with you again….”
It was the truthfulness of this first line, Simon says, that was the secret of the song’s success, giving him an authentic base to experiment with the subsequent verses. It was only the sixth song that he’d ever written, and it took him many months of fine-tuning to get the lyrics and chords exactly right.
So what does Simon think of the song now, in retrospect?
He told someone that those early songs were just "Poetry 101", inspired by what he was reading at the time as a literature student. He had a certain affection for them, as a part of his youth, but it was only with his song America, written four years later, that he believes his songs really came of age.
Over the years The Sound of Silence has been one of the world’s most performed songs, rendered in various languages and styles, from Hebrew to Serbian, from reggae to punk.
The latest version, for example, is by heavy metal band, Disturbed – a brutal, screaming version that purists would consider sacrilegious (but which Paul Simon himself says he likes).
So, 50 years later, the song still continues to resonate with millions of young people all over the world. And its words, like silent raindrops fall, and echo in the wells of silence.