Monday, 16 September 2013
Simon and Garfunkel "Sounds Of Silence" (1966) (Album Review)
“Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk to you again, because a vision softly creeping, left its seeds while I was sleeping, and the vision that was planted in my brain still remains, within the sound of silence” “In the naked light I saw, 10000 people maybe more, people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening, people writing songs that voices never share, no one dares disturb the sounds of silence” “And the people bowed and prayed to the neon God they made, and the sign flashed out its warning, in the words that it was forming, and the sign said ‘the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls’, and tenement halls, and whispered in the sounds of silence” “I was 21 years when I wrote this song, I’m 22 now but I won’t be for long, time hurries on, and the leaves that are green turn to brown” “Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on, oh lord! Why have you forsaken me?” “I hear the drizzle of the rain, silently on my roof it falls, soft and warm, continuing, to England where my heart lies” “And the song I was writing is left undone, I don’t know why I spend my time, writing songs I can’t believe, with words that tear and strain to rhyme” “While you were just sleeping and a –dreaming of me I held up and robbed a hard liquor store!” “On a tour of one night stands, my suitcase and guitar in hand, and everything is neatly planned for a poet and a one man band” “Every day’s an endless stream of cigarettes and magazines, and each town looks the same to me, the movies and the factories, and every stranger’s face I see reminds me that I long to be homeward bound” “He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch, and they were grateful for his patronage and thanked him very much, so my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read ‘Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head” “He turned on the gas and he went to sleep, with the windows closed so he’d never wake up to his silent world and his tiny room, and Mrs Reardon says he has a brother somewhere who should be notified soon, and all the people said ‘what a shame that he’s dead, but wasn’t he a most peculiar man?’ ” “A winter’s day, in a deep and dark December, I am alone, gazing from my window onto the streets below, on a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow, I am a rock, I am an island!” “Don’t talk of love! Well, I’ve heard the word before, its sleeping in my memory, I won’t disturb the slumber or feelings that have died, if I never loved I never will have cried! I am a rock, I am an island” “Hiding in my room, safe within my womb, I touch no one and no one touches me, I am a rock, I am an island! And a rock feels no pain! And an island never cries!”
Simon and Garfunkel “Sounds Of Silence” (1966)
The Sound Of Silence/Leaves That Are Green/Blessed/Kathy’s Song/Somewhere They Can’t Find Me/Anji//Richard Cory/A Most Peculiar Man/April Come She Will/We’ve Got A Groovy Thing Goin’/I Am A Rock
“Hello ‘The Sound Of Silence’ my old friend, I’ve come to review you yet again, because a vision softly creeping, left its seeds while I was sleeping, and the vision that was planted in my brain, still remains, within the sounds of Alan’s Archives...”
If ever there was an album that seems like it was made by fate and is a lesson in life never to give up on your dreams, then ‘Sounds Of Silence’ is it. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel have been making records under a varying list of wild and wacky names together and apart since they were fifteen years old – that’s nine whole years of keeping the faith, when everyone around them must have been telling them to stop and get a ‘proper’ job. In 1964 they think they’ve cracked it, Paul Simon suddenly finding his ‘voice’ as a spokesperson for disenfranchised, lonely, alienated youth and the duo record some of their greatest work cheaply and quickly, with just an acoustic guitar as folk tradition dictated. The duo are so confident about their news endeavour that Art Garfunkel briefly gives up his studies (see below) and Paul Simon travels all the way from England to his home state of New York to record the album, no mean feat for a penniless busker torn away from his newfound girlfriend. The result, ‘Wednesday Morning 5 AM’ (reviewed in news and views no 42), is a severely under-rated folk-rock gem, full of the first buds from a brilliant songwriting flower as well as the occasional gospel cover thorn. It deserved to do a lot better, but somehow fell through the cracks: folk just wasn’t in in 1964 (or at least, only when sung by Bob Dylan or Joan Baez). After nearly a full decade of getting by on belief in their own talent, Simon and Garfunkel finally admit defeat, splitting for the second time and going their separate ways, Art back to architecture and art classes and Paul back to England, where his heart lies. Neither of them are prepared for what happens next.
Producer Tom Wilson and engineer Roy Halee might not have had the go-ahead for a second Simon and Garfunkel album, but they still considered the duo to be simply one small break-through away from superstardom. Strangely, though, history seems to have ‘lost’ the name of the person who did more than anything to provide the impetus for a Simon and Garfunkel reunion: a disc jockey in Florida who particularly liked ‘The Sound Of Silence’ and played it a lot; far from being cross, his audience began writing in and asking more about the disc. When The Beatles came to town in 1964 and changed the landscape overnight, The Byrds going even further down the folk-rock road the following year, Wilson thought he’d cracked it and decided to overdub some ‘Beatley’ type electric instruments onto his favourite song ‘The Sound Of Silence’. Having failed to track the duo down (Art was busy studying and Paul stayed in a new town every night without a regular address, long before the days of mobile phones) Wilson went ahead anyway and gave the duo that last great gamble they didn’t even know they had (Paul reportedly got the hump; Art considered the result merely ‘fair’). Chances are the duo wouldn’t have been interested in re-recording it if asked anyway – the song had been a flop once, why would some new instruments matter? So it was that Simon and Garfunkel suddenly became overnight stars without even knowing it – the ‘household name’ business won’t take off until the ‘Graduate’ film in 1968, but with just that one superb single Simon and Garfunkel have done enough to make some money, set the charts alight and prove that they have a ‘voice’ that deserves to be heard.
