Monday, October 01, 2007
Sounds of Silence
I love backstage stories -- those what-really-happened tales that shine a light into places you never expected to see.
When Simon and Garfunkel burst on the musical scene at the end of 1965, I became an instant fan the first time I heard "The Sounds of Silence."
Me and ten million other people.
Paul Simon is, in my mind, one of the best pop songwriters to come out of folk-rock. Might be a one-trick pony, as he used to say, but it is one helluva good trick. Man has chops out the wazoo, musical and compositional.
Early on, however, the road was hard. Simon had a hit single in the late fifties with Garfunkel, (singing as Tom & Jerry) and then the well went dry. Washed up at fifteen, he said later.
"The Sounds of Silence" was on a folk-acoustic album that came out in 1965, and promptly tanked.
Simon went off to England, where he was popular, and played gigs, wrote songs, did albums.
Meanwhile, back in the states, a producer at Columbia Records, Tom Wilson, noting that somebody had overdubbed electric instruments on some other folk albums and punched them up, decided to do that to "The Sounds of Silence," a cut which had gotten some air-play. He hired some session musicians, and laid in a funky guitar, bass, and some drums.
It was a brilliant idea. Boom. Instant hit, climbing the charts with a bullet, right to #1.
Nobody asked Simon and Garfunkel if they thought this was a good idea, to overdub their song, but apparently neither of them complained about it. Instead of staying one-hit wonders, they became the folk-rock duo of the period.
("Bridge Over Troubled Water," for me, is right up there next to "Hey, Jude," by the Beatles.)
Um. So, the really amusing part of the story: Simon and Garfunkel were booked on a music TV show, Hullabaloo, whereupon they were to play their new hit. Unbeknownst to them, the guy who had played the guitar overdub, Vinne Bell, was booked onto the show, to back S&G.
Bell, who was an outstanding session man, invented such things as the electric twelve-string guitar, electric sitar, and other toys, and was featured on a slew of best-selling records.
Simon didn't know the guy.
So he goes to the musical director, Peter Matz, and says he wants to show the guitar guy how to play the lead. Matz knows that Bell did the record. He says, I think he knows how. But Simon insists. He walks over, introduces himself. The guitarist does likewise. Simon says, I want to show you how this guitar riff goes, it's kind of tricky. It's on our hit record.
Bell grins. Oh, I know the record. I know just how to play it.
No, here, just watch me ...
Whereupon Bell says: Paul -- I did the record.
Okay ... um ... are you sure ... ?
Yeah. This, right? And plays the riff.
Uh, yeah ...
All in all, I'd rather have had Simon's career than Bell's, but in that situation, at that moment, I'd rather have been Vinnie Bell than Paul Simon ...