The first recording was an acoustic version on Simon & Garfunkel's first album, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, which was billed as "exciting new sounds in the folk tradition," and sold about 2000 copies. When the album tanked, Simon and Garfunkel split up. What they didn't know was that their record company had a plan. Trying to take advantage of the folk-rock movement, Columbia Records had producer Tom Wilson add electric instruments to the acoustic track. Simon and Garfunkel had no idea their acoustic song had been overdubbed with electric instruments, but it became a huge hit and got them back together. If Wilson had not reworked the song without their knowledge, Simon and Garfunkel probably would have gone their separate ways. When the song hit #1 in the States, Simon was in England and Garfunkel was at college.
Paul Simon was looking for a publishing deal when he presented this song to Tom Wilson at Columbia Records. Wilson thought it could work for a group called The Pilgrims, but Simon wanted to show him how it could work with two singers, so he and and Art Garfunkel sang it to the guys at Columbia Records, who were impressed with the duo and decided to sign them.
Paul Simon took six months to write the lyrics, which are about man's lack of communication with his fellow man. He averaged one line a day.
In an interview with Terry Gross of National Public Radio (NPR), Paul Simon explained how he wrote the song while working at his first job in music: "It was just when I was coming out of college. My job was to take the songs that this huge publishing company owned and go around to record companies and see if any of their artists wanted to record the songs. I worked for them for about six months and never got a song placed, but I did give them a couple of my songs because I felt so guilty about taking their money. Then I got into an argument with them and said, 'Look, I quit, and I'm not giving you my new song.' And the song that I had just written was 'The Sound of Silence.' I thought, 'I'll just publish it myself,' and from that point on I owned my own songs, so that was a lucky argument.
I think about songs that it's not just what the words say but what the melody says and what the sound says. My thinking is that if you don't have the right melody, it really doesn't matter what you have to say, people don't hear it. They only are available to hear when the sound entrances and makes people open to the thought. Really the key to 'The Sound of Silence' is the simplicity of the melody and the words, which are youthful alienation. 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."
This was one of the songs Simon & Garfunkel performed in 1964 when they were starting out and playing the folk clubs in Greenwich Village. It was their first hit.
Paul Simon was often compared to Bob Dylan, who was also signed to Columbia Records, and while Simon has acknowledged Dylan's influence on "The Sound Of Silence," he was never trying to measure up to Dylan. Simon told Mojo in 2000: "I tried very hard not to be influenced by him, and that was hard. '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."
There is a Dylan connection on this song: The electric version was produced by Tom Wilson and finished by Bob Johnston, and both men had worked with Dylan. Wilson was Dylan's producer for about two years starting in 1963, and helped Dylan make the transition from acoustic folk to electric rock. Wilson went on to work with The Velvet Underground and later became a record company executive. Johnston was Dylan's producer until 1970.
This was used in the movie The Graduate
. The film's director Mick Nichols put it on as a work track and was going to replace it, but as the film came together it became clear that the song was perfect for the film. Nichols didn't just use this song, but felt Simon & Garfunkel had a sound that fit the tone of the movie very well. They commissioned them to write "Mrs. Robinson
" specifically for the movie, and also added "Scarborough Fair" and "April Come She Will" to the film.
This has a lot of meaning in the movie The Graduate. The lyrics refer to silence as a cancer, and if people in the movie had just been honest and not afraid to talk, all the messy things would not have happened. Problems can be solved only by honesty. (thanks, Stefan - Winona, MS)
Simon & Garfunkel did not write this about the Vietnam War, but by the time it became popular, the war was on and many people felt it made a powerful statement as an anti-war song.
In the US, this hit #1 on New Year's Day, 1966.
The opening line, "Hello darkness, my old friend," came from Simon's time as a boy when he would sing in the bathroom with the lights out, enjoying the acoustics from the tiles that provided a doo-wop reverb sound.
On February 23, 2003, Simon and Garfunkel reunited for the first time in 10 years to accept a lifetime achievement award and perform this at the opening of The Grammys. At the time, the US was preparing to invade Iraq, and while this could be heard as a political statement, Simon said it wasn't. He explained that they wanted to play this because it was their first hit.
At the Grammy Awards in 1967, Simon & Garfunkel were introduced by Dustin Hoffman, who made a name for himself when he starred in The Graduate. There was no host at The Grammys that year, so Hoffman was the first person seen when the show opened.
Despite its great popularity, Blender magazine voted this the 42nd worst song ever, remarking sardonically that "If Frasier Crane were a song, he would sound like this." The magazine's editor, Craig Marks, defended Blender's decision to include this much-loved song on their list, stating: "It's the freshman-poetry meaningfulness that got our goat, with self-important lyrics like 'hear my words that I might teach you', it's almost a parody of pretentious '60s folk-rock." The brief article on the song corresponding with this called the "hear my words" line "the most self-important... in rock history," and elaborated on Mark's remarks with: "Simon and Garfunkel thunder away in voices that suggest they're scowling and wagging their fingers as they sing. The overall experience is like being lectured on the meaning of life by a jumped-up freshman."
The band Gregorian covered this on their album Masters of Chant - as Gregorian chant. Nevermore also covered it on the album Dead Heart In A Dead World, and the German band Atrocity covered it on their 2000 album Gemini. As for their version's quality: Many people feel the band name was appropriate. (thanks, Brett - Edmonton, Canada, for above 2)
This was used in the movie Old School in a scene where Will Ferrell falls into a pool. (thanks, Joel Riley - Berkley, MI)
The Bachelors, a three-piece vocal group from Ireland, recorded this in 1966 and hit #3 in the UK with their version. Simon & Garfunkel's version was not released as a single in England. (thanks, Phil - Bolton, England)
This song was parodied on The Simpsons in the fifth season episode "Lady Bouvier's Lover." The whole episode is very similar to The Graduate, and The Simpsons version plays over the end credits, after Grandpa and Mrs. Bouvier have left the church much as Benjamin and Elaine do in the movie. (thanks, Judah - San Francisco, CA)
Paul Simon didn't always enjoy performing his older songs, as he had a hard time making connections to songs he had written decades earlier. This was a source of contention for the duo, since Art Garfunkel felt that many of their popular songs were still relevant, and their audience wanted to hear them. He explained in a 1993 interview with Paul Zollo: "I want 'The Sound Of Silence' to get angry at the end as if it's timeless. The impoverished are screaming, 'F--k this unfair system,' just like they've always screamed it. It's a timeless thing. It lives, if you can make it live, onstage tonight like it did when it was written in '64."
There has been only one cover version of this song to make the US Hot 100: a 1971 release by Peaches & Herb that made #100. Some other notable covers are an extended Metal version by Nevermore on their 2000 album Dead Heart in a Dead World, and a 1996 rendition by the Icelandic singer Emiliana Torrini.
Simon & Garfunkel performed this at Neil Young's Bridge School Benefit in 1993 with Eddie Van Halen backing them on guitar.