The trouble for Simon and Garfunkel in this period is that they’ve already adjusted to life without the other and – in once case – without music. Art will continue as a student into 1966, sure that their success this time around will be as fleeting as it was in 1956 when ‘Hey! Schoolgirl’ proved that S+G (under the name ‘Tom and Jerry’) went top 40 nationally and top 10 locally. Paul Simon, meanwhile, seems to have been content to become an exotic busker in a strange land, living hand-to-mouth and regaling local English folk lovers with tales of Greenwich village. He’s also been reunited with Kathy, perhaps the love of his life, who was so determined to stay out of the spotlight Paul had quite a decision to make when he got the call to record this follow-up with Arty (amazingly though she does agree to appear on the cover of ‘The Paul Simon Songbook’; this and a popular song with her name in the title make many more fans think they ‘know’ about her than they actually do). Moreover, he’d finally made a solo album under his own real name for the first time, ‘The Paul Simon Songbook’ which did better than ‘Wednesday Morning’ but hardly set the charts alight; even so it did well enough to think that he could become a cult solo star and that he no longer needed his old friend Arty from high school. Worse still, the initial rush of great songs that had poured out of him (used on ‘Wednesday’ and ‘Songbook’) seemed to be over: of the 11 songs on the comparatively short ‘Sounds Of Silence’ album four of them are re-recordings of tracks from ‘The Paul Simon Songbook’, one of them had already been included on an ‘interim’ EP released to cash-in on ‘The Sound Of Silence’ (‘Blessed’, plus the re-recording of ‘I Am A Rock’), one of them is the overdubbed title track from the previous year, another (‘Somewhere They Can’t Find Me’) a clumsy re-write of the title track of ‘Wednesday Morning’ with almost the same lyrics, one of the ‘new’ tracks an old folk song with only a little ‘new’ music (‘April Come She Will’) and one of them (‘Anji’) is an acoustic guitar instrumental Paul learnt whilst in England. That’s just two new songs exclusive to this album and written in between the first two S+G albums: ‘Richard Cory’ and ‘We’ve Got A Groovy Thing Goin’, despite the fact that ‘Songbook’ is almost a full year old by this time and ‘Wednesday Morning’ a further six months older – Paul never was the most prolific of writers but you’d expect him to have a few more songs ready; perhaps, after so many ‘failures’ he’d simply given up? (The wonder is that there weren’t more songs ‘rescued’ from ‘Songbook’ or even ‘Wednesday Morning’: whilst ‘A Simple Desultory Phillippic’ is the kind of in-joke you can only do if you’re unknown or established (the duo re-recording it for album three ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’), songs like ‘Patterns’ and ‘Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall’ sound like the best of the bunch to me (they too won’t be re-recorded till ‘Parsley, Sage’) whilst ‘On The Side Of The Hill’ is too great a song to only be used as the ‘Canticle’ section of ‘Scarborough Fair’ the following year. In addition, the ‘Old Friends’ S+G box set issued around the millennium featured an outtake from the album sessions, ‘Blues Run The Game’ that’s perhaps the pinnacle of the small handful of S+G outtakes with silky harmonies, bluesy backing and intelligent lyrics (by folky Jackson C Frank). How this song got left off the album when the likes of ‘Groovy Thing’ and ‘Anji’ got though I’ll never know (this song was also re-issued on the 2007 version of the CD along with covers of three rather drippy folk standards that probably should have been left in the vaults at the time). A ‘Sound Of Silence’ style overdubbing of ‘He Was My Brother’ or ‘Sparrow’ would also have made for an even more remarkable album, so Simon and Garfunkel were hardly without choices for this album, despite giving it just eleven songs and a despicably short running time.
Still, what we do have here is the sound of a 24 year old (‘though he won’t be for long...’) songwriter whose finally worked out how to weave the pop commerciality of his early work and the sophisticated but un-commercial work of his recent ‘folk’ period. Some of these songs are staggering achievements for a then-unknown songwriter life seems to have passed by and its strange in retrospect that no one else (barring perhaps the BBC who get Paul to appear on their ‘Thought For The Day’ slot) seemed to notice how perfect a writer Paul was for his troubled-yet-hopeful times, including a lot of his audience. They keep deleting it from youtube, sadly, but every so often a new poster will add a terrific Paul Simon acoustic show from shortly before ‘The Sound Of Silence’ takes off; Paul’s earnest delivery brings hushed, revered silence but its only when he throws in the gormless novelty of Tom Paxton’s ‘We’re Going To The Zoo’ that the room explodes (‘Sounds’, in particular, is greeted with indifference – and it’s a truly great performance, dripping with fear, regret and isolation). Like ‘Wednesday Morning’, when this album gets it right it gets it very right: ‘Leaves That Are Green’ is a great folk-pop song that manages to be catchy without sacrificing depth; ‘Kathy’s Song’ is arguably the first ‘real’ heartfelt love song of the 1960s, Paul admitting to his fears and doubts and homesickness as well as his love and hope for the future; ‘I Am A Rock’ is a classic song with the story very much hidden between-the-lines, even the thickest of listeners (e.g. The Spice Girls) surely picking up on the fact that the narrator’s been recently hurt although he never breathes a word of it; better yet come two ‘class’ songs from different perspectives, the poor hopeless frustrated suicide of ‘A Most Peculiar Man’ who is as misunderstood in death as he was in life and ‘Richard Cory’, when a man in poverty hears of a millionaires’ suicide and still feels no sympathy for him. No one was writing songs like these in 1965: John Lennon has only just learnt to ‘connect’ with his inner angst on ‘Help!’ a couple of months earlier, Paul McCartney won’t catch up till ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and The Stones and The Kinks are nowhere near as yet (The Beach Boys come closest, but with a four-albums-a-year workload their great-to-ghastly-filler ratio is even lower than S+G’s).
Of course when this record is bad its also pretty awful: the Christianity-baiting ‘Blessed’ is a dangerous song for its age and has some great ideas but its the difference between an up-and-coming mid 20s-year-old who wants to make a point and an older, wiser songwriter whose lived it; ‘Somewhere They Can’t Find Me’ is a re-write of one of the weakest early Paul Simon originals and somehow manages to pass over even the charm of that recording in favour of some uncharacteristic shouting and bluesy wailing; ‘Anji’/’Angie’ is a cute instrumental but very out of place in the middle of the record and much better played by composer Davy Graham on his own albums (Paul admitted later it was partly here as filler and partly to give an old friend some royalties, which is fair enough I suppose); ‘April Come She Will’ wastes a wonderful angelic Art Garfunkel lead literally on a nursery rhyme and ‘We’ve Got A Groovy Thing Goin’ is the start of an unfortunate trend of Simon and Garfunkel trying too hard to appear ‘hip’ (the sleeve of the record notes that this song was made ‘just for fun’; let’s hope they did have fun because there’s not much fun for the listener!) An album of two halves then and arguably the patchiest S+G record until the half-drop dead gorgeous, half nonsense ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ – although you have to say the sheer brilliance of the album’s better songs more than makes up for the mistakes.
Weirdly, Columbia didn’t pick Tom Wilson as producer for this album, despite his sudden brainwave. You’d think that a producer who’d had the nerve to request an expensive overdub session and insisted on a flop being re-released (which had magically turned into a surprise top ten hit and money-maker) would have the record company laying out the red carpet for him. Instead, Columbia appears to have insisted on Bob Johnston as producer, a man with a tremendous track record in folk circles but not really the kind of producer a nervous young duo needed (especially one who’d already probably spent longer in a studio than Johnston over the years). Reports have it that Johnston didn’t like the material that much (especially ‘I Am A Rock’, which only made the album when it was running short; ironically it became the ‘single’ from the album and another big hit) and wanted the record done quickly so he could move on to ‘bigger’ projects (the album was made in just three weeks; by 1966 standards that’s short indeed – ‘Revolver’ took The Beatles about eight months!) Luckily Roy Halee was on the duo’s side more often than not, but the trio’s relationship wasn’t quite what it ended up being in later years (both Simon and Garfunkel admitted bowing to their producer even though they instinctively trusted their engineer’s ear more). To be fair, though, a lot of Johnston’s decisions are spot-on. The running order for this album is almost certainly down to him and works very well: the run of ‘suicide’ songs on side two really do belong together and the mood of this album just flows neatly, from anger to alienation to happiness in such subtle strokes that the listener hardly notices. What’s more, a lesser producer could easily have swamped this album with the ‘Beatley’ electric leanings of the ‘Sound Of Silence’ single; instead Johnston reigns the sound in, plugging in when the songs demand it (‘Blessed’ ‘Leaves That Are Green’ and ‘Richard Cory’) without swamping Paul’s more delicate acoustic compositions (‘Kathy’s Song’, ‘A Most Peculiar Man’ ‘April Come She Will’). No wonder this record did so well: almost neatly half folk to half rock, it is the sound of early 1966 before ‘freakbeat’ and early psychedelia change the soundscape of the 1960s forever.
We keep talking about ‘timing’ on this site as if its something as important as melodies, lyrics or production (perhaps more so) and that goes double with this record. Folk-rock was in (or at least it was in 1965; Simon and Garfunkel just about get away with it too in April 1966), thanks to a growing interest from the fab four (on albums like ‘Beatles For Sale’ and ‘Help!’), the rise of Bob Dylan and the sudden spectacular rise of The Byrds, who fitted squarely down the ‘middle’ of Bob and The Beatles. Simon and Garfunkel are the perfect ‘new’ thing for their age: intelligent, scholarly and singing about the problems of the age with the outlook of the young and the mature voice of their elders. No wonder so many students fell in love with this album, giving S+G a cult fanbase of millions even before they hit the mainstream with ‘Mrs Robinson’ and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. Just have a look at the cover which says it all: two students, draped in college scarves (only one of whom is entitled to wear them – see below in our top five for which it is!) apparently in deep discussion and interrupted by the cameraman in deep flow. Both are the kind of young man you’d like to bring home to mother – your problem would be trying to stop them talking about ‘deep’ subjects long enough to have dinner. The cover is also a natural successful to the even better one for ‘Wednesday Morning’, when a staggeringly young looking S+G are viewing ‘the words of the prophets written on the subway walls’. That shouldn’t get in the way of the wonderfully barbed tongue Paul has at times on this album though: the rich have never been as subtley or as well ticked off as they are on ‘A Most Peculiar Man’; equally the class divide has never been treated as finely as it is on ‘Richard Cory’; these two songs and ‘Blessed’ really are quite far ahead of their times, damning the very academic but detached world that S+G seem to be part of on the front cover. (The cover’s enough for an essay in fact about ‘why being a student was hipper in 1966 than at any timer since’... something which seems strangely in keeping with the concept!)
If there’s an overall ‘concept’ on this album, then it’s one of mis-communication and not judging by appearances. Perhaps taking his cue from the success of ‘Sounds Of Silence’ (recognised as Paul’s best song at the time, even before it was a hit). ‘Blessed’ is the tale of a religion that’s lost its way and no longer ‘speaks’ to the worshippers, leaving the ‘meek’ to be metaphorically beaten up when they should be helping; ‘Somewhere They Can’t Find Me’ is the tale of a man who seems to have everything – but to keep that lifestyle up he’s resorted to robbing ‘hard-liqour stores’; ‘Richard Cory’ might have millions in the bank but his life is a hard, empty slog and there’s no love lost between the rich overseer and the poverty-stricken workers under him, who both fail to understand the responsibilities of the other; ‘A Most Peculiar Man’ is a gossipy discussion between the landlady and friends of a man who died by his own hand in one of her rooms – given all she knew and understood about her lodger the walls between them seem much thicker than the cardboard-thin building they were in (’No one in turn ever spoke to him...’); finally ‘I Am A Rock’ is the ultimate song of mis-communication as the hurt narrator so convinces himself that life is out to hurt him that he locks himself away, afraid to show his ‘real’ self least he ever has to feel the pain of betrayal so badly again. Of the two songs here, only two are ‘happy’: ‘The Leaves That Are Green’, which ‘defeats’ the theme of mis-communication by recognising that hurts and slights are fleeting and life is short and ‘Kathy’s Song’ in which a troubled soul finally finds someone he can talk to honestly; by sharing the burden with another person he ‘breaks’ the spell of silence that casts itself over this album like a fog and at the end ‘I stand alone without beliefs – the only truth I know is you’. That’s quite an accomplished for a writer so young and so inexperienced at this sort of work (Paul was still writing primarily ‘novelty’ songs as late as 1963) and – along with ‘Wednesday Morning’ and ‘Songbook’ – the first flowerings of a career that still continues to impress and amaze today.
‘Sounds Of Silence’ is an album of beginnings then, of a talented songwriter and two talented singers finally finding their voice and audience and flying off into the distance. And yet, the seeds of the troubles that will hit Simon and Garfunkel just three years down the line are already on display. You’d expect Simon and Garfunkel to be ecstatic about their unexpected fame and fortune, but they paid a heavy price for their unexpected ‘hit’ in the long run. Garfunkel finally had to choose between his studies and his music, something that he’d always successfully balanced till now and Paul was edgy and rather upset that he had to leave his girlfriend and a country he’d grown fond of to make a bit of money (he vowed in interviews at the time that I’ll hang around for six months to make some money – and then fly back to England for good’; ironically S+G tried to persuade their promoter to book a UK tour but it turned out Paul had already been ‘earning money’ in a foreign climate for more than the allotted six months of a tax year. Typically no one had bothered to check when he wasn’t earning any more than the money he needed to live off!) The fact that this fame turned out to be permanent rather than temporary seems to have caught them both by surprise. After all, the attitudes of Simon and Garfunkel’s attitude were bound to be wary: they’d been conned before by the music business swallowing them up and spitting them out and they’d thrown everything they could at the music industry down the years attempting every style, mood, tempo, funny accent and gimmick in order to get noticed – had they really just got their breakthrough without even being present for the overdubbing sessions? What’s more, the reunion was not on their own terms: both men had got used to working alone and were far less enthusiastic about this album than they had been on ‘Wednesday Morning 5 AM’; ironically enough this first break-through album was about the only one they’d convinced themselves wouldn’t be a ‘hit’. Paul actively had to go back and re-record ‘old’ songs he thought he’d already got right once on ‘The Paul Simon Songbook’ and the fact that he only adds another two songs (one of which seemingly embarrassed him at the time) suggests that he didn’t want to ‘lose’ any key songs on yet another attempt at duo stardom. Garfunkel only gets one lead vocal – on ‘April Come She Will’ – and that is simply a barely altered nursery rhyme/folk song to keep him quiet (surprisingly, given Arty’s new found ‘power’ over his partner – in the sense that Paul’s solo album had flopped and the two hits he’d had now had been with Garfunkel – he seems to have had no input into the tracklisting, unlike ‘Wednesday Morning’ when he provided the more ‘traditional’ choices of ‘Benedictus’ and ‘Go Tell It On The Mountain’).
Incidentally, what is this album called exactly?! As far as I can tell it’s called ‘Sounds Of Silence’ and so different to the song ‘The Sound Of Silence’, implying that the album features ten more takes on the sound of alienation and miss-communication. However, my old vinyl copy (admittedly a re-print) actually this album ‘The Sound Of Silence’ on the spine and many fans/reviewers/pedants/people who should get out more insist on calling the album by that name too. As far as I can tell, that’s a mistake and I’ll refer to the album as ‘Sounds Of Silence’ from now on; however if it really offends you, simply copy this review into some ‘word’ document and use the ‘replace’ button (top right) to replace every instant of ‘Sounds Of Silence’ with ‘The Sound Of Silence’. Better now? While we’re on similar subjects, some copies of this album (my old vinyl one again for instance) have tie-in single ‘Homeward Bound’ as part of the track listing (we can see why some companies did it: this is a very short running album after all). However the original album and most of the CD issues have placed this song on the ‘Parsley, Sage’ album which is where we’ve reviewed it: have a look at ‘core album review no 7’ if you want to read about that song too!
We’ve already covered the ‘original’ acoustic version of ‘The Sound Of Silence’ on our review for ‘Wednesday Morning 5 AM’ (see news and views issue 42). In a nutshell, it’s still one of Paul’s greatest songs and the Simon-Garfunkel harmonies some of their best, this incantation to darkness and isolation so powerfully written that its more of a surprise that the song flopped in 1964 than it suddenly became a surprise hit in 1965 (there’s lots more superlatives over on our original review so I won’t repeat myself about the song here!) The two versions of the song, electric and acoustic, are quite different too: you wouldn’t think that all that was different here was the addition of an electric guitar part, bass and drums as the whole mood and texture seem to be different. The sparse, acoustic reading of the song is the perfect accompaniment to the lyrics about world-weary isolation and lack of communication between human beings, which must be why Paul assumed that a ‘new’ version of the song could never be a hit. The new instruments work well, though, sounding more like a rally call for a disenfranchised generation who all feel the same way and yet can never admit how they feel to each other. I’d still pick the spookier acoustic version out of the two, but adding the electric instruments (and some very Roger McGuinn-style Rickenbacker guitar) enhances rather than detracts from the song and the closing trill of amplified arpeggios is particularly moving, like warm blood has been added to the amphibian narrator despite his sense of detachment. Interestingly, Simon and Garfunkel never ‘played’ an electric performance of this song: although they’ve performed it many times together and apart they’ve always stuck to their original acoustic arrangement. As Arty says about this song in his eloquent sleevenotes (for ‘Wednesday Morning’) ‘The Sound Of Silence’ is a ‘major work...more than either of us expected’ (‘The words tell us when meaningful communication fails, the only sound left is silence’). The leap from Paul’s rockabilly fixation (check out Tico and the Triumphs’ ‘Tick-Tock’ and ‘Express Train’) to this in just a year (via the unfairly neglected ‘bridge’ song between the two styles ‘Carlos Domingues’) is nothing short of staggering. Few albums ever made can have started with a song more powerful or iconic than this one.
If your entry to Simon and Garfunkel started here, with their first strong-selling album and you’d bought the LP on the strength of the album you might have expected more ruminations on alienation, some poetry-set-to-lyrics, maybe some moody electric-acoustic instrumentals. You probably weren’t expecting ‘The Leaves That Are Green’, a delightful bouncy song about aging that first appeared in acoustic form on ‘The Paul Simon Songbook’. This version is by far the superior, though, Art’s sunny harmonies really bringing out the prettiness of the melody and a memorable harpsichord accompaniment giving the song a sense of ‘history’ and timelessness. Given that Paul was just ‘21 years when I wrote this song’ (and 22 when he recorded it for ‘Songbook’) the lyrics are terrifically mature, the narrator relishing his youth because he knows he won’t be young forever. Some lyrics are more inspired than others (throwing pebbles in a brook to see the ripples is a theme that must be on about its 20th appearance on this website by now – and the middle eight of ‘hello, hello, hello, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye – that’s all there is’ must be the single laziest piece of writing Paul Simon ever did). The first couple of verses, though, are some of Simon’s best work, postmoderningly introducing this song by telling us his age (Paul was in fact 23 when he recorded this best known version, although he was indeed 22 on ‘Songbook’!) and writing some memorable lines about lost loves ‘fading in the night’ and ideas lost forever that were on the tip of his tongue, ‘a poem I meant to write’. Indeed, this song is basically a precursor to George Harrison’s better known ‘All Things Must Pass’, talking about ‘endings’ as a natural part of life and adding that we should be happy rather than scared to embrace change. Paul still sings this song in concert occasionally today (unlike most of his early work barring ‘Silence’) adding ‘Boy I sure wasn’t 22 for long...’!; fans love this song too, for its quirky engaging style and the fact that its happy take on aging is so different to its author’s usual style. One of the better tracks on the album.
‘Blessed’ is another oddity. It’s not because the song is religious – God is a theme of many a Paul Simon song and has grown in prominence in his work more and more as he gets older and closer to finding out which of his two ‘theories’ of the afterlife are closest to the truth (a bureaucratic nightmare of queues or a doo-wop filled paradise filled with song). It’s not even that this song is anti-religious, although it does seem strange that a songwriter who got his first big break performing on BBC Radio’s ‘Thought For The Day’ religious slot should be quite this openly venomous. No, it’s the style: full of angular, crushing notes and written deliberately as an ‘electric’ song (perhaps Paul’s first) full of crashing chords and Rickenbacker echo. Paul apparently wrote the song after taking shelter from the rain in St Anne’s Church, Soho and the contrast between the ‘sermon on the mount’ quoted in the song being indifferently delivered in stark contrast to the dark looks and mutterings he was being given in his shabby, busking state. The tone of the song isn’t a philosophical argument as per later, either, but an angry rant against organised religion spouting ideas they no longer practice. Like many a Paul Simon narrator, this one is giving a voice to the down-trodden and features some very clever lines setting the biblical reference ‘the meek shall inherit the Earth’ against the reality of life as a Christian in 1966, racist sexist and decidedly upper class (‘Blessed are the penny rookers, cheap hookers, groovy lookers!’) Paul admits that the ‘church service makes me nervous’ because of the difference between what the people there teach and what they say, but this isn’t an anti-religious rant like, say, Neil Young’s or John Lennon’s, merely against what has been done to the Christian Church in 2000 years. Paul does in fact end the song by praying ‘Oh Lord! Why have you forsaken me?’ The very ending, though, is mysterious: why does Paul sing that he’s ‘tended my own garden for much too long?!’ (surely the point is that he should have tended his own ‘garden’ earlier, seeing as the congregation ‘garden’ is corrupt). Overall the effect is a bit too OTT, the combination of Simon and Garfunkel shouting out dissonantly, in stark contrast to their sweeter vocals across the rest of the album and their career, the bitter-sounding lyrics and the guitar attacks at least one experiment too far. That said, this is a brave song for the period and Simon and Garfunkel should be applauded for trying to do something like this back when they were still relatively unknown and didn’t carry much weight. The later, elder Simon and Garfunkel (together and apart) would have tackled this subject a bit more subtlety though, you sense. In fact, the evolution from this song to Paul’s reverential ‘Silent Eyes’ (about his Jewish ancestors) just nine years later is quite staggering, showing that Paul at least underwent quite a change of thought in the intervening years.
‘Kathy’s Song’ is a re-recording of the one from ‘Paul Simon Songbook’ and features a slightly better vocal from Paul but otherwise sounds more or less the same; full credit to Bob Johnston for keeping the simplicity and fragility of the original intact instead of treating it like a ‘demo’. Kathy was the name of Paul’s media-shy girlfriend – the same one who crops up later on 1968’s ‘America’ – and the pair really did meet in England ‘where my heart lies’. The first real love of Paul’s life, this song sounds like a letter of devotion set to music, maybe written during one of Paul’s spells in America (making ‘Wednesday Morning’ perhaps?) Like many a ‘real’ love song, it almost seems as if we’re listening in to a private conversation and it must have been a shock at the time to hear such a seemingly confident and ‘hip’ songwriter pouring out his hopes and fears like this (‘I don’t know why I spend my time writing songs I can’t believe, with words that tear and strain to rhyme’ – perfectionist to the end, even Paul’s couplet about not being much of a writer is beautifully poetic and scans perfectly!) Paul’s lyrics are rarely better, summing up the British weather in one pithy line (believe me, if he’d gone to Carlisle he’d be cheering that it was only drizzling, not snowing!; perhaps he wrote this one on Widnes railway station alongside ‘Homeward Bound’ because that town seemed to have a permanent drizzle when I worked there) and admitting to his beloved that without her behind him, believing in him and giving him direction, he’s only a pale shadow of himself. On an album about the problems of people not communicating properly, the fact that one person can shape another for the good seems like a revelation and makes for a highly successful, poingnant song. In truth this is more ‘Paul’s song’ than ‘Kathy’s song – she’s more a ghostly muse in this song than a ‘real’ character. Paul’s delicate acoustic guitar picking is excellent too, although it’s a shame that there isn’t room for Art’s vocals anywhere (weirdly for such a personal song, Art gets to sing this one on live performances – which either suggests that Paul thought the more romantic lyrics were more in his line or that the two parted company much earlier than the history books have always suggested).
