Because of its name, I have long associated “Sons of the Silent Age” with silent movies. Though the lyrics are cryptic, I have kind of instinctually assumed the song was about —- had something to do with silent movies. After all, there’s a reference to “City Limits,” the Charlie Chaplain film, right?
Well, I’ve probably been wrong all these years. Let’s start with my mistaken assumption about the Charlie Chaplain movie— it was “City Lights,” not “City Limits.” All this time, I would hear that line and imagine someone sitting in the back of a silent movie theater watching a Chaplain movie. In fact, there is no direct reference in the song to silent movies as a genre, any individual movie or movie stars. Nicholas Pegg, the author of, “The Complete David Bowie,” makes a compelling case that Bowie might have been describing Nazis, most of whom would have been born during the age of silent movies, at least during the first part of the song.
Bowie came up with the song during his Berlin period, so he might have had Nazis on the mind. But I don’t think that explanation holds up beyond a possible interpretation of a few lines. The refrain veers between a protestation of love, perhaps from a lover trying to talk his partner off a ledge (“let’s find another way down”) and nonsense (“sons of sound and sons of sound”). Bowie sometimes juxtaposed coherent imagery with nonsense to convey the chaos around us (I think of the line from, “All The Young Dudes,” “Is that concrete all around or is in my head). But I don’t think there’s more coherence in the actual words than that.
By the time Bowie gets back to describing the sons, he seems to be describing ghosts or spirits or some sad beings that are not of this earth. There’s nothing especially Nazish about crying only once or gliding in and out of life.
Curiously, the second refrain, almost identical to the first, ends differently — “let’s find another way in rather than down. The final words of the song are, “find another way…” Whatever could he be singing about?
Well, I don’t think the song lends itself to a straightforward, literal reading. In a very abstract sense, and of course musically, it does seem connected to much of the rest of the album. The would-be “heroes” of “Heroes” are in a desperate situation. I can imagine the same lover singing this song. “We can be heroes just for one day,” and while we’re at it, “let’s find another way.” The concrete all around could simply reflect the chaos of the lovers’ situation. This is a stretch, but if “Beauty and the Beast” is about adultery, perhaps the untenable situation is an impossible romance, with walls closing in on an illicit affair. I could go on, but I recognize these connections are thin.
Anyway, Matt Brown does a good, faithful rendition of the song, for which there are few covers (that I know of). I didn’t know if Matt Brown before coming across this video. There’s a real, professional musician named Matt Brown with a few albums under his belt and has opened for acts such as Chris Isaak and Huey Lewis. I’m not sure that this is the same guy, but he does a good job here.