Revisiting Simon and Garfunkel’s Breakthrough, ‘The Sounds of Silence’
Today, their acclaim is universal, but in 1964 Simon & Garfunkel’s debut LP, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., flopped. Subtitled “Exciting new sounds in the folk tradition,” the acoustic album sold about only 2,000 copies. A mix of Paul Simon originals, folk covers and traditional tunes, its highlight was a Simon composition recorded on March 10, 1964, "The Sounds of Silence."
Simon wrote "The Sounds of Silence" the year before while living with his parents. “The main thing about playing the guitar was that I was able to sit by myself and play and dream,” Simon later told Playboy. “And I was always happy doing that. I used to go off in the bathroom, because the bathroom had tiles, so it was a slight echo chamber. I’d turn on the faucet so that water would run – I like that sound, it's very soothing to me – and I’d play. In the dark. ‘Hello darkness, my old friend / I’ve come to talk with you again.’”
Simon and tenor Art Garfunkel honed the song in Greenwich Village coffeehouses before they recorded "The Sounds of Silence" with producer Tom Wilson. Backed by just two acoustic guitars and an upright bass, "The Sounds of Silence" was drowned out by the wave of Beatlemania that swept America in 1964. Discouraged, the longtime friends split up. Simon moved to England and Garfunkel returned to college in New York.
In an interview with NPR, Simon explained the appeal of the song, which was retitled "The Sound of Silence" on later compilations. “The key to ‘The Sound of Silence’ is the simplicity of the melody and the words, which are youthful alienation," he explained. "It’s a young lyric, but not bad for a 21-year-old. It’s not a sophisticated thought, but a thought that I gathered from some college reading material or something. It wasn't something that I was experiencing at some deep, profound level – nobody’s listening to me, nobody’s listening to anyone – it was a post-adolescent angst, but it had some level of truth to it and it resonated with millions of people. Largely because it had a simple and singable melody.”
“Ahhh, what a tune!” Garfunkel told MusicRadar in 2012. “‘Sound of Silence’ has more melodic, genius, simple power than I ever realized. As the years go by, there’s something extraordinarily hooky about that simple melody – I didn’t know that. I knew it was a good-sounding record when it emerged ... It was the sixth song Paul ever wrote. He would come to my apartment on Amsterdam Avenue, where the roaches were in the kitchen, and he’d play me his songs. When he got to this one, I said, ‘Best one yet!’”
Like many young songwriters of the era, Simon admired Bob Dylan but struggled to maintain his own lyrical voice. “I tried very hard not to be influenced by him, and that was hard,” Simon told Mojo magazine. “‘The Sound of Silence,’ which I wrote when I was 21, I never would have wrote it were it not for Bob Dylan. Never, he was the first guy to come along in a serious way that wasn't a teen language song. I saw him as a major guy whose work I didn't want to imitate in the least.”
By June 1965, folk-rock had its first number one hit with the Byrds’ amped-up version of Dylan’s "Mr. Tambourine Man." That month Wilson produced "Like a Rolling Stone," Dylan’s landmark electric rocker. When Wilson learned that the "The Sounds of Silence" had gotten some East Coast airplay, he had an idea. Without the knowledge of Simon or Garfunkel, Wilson hired session players – bassist Joe Mack, drummer Buddy Salzman and guitarists Vinnie Bell and Al Gorgoni – to overdub an electric backing track onto "The Sounds of Silence."
“‘The Sound of Silence’ just knocked me out the first time I heard it,” recalled Gorgoni in Studio Stories. “The song was already great in its original form – it just needed that extra touch to put it over the top and turn it into a hit. I remember listening to Paul’s acoustic guitar part through the headphones and basically just copping it. I had this Epiphone Casino, which had the right sound. People used to think it was a 12-string electric like the Byrds – it’s not, it’s just me and Vinnie playing together mixed together onto the same track. And Vinnie added a few bluesy fills that you can hear in there as well. It took us a couple hours and it was done.”
Today Gorgoni believes the overdubbing was a mistake. “I love the song – but those guitars … they’re just awful. I really can’t listen to it now. ... Of course, all the things that are wrong with the recording didn’t stop it from becoming a huge success. So there you go.”
Garfunkel was also unimpressed with the electrified version. “It was in that electric 12-string style of the Byrds,” he told Blue Railroad magazine. “It’s cute. They’ve drowned out the strength of the lyric and they’ve made it more of a fashion kind of production. And you never know. I was mildly amused and detached with the certainty that it was not a hit. I don’t have hits.”
But he was wrong. Released in November 1965, the single raced up the charts and within months reached No. 1. Simon learned of his hit record as he read Billboard magazine in the U.K. The discovery would upend his life in London with girlfriend Kathy Chitty, the inspiration for "Kathy’s Song" and "America." Simon had also recorded a British solo album, The Paul Simon Songbook. The LP included a new version of "The Sounds of Silence."
Despite the record’s success in the States, Simon was reluctant to leave the U.K. “He was in love with Kathy and England and his life as a free young Yankee,” Garfunkel continued. “And he hated to have to relate to a hit record in America. Even though it was the thing we had long wanted, it came at an unfortunate time. It was the winter of ’65. And he only knew that it was happening when it broke the Top 10.
“So Paul came home, we met in the basement, we said, ‘All right, this thing we’ve been looking for all these years has finally happened. It behooves us to be smart and see if we could have a follow-up hit.’ We turned all our attention to what would be the single we would put out, to secure this toe-hold we had in the business. To show people it wasn’t a fluke and to show people we could make an interesting record in a whole other vein. So our goal was to have a hit that was nothing like ‘The Sounds of Silence.’ Just to show chart muscle in a different way.”
They would accomplish that goal. In January 1966 the duo released their second album, Sounds of Silence. The LP also included their next hit, "I Am a Rock," which was recorded the same afternoon (as was "Homeward Bound," which ended up on their third album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme).
In recognition of its importance in music history, the Library of Congress in 2013 chose "The Sounds of Silence" for long-term preservation in its archives. Upon the announcement, Garfunkel told the Associated Press, “When you look at the little mesh wire microphone … and you address people on the other side of the mic, you hope that your performance will be special, and you hope that it will have lasting power." Garfunkel recalled that in the ‘60s, he believed “if we do really good and give a very special performance to these great Paul Simon songs, we might last right into the next century and be appreciated.”