‘Somewhere They Can’t Find Me’ is one of the lesser songs on the album though, an electric reading of the title track of ‘Wednesday Morning 5 AM’. Paul always seemed to be fonder of that song than by rights he should have been – its arguably the weakest, most derivative original on that first S+G album and yet it ended up being the title track; it makes some kind of sense than that after the success of ‘The Sound Of Silence’ with electric overdubs Paul should think about repeating the same trick. The trouble is not with the arrangement, which does a good job of ‘Beatleifying’ the original into a turbulent swarm of keyboard, guitars and a bucket load of percussion and the addition of a new catchy chorus (‘I’ve got to creep down the alleyway...’) but with the original song. Paul’s usually good at writing for underdogs, putting lines into the mouths of characters from ‘The Boxer’ to ‘The Sound Of Silence’ and ‘A Poem On The Underground Wall’ that turn what should be ‘losers’ into ‘winners’, perfectly conveying their frustration and hopelessness and transforming societal rejects into mini-heroes. The trouble is that the narrator of this song (in both versions) is so unlikable: he actively brings on his problems by holding up a – all together now - ‘hard liquor store’ (not a line you hear very often in popular music), without any thought about what it might do to the life of the fiancé he sleeps next to. The hint is that the man needs money in a hurry – but we never find out why; the song might have been better with a verse explaining that he’s too shy or afraid of rejection to admit to his loved one he’s really penniless. At least this ‘second’ version sounds like the events being described though: turbulent and suffocating, with some truly great Simon and Garfunkel harmonies on the new refrain ‘before they come to catch me I’ll be gone’ – the first version sounded like a love-lorn ballad, with no feeling of doom or urgency. A definite improvement on the original then – but why Simon and Garfunkel returned to this song at all is beyond me (now an electric re-recording of ‘He Was My Brother’ – that could really have been something!)
If the opening to ‘Anji’ (as this folk classic is traditionally called) or ‘Angie’ (as Columbia accidentally printed her name for this record) sounds familiar, then that’s because you’ve probably just heard the opening guitar lick on the last song. Rather than try and hide the fact, Columbia seem to be flaunting the fact by putting the two alongside each other. Not that composer Davey Graham was likely to complain – Paul added it to the album deliberately as a favour to an old friend he admired and for years, until he too became established, the royalties from this album were the most money Graham made in a single go. A nice gesture then, but as the only instrumental in S+G’s canon this song doesn’t half sound out of place and chances are Art Garfunkel isn’t even there for the session. Good as Paul’s playing is – ‘Anji’ being a legendarily hard and complex piece to play – he’s no Davey Graham and is all too clearly the ‘pupil’ rather than the ‘master’ here (amazingly Davey was even younger than Paul was here when he wrote the song, coming up with the basic chord progression and melody when he was 19 and named after his then-girlfriend; an only slightly older Bert Jansch of Pentangle recorded this song first on his debut album in 1965 but S+G’s version is much better known than either). Still, given the speed with which this album was made some filler on the album was inevitable and the duo could have done worse than bring the world the first commercial recording of this soon-to-be acknowledged classic (although I’m still puzzled as to why S+G didn’t re-record ‘Patterns’ or ‘Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall’ for another year). Incidentally, I’ve only just noticed that there’s yet another riff here that Paul re-uses – the centre phrase of ‘We’ve Got A Groovy Thing Goin’ heard at 1:35, which will be cropping up in four song’s time (Simon and Garfunkel didn’t hide their influences very well did they?!)
‘Richard Cory’ opens side two with an absolutely classic song. Based loosely on a poem of the same name by Edward Arlington Robinson this is a brutal, smoky, urban song where everyone feels trapped and nobody comes out of the song well. Although none of the lines are left intact, there really aren’t all that many differences between the poem and the song: Paul simply fleshes out the details of the characters, adding in the operas and charity works but Richard Cory is still very much the ‘gentleman from sole to crown’ of the original and still kills himself with a ‘bullet through his head’. The narrator is not Richard Cory but someone who works in his factory and who dreams of having all the money and fame and power of his boss. Richard Cory probably doesn’t see it that way: his life too is one empty grind of parties, operas, charity events and being seen in the right circles, full of a responsibility that eats away at him. Still, the narrator is surprised when the newspaper reports starkly state that ‘Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head’. He ought to feel sorry about his old boss, but he doesn’t, instead hitting straight back into the catchy ‘wish that I could be’ chorus. The hint here in the song is that the distribution of wealth is stupid: Richard Cory has too much of it, worries about what to do with it and how to be seen using it, while the workers just a couple of rooms away from him at his factory toil away for peanuts; the bosses’ side longing for the lack of responsibilities of their minions and the workers longing for their money of their overseers. Both men are trapped and might have understood the other better had they talked – but these are two men living such completely different lives they never had a hope of talking to one another. A terrific punchy song, with a stark muscly backing track perfectly suited to the song’s theme and some wonderful vocals (particularly Paul’s sarcastic second verse where charities are ‘grateful for Cory’s patronage and thanked him very much’), this is a terrific song and a clear album highlight, much covered but never bettered. Wings used to perform this song as a medley with ‘Picasso’s Last Words’ on their 1976 world tour where it gained a new lease of life (you can hear Denny Laine sending up the folk protest of the lyrics on ‘Wings Over America’ where the singer, fed up after another drugs bust and surrounding media coverage, thinks about the sort of media-backed responsible music star image he longs for and improvises the line ‘I wish that I could be...John Denver!’) The sleeve of the ‘Sounds Of Silence’ record adds that the song is used here ‘with apologies to Mr Robinson’; on the contrary Edward would surely have been thrilled at such a talented writer adding his own slant whilst staying true to the spirit of the original poem and breathing into it a new lease of life.
