Written by: David Bowie
Recorded: July-August 1977
Producers: David Bowie, Tony Visconti
Released: 14 October 1977
Glass Spider (Live Montreal ’87)
Brian Eno: synthesizers, keyboards, guitar treatments
Carlos Alomar: guitar
George Murray: bass guitar
Dennis Davis: drums, percussion
Tony Visconti: backing vocals
‘Sons Of The Silent Age’ was the only song written prior to the recording sessions for “Heroes”, David Bowie’s 12th studio album.
There was no reason why the album should have been called “Heroes”. It could have been called “the sons of silent ages”. It was just a collection of stuff that I and Eno and Fripp had put together. Some of the stuff that was left off was very amusing, but this was the best of the batch, the stuff that knocked us out.
NME, 12 November 1977
With ‘Moss Garden’, Brian excelled himself with textures that imitated nature, atmospheric elements of distant thunder, wind, water and bird call, all originating from his manipulation of the Synthi. David played his Chamberlin sampler, the successor to the Mellotron. He played alto saxophone with tortured angst on ‘Neuköln’. Earlier in the album he played with Art Pepper elegance on ‘Sons Of The Silent Age’.
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The ‘silent era’ of film lasted from the mid-1890s to the late 1920s, when movies without dialogue were often accompanied by live musicians inside the cinema. The era effectively ended with The Jazz Singer in 1927, the first feature film to have a synchronised music soundtrack and lip-synchronous speech and singing.
Bowie’s sons of the silent age are mysterious figures, mute and devoid of expression, who tacitly observe, make love and cry just once, wage war, are immortal but “just go to sleep one day”. The latter line was likely taken from the musical revue Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris, which featured Brel’s song ‘Les Vieux’ translated as ‘Old Folks’. The song contains the lines “The old folks never die/They just put down their heads and go to sleep one day”. Bowie was a known aficionado of the production, from which he also performed ‘Amsterdam’ and ‘My Death’.
‘Sons Of The Silent Age’ mentions two invented musical acts, Sam Therapy and King Dice – names which were later used by real bands. Sam Therapy were founded by Brian Pendleton, formerly rhythm guitarist with Bowie’s beloved The Pretty Things, while King Dice were a New York blues and rock band formed in 1991.
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On 16 and 17 May 2006 the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra recorded Philip Glass’s Heroes Symphony at the Concert Hall in Poole, England. The recording of ‘Sons Of The Silent Age’ was included on the soundtrack of Brett Morgen’s 2022 film Moonage Daydream.
Although released in 1977, David Bowie did not perform ‘Sons Of The Silent Age’ until the Glass Spider Tour a decade later.
There was one I was humming to myself the other day: [sings] “Baby, baby, I’ll never let you down” – oh lord, what’s that one? Jesus, I can’t remember it. I think it’s off “Heroes”. Something like ‘Space Oddity’ is a constant. I can’t even foresee the day when I stop doing it; it just has to be in there somewhere. But all the new avenues like – ‘Sons Of The Silent Age’! [snaps fingers] Ah! That’s right! Thank god I could remember it! So that for me now is a new song. I’ve never done that one onstage. So I’ve got these ten from the new album, plus another twenty scattered throughout the past, but choosing them is quite exciting.
Musician, August 1987
Bowie only sang the verses during the live shows. Guitarist Peter Frampton handled the choruses, while Bowie took part in choreographed sequences with a dancer, Constance Marie, who wore skis and was ‘pushed’ and ‘pulled’ back and forth by Bowie from a distance.
A recording from 30 August 1987 is available on the album Glass Spider (Live Montreal ’87).
Bowie last performed ‘Sons Of The Silent Age’ on the last date of the Glass Spider Tour, 28 November 1987, at Western Springs Stadium in Auckland, New Zealand.