Cover vs Original

Which Cover of The Sound of Silence Speaks Loudest?

In 1963, Simon and Garfunkel went their separate ways after their debut album “Wednesday Morning, 3 AM,” went their separate ways. Paul Simon returned to England and Art Garfunkel continued his studies in the states. Two years later, the last track on the duo’s album became a radio hit and the duo reunited. That song, of course, was The Sound of Silence.” Through the years, we’ve heard several covers of The Sound of Silence, from metal to funk to folk to experiemetnal. But which cover of The Sound of Silence portrays the song’s message best? Are there covers that eclipse the original? Let’s take a look….

Cover of The Sound of Silence
Image Credit: Eddie Mallin [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

Original – Simon And Garfunkel (1964)

The original recording of The Sound of Silence haunts us….even to this day. The feelings of emptiness and loneliness in a city with ten thousand people. A whole community that refuses to speak…for reasons we just don’t understand. Maybe modern society has evolved, maybe something cataclysmic happened. We get subtle hints of over exuberant capitalism when the people “bow and pray to the neon sign they made” – so maybe there’s something even more sinister. Some type of mind control by the government controlled by monstrous corporations. Regardless….the world of the Sound of Silence is not a pleasant world.

Ultimately, no one truly knows what The Sound of Silence means. Even Paul Simon says he doesn’t remember. Some say The Sound Of Silence gives us a hymn of resistance. Some say the Sound of Silence means nothing. That’s the beauty of The Sound of Silence….we know the song means something – maybe something sinister, or perhaps even something beautiful. Whatever The Sound of Silence means, we get to decide. We get to find the noise in the silence.

Cover – The Bachelors (1966)

The Bachelors keep the minimalistic aesthetic of the original The Sound of Silence, and thus we get, at least for a couple verses, the haunting feeling of the original. The Bachelors approach the song with a harmony very similar to the Simon and Garfunkel’s – that is saved for verse three. During the third verse, the Bachelors have a soloist with the rest of the band singing BGVs.

Another feature by The Bachelors, a modulation upwards in the fourth verse, as well as a faster tempo in the same verse. These features add a bit of urgency to The Sound of Silence. An urgency that goes well with the verse that calls silence a “cancer.” We get a sense of rage and hopelessness.

With the Bachelors cover of The Sound of Silence, they escalate a haunting, lonely feeling into anger and possibly even despair.

Cover – Carmen Mcrae (1967)

Carmen Mcrae’s version of The Sound of Silence sounds nothing like Paul and Simon’s. Mcrae gives The Sound of Silence a proto funk jazz sound which makes us groove in our seats. Nevermind the fact that we’re listening to a song about silencing words. In fact, with Macrae’s version The Sound of Silence, we get a feeling to that of “Smells Like Teen Spirit!” The difference, of course, The Sound of Silence really has a lot to say, whereas Smells Like Teen Spirit means nothing.

Perhaps the best part of Carmen Mcrae’s cover comes at the very end of the song. Mcrae omits the last word, “silence” with a cold end at “And whispered in the sound of….” Up until this point, I wondered if Mcrae even got any meaning from The Sound of Silence. This omission of the last word, however, proves that Carmen Mcrae really does bring a meaning to The Sound of Silence.

With the omission of one word and a groovy feeling, Mcrae turns The Sound of Silence into a different, but amazing song.

Cover – Betsy and Chris (1970)

Giving us a folk cover of The Sound of Silence, Betsy and Chris sing the song, well, almost silently. The volume on the two women’s vocals is recorded low. We can hear Betsy and Chris clearly, but if the recording were any quieter, and we might struggle to hear their words.

Of course the duo has something beautiful going on with their vocals. Betsy and Chris really draws us in with their harmonies. This tempts the listener to listen several times over. In fact, this desire for multiple listenings might be the greatest strength of the Betsy and Chris cover of Sound of Silence. With every listen, we get subtly immersed in the world of The Sound of Silence. We become the man or woman walking through those quiet streets.

Betsy and Chris portrays the message of The Sound of Silence through silence, beauty, and ultimately subtlety.

Cover – Peaches and Herb (1971)

Up until this point, every version of The Sound of Silence feels pretty minimalistic. Even Mcrae’s proto funk jazz version held back from too much production. Peaches and Herb take a different approach.

Peaches and Herb give us an almost disco cover of The Sound of Silence. Full keyboards, BGVs singing ooos and ahhhs, a bridge of mostly instrumentation, a call and response between two singers. Yeah – Peaches and Herb really go full throttle with The Sound of Silence.

We also get an omission of the word “darkness” in the first verse, essentially changing the meaning of the song. Peaches and Herb are not talking to “darkness” or no one in particular….but an unnamed old friend. Peaches and Herb feel the concerns every other cover feels – they see the silence growing like a cancer. Still in the world of Peaches and Herb, there’s still at least one person to listen. The cancer of silence has yet to fully infiltrate the world.

Perhaps we might see the Peaches and Herb cover of The Sound of Silence as a hopeful version. As long as there’s still friends, as long as there’s people who care about you and vice versa, we just might be able to stand a chance. Silence might actually loose!

Cover – Gregorian (1999)

Gregorian, a musical group that seems to merge the concepts of bands such as Chant and Enigma, gives us a cover of The Sound of Silence unlike any other. About ten male vocalist sing in a Gregorian Chant style. Juxtaposed against the vocals, we hear instrumentation more suited to electronica genres.

With the group of ten (pseudo?) monks – we hardly get any individuality. We get ten voices that sound as though part of the borg collective – a hive mind with a unified message. This feeling, this lack of individuality, might haunt us more than the original. For through the lack of individuality we get a sense of solidarity. We get the feeling that the speaker is not just one lone soul taking a walk through the silent streets…the speaker(s) are the ten thousand people…maybe more. Everyone feels the hopelessness….everyone’s voice is silenced.

While previous covers of The Sound of silence featured the individual, Gregorian features a lack of individuality….and a darker message.

Cover – Nevermore (2000)

Of course there’s a power metal cover of The Sound of Silence. Why not? The juxtaposition of loud guitars verses the message of silence….the cover practically writes itself.

Nevermore’s cover of The Sound of Silence takes liberties with the melody – sometimes singing the lyrics in a speed metal style…sometimes in a slower, more traditional metal styling. The guitars don’t quit….ever. The results remind us of the bleakness we get in Metallica’s “One.” Yes – while the speaker of Nevermore’s Sound of Silence can walk and move, we get a feeling the speaker still feels imprisoned by their own body. The lack of ability to communicate may as well be a death sentence for the speaker.

Nevermore paints a bleak picture for certain. A picture whose story we hope to never experience first hand.

Cover – Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken (2008)

Webb and McCracken give us a bunch of unpleasant sounds! Firstly, the vocals of Webb and McCracken do not mix together….at all! Secondly, all throughout the track, we hear a slightly out of tune piano plunked in a minor key. Thirdly, angry guitars gruble during the first half of the song, and an upbeat and psychedelic beat progresses during the second half. The entire track feels like an experiment in tension. And that’s a good thing. The Webb and McCracken cover paints a maddening world for certain.

I for one would feel tense if I lived in the world portrayed by this cover of The Sound of Silence. If I could not speak my words, if I could not express myself. I would feel angsty and tense. I would feel jumbled and unable to bring meaning to even basic concepts. The clashing of sounds in the Derek Webb and Sandra McCracken version of The Sound of Silence reflect that, thus expressing our fears.

Somehow, a pot of random and non matching sounds meld together to bring us the exact sounds we need for The Sound of Silence’s meaning.

Cover – Disturbed (2015)

I fully expected a cover akin to the Nevermore version….but Disturbed takes their cover of The Sound of Silence to a whole new level. While Disturbed plays mostly heavy metal, they approach The Sound of Silence from a much slower and classical stance. The guitars are mostly absent, instead, we get an orchestra.The tempo is slow, and the vocals are controlled. The results are absolutely chilling. Seriously, listen to Disturbed’s cover of The Sound of Silence without getting goosebumps. I dare you!

So, what about the meaning? Really – that comes through the emotional feel of Disturbed’s version of The Sound of Silence. We feel sad, we feel anger, we feel hopelessness, and yet we feel the urge to fight. Yes, this bevy of emotions gives us a desire to stand and fight.

Disturbed, with their cover of The Sound of Silence, gives us something to fight against, and something to fight for.

Which Cover of The Sound of Silence makes us shout?

In short, all of them. I do not feel like there is a bad cover of The Sound of Silence. Still, I have a few favorites. The original of course….how can you NOT like the classic original version? The Betsy and Chris version sounds beautiful, and I really respect the subtlety of their cover. The Carmen Mcrae version might make us want to dance, but we know we shouldn’t. We know this is more than just a jazzy song. The Juxtaposition and outright clashing sounds in Derek Webb and Sarah McCracken’s version makes me want to both scream and run, but also listen more. Though, this specific cover of The Sound of Silence should probably not be listened to on repeat. You might go mad.

My favorite version, however, a version I might even like better than the original is the Disturbed version. We feel such emotions, and the sound feels more relevant to today. The Sound of Silence was written over 50 years ago, and thus some of the sounds have aged….The Disturbed updates the sound while keeping the integrity of The Sound of Silence. By the way, Paul Simon himself loves and endorses the Disturbed cover.