‘A Most Peculiar Man’ is another album highlight about a suicide (not the kind of sentence I writer very often – the last must have been covering ‘Who By Numbers’ five years ago!), cleverly constructed and magnificently performed. Another piece first featured on the ‘Paul Simon Songbook’, the work has grown in stature and confidence tenfold here, Garfunkel’s cherubic harmonies the perfect accompaniment on a song that sounds so sweet until you analyse it properly. Tongues are a-wag outside a landlady’s house as ‘Mrs Riardan’ tells everyone she can about how one of her tenants died on her property. The line ‘he was a most peculiar man, and she should know – she lived upstairs from him’ is a masterstroke, the song widening out to show that no one really knew the poor deceased victim of life at all and the landlady might as well have lived on another planet. S+G handle the revelation expertly, pulling back gradually to reveal the whole story, the truth finally gushing out in a thrilling extended verse (‘He dies last Saturday, he turned on the gas and he went to sleep, with the windows closed so he’d never wake up, to his silent world and his tiny room...’) before pulling the rug out from under us again by adding the idle gossip (‘...And Mrs Riardan says he has a brother somewhere who should be notified soon’). If only the people around him had tried to talk to him and befriend him, instead of pulling faces over his isolation and calling him ‘a most peculiar man’ he need not have died at all. The song is based on a true story after Paul read a rather unflattering account of a local suicide in a London newspaper during his stay in England, although the title line ‘A Most Peculiar Man’ seems to have been a Paul Simon invention. Perhaps the ultimate song about mis-communication out of the many Paul wrote on the subject (along with ‘Sound Of Silence’ of course), ‘Peculiar Man’ is a masterstroke of writing, saying so much between the lines that the characters in the song themselves are too ignorant to understand. It’s also perfectly performed here, the backing track caught somewhere behind surface sadness and indifference while Simon and Garfunkel pitch their detached vocals just right. We fans said for decades that Paul should have written a play, such is his eye for character and detail (we learned to be careful what we wished for after the musical ‘The Capeman’ came out in 1995) and nowhere is that better displayed than on this track, one of that handful of truly great S+G songs they never seem to play on the radio.
‘April Come She Will’ isn’t bad either, it’s just that coming after two such superb songs it’s rather too insubstantial to be taken seriously. Garfunkel sings solo for the first time on an S+G record and his vocal is a good one, tender and pure, while Paul’s Anji-like guitar picking seems almost telepathically linked to what his partner sings. The trouble is that the song is borrowed from yet another source and not really altered: although the melody sounds quite different, ‘April Come She Will’ is a folk song as old as any that have appeared on AAA albums down the years. Like ‘The Leaves That Are Green’, this is an album all about aging and the inevitable passing of years, the lifespan of a human being reduced to the ‘12 months’ of life. The two characters start happily enough before a mid-life crisis (when in ‘June’ she’ll ‘change her tune’) and a sad ending (‘August die she must’), although Paul chickens out of adding any months in between October and March (potential extra verses for anyone after a longer song; ‘October she’ll get mouldier, November she’ll be slender, December she’ll dismember, January she’ll drive a van-uary, February she’ll bang her head-uary and in March she’ll feel a bit parched’). Paul may have written/re-written the song (an unusually clumsy version can be heard solo on ‘Songbook’) but he did the right thing giving it to his partner to sing: Art has always had an affinity with folk, even if he’s better known nowadays for singing pop ballads, and his innocent tones are just what the song needs. A shame, though, that there isn’t slightly more on offer here: a sudden burst of S+G harmonies, a middle eight or an extra instrument of accompaniment for variety’s sake (at only 1:53 ‘April’ has the distinction of being the shortest song on the fourth shortest album of all time (naturally being the anoraks that we are we’ve timed all the AAA albums: see the ‘top ten’ for news and views 104 if you don’t believe us!) As a result, ‘April’ is rather crowded out by the noisier songs either side of her and isn’t quite memorable enough to make the grade on an album full of so many excellent songs.
‘We’ve Got A Groovy Thing Goin’ is only minutely more substantial. The song runs seven seconds longer than ‘April Come She Will’ and has perhaps a handful more lines, but none of them compare to the brilliance of the best songs on the album. This is Simon and Garfunkel doing their idea of ‘hip’ talk (which they do every album or so: see ‘A Simple Desultory Philippic’ and ‘Baby Driver’) and like those other tracks it seems both too meaningful to be total parody and too light and aimless to be truly heartfelt. To be fair, Paul’s clearly trying to stretch his palette here on only the second truly ‘new’ song on the album, proving he can mix it with the big boys who are already turning to the first stirrings of psychedelia and perhaps wary that his early songs are already seeing the duo tagged as only writing songs about ‘alienation’. Unfortunately, the result is a little like your parents dancing at a disco: they mean well, but however much you want to excuse them you know you’re going to be the laughing stock of the town tomorrow morning for letting them try. Another way of looking at this song is to see it as the first cracks in Paul’s relationship with Kathy (‘Bad news! Bad News! I heard you’re packing to leave!’); too scared to treat the subject matter head on Paul might be trying to ‘hide’ his true feelings behind a ‘mask’ of ‘hip’ lyrics (alternately he could simply be writing a pop song. Or having a songwriting seizure). However well intentioned, It’s hard to listen to two talented singers and a talented composer trying to sing a verse like ‘I hear you’re fixing to go! I can’t make it without you! No no no no no no!’ less than 20 minutes after hearing the sublime ‘Sound Of Silence’ (if you’re listening to the album in order). Even the Stones or The Animals would struggle to make this material work – and neither Simon nor Garfunkel have voices born for the ragged, gutsy howling this song cried out for. If I didn’t know better, I’d assume this was another cover song on the album, but no – it’s simply a rather unusual Paul Simon song that deserves to be dead and buried.
