Sons of the Silent Age

Sons of the Silent Age.
Sons of the Silent Age (live, 1987).
Sons of the Silent Age (Philip Glass, “Heroes” Symphony, 1996).

“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.”

27 Responses to Sons of the Silent Age

  1. Jeremy Earl says:

    One of my all time favourite Bowie songs and the fact that he gave the chorus to Frampton made me sick to my stomach!

  2. Ian W. Hill says:

    It also marks a return to his Brel fandom, taking its lyric structure both from Brel’s “Sons of…” and “The Old Folks” (and cribbing a line you mentioned – “they never die, they just go to sleep one day” – directly from the latter).

  3. diamond dog says:

    It is one of my favs on Heroes and reminds me of cygnet commitee , supermen , quicksand and what I always imagined as mysterious figures from some ‘illuminati’ high power or “Lovecraftian’ elder Yithians then bursts into that power chorus …a showstopper on the musically good glass spider tour, I think Frampton handled this well but I think Bowie was preoccupied with the dancing etc ? Amongst my top 20 and one of his best spinetingling vocals.

    • Remco says:

      I put on the Youtube clip without looking at the screen and I have to admit that without the visuals it’s actually not a bad live version….until Frampton opens his mouth. I don’t know what it is, somehow Bowie can get away with singing these same notes but Frampton’s voice and his perpetual clenched fist (okay, so I peeked)make it sound like cheap melodrama.

  4. David L says:

    The only time I’ve seen him live was on the Glass Spider tour, and of the few things I can actually remember, one of them was Peter Frampton singing the chorus on this song. Not because it was good or bad, but just … unexpected.

    Off topic, but since I mentioned it — The other memory that sticks out from that concert (in Raleigh, NC) was Bowie going off book (or pretending to), and telling the band to play Iggy’s “I Wanna Be Your Dog” … then spending the next 30 seconds or so trying to figure out the chords, before launching into the song. Was never sure if he was really doing that or just pretending to be spontaneous.

  5. sekaer says:

    There’s something cinematic, or engaged with cinema, on this record. Would be interesting to think of why/what that is. Silent Age, Secret Life of Arabia talks about “you must see the movie, sand in my eyes…” and imo “Heroes” and “Blackout” have a cinematic feel

    • sekaer says:

      Wait, I’m just flipping around the web and can’t see any other references to silent film in “Sons of the Silent Age” Did I just imagine this or did anyone else thnk this was the general frame of reference, like he’s describing long dead silent film characters trapped in their strips of film “One-inch thoughts”. The bridge almost sounds to me like the histrionics of a silent film star. Or maybe I’m just nuts!

  6. spanghew says:

    Sekaer: Not sure specifically re film – but of course Bowie refers to film quite often throughout his oeuvre. So in itself the presence of many film refs on this album is unsurprising. Could it be so simple as that Bowie watched a lot of films during this period of his life…?

  7. diamond dog says:

    David L I wanna be your dog was performed almost every night on the glass spider tour , he looked a vision in winged boots a man who had flown too close to the sun me thinks LOL some great music but awful visuals. As has been said there is a cinematic feel but a return of the shadowy figures in power over us. Its a superb song his vocals top notch and the backing stunning.

  8. Remco says:

    I wonder what Sam Therapy & King Dice sound like

  9. ian says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the sequencing on this album (as I’m sure we’ll be further discussing as we go deeper). I think it’s a tricky beast, because the title track is tonally different from pretty much everything else on the album. I always felt the transition from that to “Sons” was awkward, just because they’re inhabiting such different spaces of emotion. Part of me feels like “Heroes” should switch sides with “Secret Life of Arabia.” It’s almost more Side Two kind of territory, since it sort of uses the Wall (or locations in general) a little more blatantly than the songs on Side One do (a la Low’s side 2).

    • David L says:

      I love the way “Warzawa” segues into “Heroes” on the Stage CD (the 2005 re-issue) … so having “Heroes” follow “Sense of Doubt” might have worked better, perhaps?

    • col1234 says:

      Yeah, it’s a good question. What the hell do you do with a monster like “Heroes”? Lead off the LP with it, and everything else seems anti-climactic. Arguably it should’ve been the album closer, or at least Side A’s, but I admire the “let’s throw it right in the middle, and just deal with it” strategy DB followed.

  10. sekaer says:

    Disregard: After looking online it seems that the most likely scenario for what this song is about is seeing gray old businessman shuttling to and from work by rail in Berlin

  11. Gnomemansland says:

    I always thought of this as a cinematic song though aside from the title itself there is no other reference to film it does seem part of Bowie’s cinematic canon lets see there is

    “I’m living in a silent film Portraying Himmler’s sacred realm of dream reality…” Quicksand

    “Now she walks through her sunken dream
    To the seat with the clearest view
    And she’s hooked to the silver screen
    But the film is a saddening bore
    …” Life on Mars

    “It’s a crash course for the ravers, It’s a Drive-in Saturday” Drive-in Saturday

    “Staying back in your memory
    Are the movies in the past
    How you moved is all it takes
    To sing a song of when I loved
    The Prettiest Star” The Prettiest Star

    “I’ve come on a few years from my Hollywood Highs
    The best of the last, the cleanest star they ever had
    I’m stiff on my legend, the films that I made
    Forget that I’m fifty cause you just got paid” Cracked Actor

    “Like to take a cement fix
    Be a standing cinema…
    Andy Warhol looks a scream
    Hang him on my wall
    Andy Warhol, Silver Screen
    Can’t tell them apart at all” Andy Warhol

    • Deacon Lowdown says:

      “It was cold, and it rained, and I felt like an actor” – Five Years

      I think Bowie’s use of film motifs during his glam years was part of how he played with the concept of “authenticity” in rock music. He certainly kept it up after he killed Ziggy, though.

