“Sons of the Silent Age,” the only song Bowie had written before he began recording “Heroes” in July 1977, is the odd man out on that record. It seems like a latter-day visitation of faded Bowie obsessions, the return of homo superior and the Bewlay Brothers.*
There’s a revivalist feel to much of “Sons,” sometimes literally: the chorus melody sounds inspired by one of Mick Ronson’s guitar solos in “Width of a Circle,” while Tony Visconti’s harmonies also call back to Man Who Sold the World. For much of the lyric, Bowie seems to have picked through old songs for spare images: the Gnosticism of “Station to Station” (“they never die, they just go to sleep one day”), the urban dreamscapes of “Diamond Dogs” and “Warszawa” and “Five Years,” even plastic rock stars (the Sons listen to the very Burroughsian “Sam Therapy and King Dice”). And with generally fine results: the last verse in particular is some of the eeriest writing Bowie’s done since MWSTW.
“Sons” is sequenced well on “Heroes,” serving as a breather after the epic title track and before the onslaught of the side-closer “Blackout.” Yet taken on its own, “Sons” is an odd, schizophrenic track, with the verses and chorus seemingly from different songs, each temporarily eclipsing the other; the 4-bar theme led by Bowie’s saxophone serves as a scene-changer.
The verses are harmonically stable (just moving back and forth between two augmented chords), are sung by Bowie in his Cockney voice (which helps flesh out the rhyme scheme, making the title phrase “sons of the SYlent AYdj”) in a near-conversational tone, and the lyric is surreal and possibly cut-up derived. By contrast the chorus, which spans much of the key of E-flat, is sung in Bowie’s “epic” register, has elaborate vocal harmonies, a simple, reassuring lyric and an overall grandiose tone. When Bowie revived “Sons” on the Glass Spider tour in 1987, he gave the chorus to Peter Frampton, which seemed fitting enough.
Recorded July to mid-August 1977, Hansa Tonstudio 2, Berlin. Performed throughout the 1987 tour, and used as the fourth movement of Philip Glass’ “Heroes” Symphony, composed 1996, recorded 1997 by The American Composers Orchestra.
* A marvelous insight in the comments by Ian W. Hill: a primary influence on “Sons” is Jacques Brel, particularly “Les Vieux” (Les vieux ne meurent pas, ils s’endorment un jour et dorment trop longtemps”).
Top: Michael Schmidt, “Berlin-Wedding, 1976-1978.”