In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Simon And Garfunkel had failed. They were done. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had grown up together in Forest Hills, Queens — going to the same elementary school, singing doo-wop on street-corners together, recording some smiley late-’50s teenage pop singles. Together, they’d also gotten into the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early ’60s, playing Simon’s songs in coffeehouses. (Dave Van Ronk has said that they were pretty much a joke in that world, that the opening line from “The Sound Of Silence” would automatically bring on guffaws.)
Bob Dylan collaborator Tom Wilson had signed them to Columbia, and they’d recorded one album, Wednesday Morning, 3AM, which went nowhere. The duo had broken up. Simon had moved to London in the hope of launching a solo career. Garfunkel had gone back to school at Columbia. But Wilson noticed that DJs were starting to play “The Sound Of Silence,” that the song was starting to pick up steam among college kids for whatever reason. So he had the song remixed, overdubbing drums and electric guitars, turning a fey and fragile folk song into a more muscular and of-the-moment folk-rock jam. And it exploded.
The duo didn’t know anything about the remix until it became a hit; Simon reportedly read his own name in a copy of Billboard that he’d picked up in London. When Simon heard the remixed version of his song, he hated it. But Simon And Garfunkel still got back together quickly and knocked out a rushed album. And then they became one of the biggest acts of the second half of the ’60s.
Sometime in the last decade, Blender pulled a beautiful little troll move and put “The Sound Of Silence” on a list of the worst songs of all time. Blender editor Craig Marks, a guy who later hired me at a website that never got launched, argued that “The Sound Of Silence” belonged on the list because of its self-importance, its pretentious fake profundity. Simon, after all, was a kid in his early 20s singing about the ignorance of the masses: “Hear my words that I might teach you / Read my words that I might reach you.” I can understand why someone might hate this song. I love it.
There is a deep silliness to the lyrics of “The Sound Of Silence.” Simon wrote the song when he was 21. People later assumed that it was about the JFK assassination, or the escalating Vietnam War, but Simon’s own timeline puts the song before either of those things. Instead, then, he’s singing about a public that he saw getting obsessed with “the flash of a neon light,” with the gods that they were creating out of shallow and facile popular culture. Maybe he was predicting and bemoaning his own group’s failure. Maybe he was intentionally trying to throw off his own goofy-pop-music past and all that it represented. Maybe he was attempting to fashion an image of himself as some kind of deep thinker — something 21-year-olds have always done and will always do. Plenty of people heard genuine profundity on “The Sound Of Silence.” I don’t.
What I do hear is a remarkably pretty song. That opening guitar line is delicate and soft, and so are Simon And Garfunkel’s two voices, gently harmonizing and floating above everything. And while Simon may have hated Wilson’s mixing job, this is one of those rare cases where the crass commercialized version of a song absolutely improves on the spare and pure original. It’s a pure aesthetic experience a whole lot deeper than its lyrics.
The original “Sound Of Silence” is shivery and tentative, a hesitant whisper of a thing. In adding guitars and bass and drums, Wilson turned it into something with an urgent sense of swagger. His additions never overwhelm the song’s structure. They back off, leaving the intro and the outro to ring out quietly, holding back after the exciting moment where they come crashing in. It makes the song rich, full, cinematic. It gives it a grounding and a purpose. And without it, maybe we don’t get “Mrs. Robinson” and “The Boxer” and “Cecilia” and “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” and Graceland and Rhythm Of The Saints. Sometimes, the record-company asshole is really the hero. Sometimes, left to their own devices, the musical geniuses disappear and are never heard from again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the lovely version of “The Sound Of Silence” that James Blake recorded in 2015:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from the 2003 movie Old School where Will Ferrell shoots himself with a tranquilizer dart and has a hallucination set to “The Sound Of Silence”: