Hello Darkness: Simon & Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence Turns 55
The folk rock duo’s second album was the one that saved them, and us
At the start of my retrospective essay on Bridge Over Troubled Water, I set the stage for why Simon & Garfunkel’s music culminated in perhaps the most charmingly distinguished, intensely resonant, and inherently timeless singer/songwriter catalogue in modern popular music.
As with the story of so many iconic artists, though, their partnership was initially tenuous, requiring a special set of circumstances (both intentional and unanticipated) early on to put the pieces in place and allow them to fulfill their creative and commercial destinies. Specifically, it was the follow-up to 1964’s Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.—1966’s Sounds of Silence—that ended up being their breakthrough in several ways. Decades later, it’s still a profound treasure.
Famously, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. was far from a hit. A promising yet typical folk record, it—like the earliest Beatles records—featured about as many outside writers and covers as original material; plus, Simon and Garfunkel somewhat still conveyed the innocuous, if not downright cutesy, qualities of their previous Tom & Jerry act. (That’s not meant to disparage them, but rather to illustrate how creatively, it was a humble precursor to who they’d become.) In addition, it sold only around 3,000 copies (which is usually attributed to it being overshadowed by the burgeoning British Invasion). This led the duo to take their second official break—they previously split up around 1960 and worked with other people while releasing solo material under pseudonyms—wherein Simon assimilated into the English folk scene, continued writing for other artists, and released The Paul Simon Songbook. As for Garfunkel, he returned to Columbia University to earn degrees in art history and mathematics.
VIDEO: Simon and Garfunkel perform “The Sound of Silence” in 1965
It seemed like their musical union was officially over—that is, until a late-night DJ in Boston named Dick Summer played “The Sound[s] of Silence”; soon, it became popular all over the East Coast, prompting Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. producer Tom Wilson to give it a folk rock treatment similar to what he’d be doing with Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. He was so confident in the decision that he didn’t even ask Simon & Garfunkel for their input; in fact, Marc Eliot–in his book Paul Simon: A Life–reports that Simon was “horrified” when he first heard it. Nevertheless, the revised (and now synonymous) version of the tune topped the Billboard Hot 100 in September 1965 and prompted the pair to reunite and record another record at the urgent behest of Capitol Records and CBS. The result was Sounds of Silence, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Recorded in less than a month and comprised mostly of reworked tracks from The Paul Simon Songbook, Sounds of Silence released on January 17th, 1966. Curiously, the U.K. and U.S. versions are identical except for the former having another single, “Homeward Bound,” start Side Two; in contrast, the States wouldn’t get it until the next album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, which came out later that year. In any case, “Homeward Bound” charted well, as did the third single (and final song) from the LP, “I Am a Rock.” Eventually, the LP peaked at No. 13 on the UK Albums Chart, No. 21 on the Billboard 200, and No. 2 on the Spanish Albums Chart. Naturally, Simon & Garfunkel went on a nationwide tour to support the record, and their debut was reissued to great success. Thus, fans of the band and of all the brilliant proteges that followed owe a debt to Summer and Wilson for resurrecting and promoting the duo in early 1966.
The photograph on the front was shot at Franklin Canyon Park in Los Angeles, CA, and interestingly, there were three variations of the cover that differed in terms of capitalization and the inclusion (or lack thereof) of the tracklist. Also, one of the alternatives removed the issue of Tiger Beat that Garfunkel held on the back, and a few songs were either misspelled or incorrectly attributed in terms of song credits. As for the personnel, Simon and Garfunkel were accompanied by some members of the eminent Wrecking Crew—guitarists Glen Campbell and Vinnie Bell, keyboardist Larry Knechtel, bassist Joe Osborn, drummer Hal Blaine—among others.
Of course, Sounds of Silence has become one of the most beloved records of its kind, with many fans ranking it as the top Simon & Garfunkel album. Expectedly, it’s been covered by a few noteworthy artists over the years as well. At the top of the list (in terms of recent popularity, at least) is Disturbed’s rendition of the title track; beyond that, there’s Chromatics’ atmospheric interpretation of the same , as well as Red House Painters’ grungily airy treatment of “I Am a Rock” and Westerman’s electronic take on “Kathy’s Song.” None of them equal the originals, but at the very least, they’re intriguing attempts that demonstrate the universality and agelessness of the compositions.
On that note, Sounds of Silence is no less weighty or wonderful over half a century after it arrived. In particular, the title track remains one of the greatest songs ever written, with the pair’s opening harmonies and central acoustic arpeggios overwhelming the listener with their beauty. In addition, it’s a powerhouse of poetic lyricism, highlighting Simon’s ability to blend metaphorical eloquence and literal imagery to yield stunning experiential philosophy. While their first cut was superb, Wilson’s additions make this the superior version, too.
Later, “Kathy’s Song”—inspired by Kathy Chitty, whom Simon met in England and who’s later referenced in “America”—is a lovely and pure ballad showcasing his usual knack for compellingly morose melodies. (In that way, it’s like the forerunner to “The Dangling Conversation.”) Conversely, closer “I Am a Rock” almost disguises its tale of emotionally guarding against feelings of isolation and hopelessness with a fairly upbeat and full-bodied performance. As such, it proves that the duo was as adept at crafting luscious and energetic rockers as they were sparsely solemn odes.
AUDIO: Simon & Garfunkel “Kathy’s Song” Live 1969
Arguably, the rest of the sequence isn’t quite as well-known, but there isn’t a single entry that’s not outstanding. For instance, “Leaves That Are Green” soars thanks to its quirky harpsichord key changes and sweetly sung sentiments, whereas “Blessed” is an impassioned and sharp rocker full of Simon’s characteristic Biblical allusions and biting social commentary. Then, “Somewhere They Can’t Find Me” is delightfully mysterious yet catchy, all the while offering brief glimpses into Simon’s dexterity at acoustic fingerpicking. There’s also “April Come She Will,” a gorgeous and meek narrative led by Garfunkel (whose angelic timbre may even outshine Simon’s). All in all, Sounds of Silence is virtually as diverse and self-assured as anything that came after it.
From beginning to end, Sounds of Silence is masterful. While later records might’ve improved upon it (depending on who you ask), there’s no denying how much of a step up it was from its predecessor. More idiosyncratic, varied, and confident, it was the true starting point for the greatest duo in folk rock history, and many of its tracks endure as the best pieces Paul Simon ever wrote. While a lot of music eventually ages out of relevance and/or popularity alongside the declining acceptance of their styles, Sounds of Silence echoes as much today as it did fifty-five years ago.
It may be an “old friend,” but its exquisiteness and profundities will never be forgotten.
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