Thankfully coming after the two worst songs on the album is finale ‘I Am A Rock’, a song that was rightly heralded as a ‘classic’ at the time but seems to have been forgotten nowadays as the stock of songs like ‘Homeward Bound’ and ‘Scarborough Fair’ have risen over the years. A grumpy sulk of a song, this is the dark side of the angst heard on the rest of the album, the narrator cutting himself off from the rest of the world. What the narrator doesn’t say, but which is cleverly writ large in the lyrics all the same, is that the narrator is not the detached, cold blooded isolationist he claims to be but has clearly been hurt in some way. ‘Don’t talk of love, though I’ve heard the word before...’ Paul croons darkly to us, merely hinting at a past that’s ‘sleeping in my memory’. Figuring that ‘If I’ve never loved I never will have cried’ Paul’s rounds off this album of miss-communication by pushing the subject as far as it will go, with a man turning his back on the world because, in the final clever lines, ‘a rock feels no pain and an island never cries’. A clever melody, which tries it’s best to sound rational and clearheaded but still comes through in staccatoed shreds that sound like the song is being played in-between sobs, is the perfect accompaniment. Not quite as universal in appeal as ‘The Sound Of Silence’, this song still clearly struck a chord with S+G’#s growing fanbase, making an impressive #3 despite Columbia’s decision not to properly ‘push’ the song, figuring Simon and Garfunkel had already proved themselves to be ‘flops’ once. The sound of a clever man with his thinking cap on, ‘I Am A Rock’ has just enough heart attached to get by. AAA fans may also know this song from a Hollies cover (released on their fourth album ‘Would You Believe?’ barely months after this album’s release), which gains from some drop-dead gorgeous harmonies and guitarwork but seems to fully miss the point of the song, turning the final chorus into a rousing celebration of life, love and goodness knows what else instead of the personal confession it is here (Paul reportedly complained about the cover when it came out, albeit more because the music sheet for the Hollies version reproduced the word ‘womb’ as ‘room’ – the Hollies singing ‘hiding in my room, safe within my room’ instead – however this was probably either a mistake or an attempt to out-censor EMI; the band clearly sing ‘womb’ on the first line if you’ve heard their version as many dozens of times as I have). Six years later Paul will record another famous song with ‘rock’ connections, but ‘Love Me Like A Rock’ (from ‘There Goes Rhymin’ Simon’) is the polar opposite of this song, praising unmoving ‘rocks’ for their stability and support (or is it?...See AAA core review no 56).
‘Sounds Of Silence’, then, is a pretty impressive record considering that it was made in such a hurry and that Simon and Garfunkel had, mere weeks before recording it, been adjusting to life without the other. Along the way Paul Simon proves that he’s far from a one-note songwriter, adding several songs to his repertoire that are still among his best, including ‘Richard Cory’ ‘Kathy’s Song’ and ‘A Most Peculiar Man’ as well as the better known ‘Sound Of Silence’ and ‘I Am A Rock’. Art Garfunkel, too, deserves much praise for this record: compare the relevant songs back to back with ‘The Paul Simon Songbook’ and – great album as that is – it sounds like a series of demos when compared to the deeper, fuller, harmonised version of this record. The only things that prevent this record from really being up there at the pinnacle of the duo’s work alongside ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’ and ‘Bookends’ (‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ being a vastly over-rated record of even more uneven quality than this one) are the short running time, the recycling of so many songs from earlier in the duo’s short career and the occasional clumsy mistake. The fact remains, though, that ‘Sounds Of Silence’ is a far better album than it has any right to be, given the circumstances and speed behind the making of it, and there are at least six songs here out of the eleven that deserve classic status – which is pretty good odds for any album, even one that only lasts for 29 minutes. Overall rating – 8/10
Footnote: This is, most likely, the last review that I will finish on my faithful old computer, Dellboy, whose kept me company on these reviews across four of the past five years of writing. As you can imagine, writing a site the length of seven editions of ‘War and Peace’ (or five and a half copies of the entire Bible) can take a lot out of a computer: ‘Delly’ has been missing the internet for four months now for reasons best known to herself (a case of electrical alzheimers?), the webcam and video recorder mysteriously ‘disappeared’ the last time she went in for repair, the ‘J’ key broke a year ago (which has made reviews of ‘Efferson Airplane ‘Ohn Lennon and ‘Ack The Lad’ particularly difficult) and she loses her charge even quicker than I do nowadays (and boy, is that saying something!) Yes, something had to give: every review I write now gets interrupted by ten minutes of the computer trying to connect to an internet connection it can’t find and my heart is in my mouth every time I open her up, given that the screen is hanging on to the main body of her by a thread. Thankfully, after months of saving, I can afford a new model – and a good one hopefully too unless the Coalition have done something dastardly to put all the prices up. Alan’s Album Archives regenerates at last!! Even so, I will be sorry to see her go (or for her to end up in my bedroom living her days out in retirement playing solitaire anyway) as she’s been a marvellous companion on this journey of music with you down the years and I only hope my new friend-to-be (Dellboy Mark 2) will provide as much fun, laughter, writing and loving company in the years to come. RIP Dellboy, you’ve earned it!
Other Simon and Garfunkel/Paul Simon reviews from this site you might be interested in reading:
'Wednesday Morning 3AM' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/08/news-views-and-music-issue-42-simon-and.html
'Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-7-simon-and-garfunkel-parsley.html
'Paul Simon' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/news-views-and-music-issue-124-paul.html
'There Goes Rhymin' Simon' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-56-paul-simon-there-goes-rhymin.html
‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/paul-simon-still-crazy-after-all-these.html
'One Trick Pony' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-78-paul-simon-one-trick-pony.html
'Hearts and Bones' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-85-paul-simon-hearts-and-bones.html
'Rhythm Of The Saints' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/review-94-paul-simon-rhythm-of-saints.html
'So Beautiful, Or So What?' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/news-views-and-music-issue-107-paul.html