The opening bars to Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence contain some of the most familiar lyrics in pop music history. As soon as you hear the softly-sung words, “Hello darkness, my old friend,” they envelop you in the mysterious aura of a song that remains strikingly relevant – yet it’s more than half a century since it was first written.
When the young American duo Simon and Garfunkel released the single that rocketed them to stardom in 1965, they were both just 24 years old – a fact that has led music critics to wonder how Simon had thought of the profound and rather melancholy lyrics at such a young age.
The iconic singer, now 76, has since revealed he wrote The Sound of Silence when he was just 21, describing it as the product of “youthful alienation.”
How did Simon and Garfunkel meet?
The duo had been friends since meeting at elementary school in Queens, New York, in 1953, when they were 11 years old. Their love of music drew them together and they began writing original songs while still at school.
Paul Simon’s father was a dance band leader and double bass player who went by the stage name of Lee Sims, while Art Garfunkel didn’t come from a musical background, as his father was a travelling salesman.
They formed a band called Tom and Jerry and released their first single, Hey Schoolgirl, on independent label, Big Records, in 1957.
Full of their now familiar harmonies, it enjoyed commercial success in the teenage market, selling 100,000 copies and entering the Billboard top 100 chart at number 49.
The 15-year-old friends found themselves winning a spot on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, alongside the wild man of rock and roll, Jerry Lee Lewis. The duo earned approximately $4,000 royalties from the song before they had even graduated from Forest Hills High School in 1958!
When did Simon and Garfunkel form as a band?
On leaving school, the duo’s strong friendship continued. However, their musical partnership dissolved for a few years after leaving school, as they attended different universities.
They reformed in 1963 to begin singing together again as a duo, initially under the name Kane and Garr, but later working under their real surnames. However, their musical style had evolved away from the Everly Brothers-type teenage pop of Tom and Jerry – a period in their career that they played down, in favour of their more famous folk style.
In an effort to regain the success enjoyed in their teens, they played at Monday’s open mike night at Gerde’s Folk City (a Greenwich live music club) to try and attract producers and win another record deal.
The story behind The Sound of Silence
Their future hit, The Sound of Silence, was one of three original songs they first sang at Gerde’s Folk City. In later interviews, Simon said he had written it when he was 21 years old – the result of sitting alone, playing his guitar and dreaming.
He wrote and played some of his best songs in the bathroom with the taps running, because he said the sound of running water bouncing off the tiles created an “echo chamber” effect that he found very soothing.
He explained he often played at night, in the dark – this was why the first line of The Sound of Silence, “Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again,” was so apt.
What do the lyrics mean?
There were many attempts to explain the lyrics, including suggestions that they referred to the assassination of President John F Kennedy in November 1963. However, in later years, Simon refuted this claim and revealed the song had been written prior to the JFK tragedy.
He described the lyrics as “post-adolescent angst” and the feelings he was experiencing as a young man at a deep, profound level.
“Nobody’s listening to me – nobody’s listening to anyone,” he told an interviewer, when asked to explain the feelings behind The Sound of Silence. According to the songwriter, because it contained a level of truth, it “resonated with millions of people.” It also had a “simple and singable melody” and was played on two guitars, without the backing of a big band.
The words, “No-one dared disturb the sound of silence,” referred to the point of view of an observer, who could see what was going on in society, but was unable to express their views in a way that would have any effect.
The Sound of Silence launched Simon and Garfunkel’s international career and sparked their iconic success in the music industry. Columbia Records’ producer Tom Wilson was in the audience one night when the duo performed at Gerde’s Folk City and he liked what he heard.
Columbia signed the duo and in 1964, they released their first album that included The Sound of Silence, which was later released as a single in 1965. It reached number one in the US charts and went gold. It also made the top 10 in Austria, Australia and Germany.
It was the start of a long and successful career, with Simon and Garfunkel performing as a duo until 2010. They released five studio albums, four live albums, 15 compilation albums and 26 singles. Their 1977 album, Bridge over Troubled Water, was voted number 51 in Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums of all time.
Their free concert in Central Park, New York in 1981 attracted a crowd of half-a-million people, while their album, Bridge over Troubled Water, in 1968 was number one in the US and the UK and sold more than 25 million copies across the world, achieving eight-times multi-platinum status.
During their long career, they won 10 Grammy Awards and in 1990, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Looking for the sound of silence?
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