      (Don’t forget, the production of Hunky Dory was co-credited to “The Actor”!)

  12. diamond dog says:

    I’m so used to the way the lp is sequenced its difficult to imagine them placing heroes anywhere else. I think it would have been interesting to havbe ended the album with it , secret life I feel is wrong as the ending , too light. Sons has great use of the epic Bowie vocal that it could have been a contender to close the album.

  13. ian says:

    Just wrote a very long essay in excitement for “Joe The Lion,” hopefully also bringing up points worth mentioning (at some point or another).

    Art-school education finally paying off in terms of writing about Bowie. It’s a good day.

  14. Diamond Duke says:

    This, for me, is the Life On Mars? of Bowie’s Berlin period! When I first heard Sons Of The Silent Age on the Sound + Vision box set, I really wasn’t all that sure what to make of it, and it took a while for it to really grow on me. But now it ranks as one of my all-time favorite Bowie tracks. I love the stark contrast between the spacey, numbed-out vocal of the verse melody with the powerful, torridly romantic proclamation of “Baby, I’ll never let you go!” on the chorus, not to mention the Beatle-esque vocal harmonies (“sons of sound and sons of sound”). No doubt Lennon would have approved! (And FYI to the Frampton haters: I think Peter did a fine job with the chorus on the Glass Spider tour, and it certainly fit him like a glove – although I do think Bowie’s original vocal was much better!)

    Your comment about the lyric being sort of a reprise of Bowie’s earlier lyrical preoccupations seems right on the money to me, the line “They never die / They just go to sleep one day” reminding one of the fate of The Supermen. Funny how Bowie’s angels and supermen may be immortal and powerful, but whenever they’re forced to engage and interact with us mere mortals, it’s the sheer banality of our existence which ends up bringing them to heel! One also can’t help thinking of the angel of death from Look Back In Anger who’s reduced to leafing through a magazine and yawning sleepily, waiting for the man to finally conclude his earthly business. New Angels Of Promise, from the much later, underrated ‘hours…’, strongly harkens back to Sons Of The Silent Age (particularly directly with the vocal melody on the line “I am the blind man / She is my eyes”) and its chorus lamenting “Suspicious minds / You didn’t feel us coming in this lonely crowd…” Ours, sadly, appears to be no age for miracles…

  15. I liked Frampton on the chorus of the live show. Glass spider is the era and concert I know least of. However, like all other things Bowie I think it needs to be appreciated for exactly what it is. Yes, now we look at it as unabashed eighties pop. But we not only need to embrace it as such to the last poofy curl on David’s head, but also observe as a perfect microcosm of that era: in presenting it Bowie and the band certainly did not try to be anything else and was not ashamed of what it was. Who can ask for any loftier goal? If we cannot do so now, perhaps in another ten years we can look back and see there is more good in this show than we realized.

  16. ““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.”

    That was certainly my impression during the first several times I listened to the album.

  17. Davy King says:

    Found a possible source for a line in Bowie’s Sons of the Silent Age:

    They never die, they just go to sleep one day

    Jacquet Brel in Les Vieux wrote:

    The old folks never die
    They just put down their heads and go to sleep one day

  18. Des de Moor says:

    Glad to see others have long since picked up the Brel reference. But I always wondered if Sam Therapy and King Dice were Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, given that another of the numerous recollections of Bowie’s past is the return of the brittle jazz-inflected alto sax part.

  19. RamonaAstone says:

    Seriously I’m the only one who thinks this is about the disconnect between WW2 vets and Hippies??
    Ever since I’ve heard this song – which I agree is HEAVILY cinematic – I’ve always envisioned two characters; Bowie singing the verses in some war-torn French tavern carefully strutting the edges of cynicism and fascination. He sings of the miserable fate of the Soldier; someone’s son who must make war and cry only once. Even death is a distant dream for them; they can’t allow themselves the privilege of respecting the deaths of their fellow sons. To accept that your comrades – even your enemies – have truly snapped shut and have left forever is to accept the banal utter ridiculousness of their own life’s fate. Rather, the sons sweep these truths under the rug to silence their trauma and press forward.

    Juxtapose this Horror with a wavy, long-haired Hippie Bowie belting out a refrain about the sons of sound – a forced giddiness, an insincere promise of love – with an even sharper bitterness in his tone.

    I think Bowie felt much closer to those silent, invisible sons of the “silent age” than the spoiled beneficiary generation that followed – the generation he’s born into; perhaps the generation he’s ashamed of?

    There’s nothing tragic about being a Baby Boomer. But a WW2 soldier? Are you kidding me?? It was a goldmine for Bowie. Pairing extremely immediate trauma with endless existential despair? Mix in a little Fascist military industrial complex and you’re “golden”.

    Bowie’s played with soldiers and wars trope quite often. Honestly, “The Next Day” is more of an anti-war protest album than anything else. It’s certainly not out of left field. A good number of his 60s songs involve soldiers as well. “In the Heat of the Morning”, “She’s got Medals”, “Rubber Band” to name a few.

    At any rate – I love this song. It’s vivid, it’s opaque, it’s terrifying and calming. Absolute stunning and perfect implementation of a “Bowiean” concept!

    I wish he had made a music video out of this! Why did he wait until Lodger to actually seriously get into the video game?

%d bloggers like this: