The Sound of Silence-d Guitars: Disturbed's Haunting Simon & Garfunkel Cover Tops Mainstream Rock Songs Chart

Courtesy Photo
Disturbed, "The Sound of Silence."

The ballad reigns thanks to a boundary-pushing band and open-minded radio programmers, says Warner Bros. CEO Cameron Strang.

Billboard's Mainstream Rock Songs chart has a new No. 1, and it's decidedly different from the tracks that usually lead the radio airplay ranking.

Disturbed's operatic cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" surges 3-1 on the list (dated March 19), gaining by 17 percent in plays, according to Nielsen Music, in just its seventh week on the chart. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel's iconic, jangly folk-rock original (written by Simon), topped the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks more than 50 years ago, beginning on the Jan. 1, 1966, chart. (It was their first of 17 career entries.)

Of course, there's intrigue in Disturbed adding yet another No. 1. The song becomes the rockers' sixth chart-topper on Mainstream Rock Songs and the third straight from their 2015 album Immortalized, which debuted atop the Sept. 12, 2015, Billboard 200 (becoming their fifth No. 1) and has sold 288,000 copies in the U.S. to date. The single follows "The Vengeful One" (one week atop Mainstream Rock Songs, Aug. 29) and "The Light" (five, beginning Dec. 19).

There's another noteworthy angle: "Silence" is the first remake to crown Mainstream Rock Songs since 2006, when – hey, surprise – Disturbed's own version of Genesis' "Land of Confusion" led for three weeks (becoming the band's first Mainstream Rock Songs No. 1).

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But Disturbed's "Silence" cover marks another Mainstream Rock Songs rarity: it's absent both the sounds of electric guitar and a drum kit, instead driven by keyboards and strings, as well as frontman David Draiman's increasingly growling vocal (which is more in line with typical hits at the format).

Since the chart's inception in 1981, the genetic makeup of mainstream rock radio has been malleable, but especially in recent years, one element has generally remained steady: the presence of rock-oriented instruments like electric and bass guitars and a drum set. Over the past decade, we've seen fleeting departures from that tenet in the chart's top 10, but they've generally been more technicalities.

Royal Blood, for instance, has reached the top three with each of its first three singles (including the No. 1 "Little Monster" last year) sans electric guitar, instead via frontman Mike Kerr's usage of two amps (electric and bass) for his bass guitar, while Finnish quartet Apocalyptica has earned three top 10s strictly through the use of cellos and double bass that, on record, have an electric sound. (Notably, Chris Cornell's ballad "Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart" reached No. 2 on the chart last year, and while acoustic guitar is at the forefront, it also features an electric guitar solo.)

In fact, when Disturbed's "Silence" hit the Mainstream Rock Songs top 10 in February, it was the first piano-, keyboard- or classical strings-fueled track to reach the tally since Ozzy Osbourne's 2002 ballad "Dreamer," which rose to No. 10. (As a band occasionally in the piano ballad vein, Evanescence has charted eight titles on Mainstream Rock Songs, but the band's trademark slow song "My Immortal" did not reach the chart, or any rock radio ranking, for that matter; it topped Adult Pop Songs and hit No. 2 on Pop Songs in 2004.)

As for such a Mainstream Rock Songs No. 1? We need to travel back to the '80s, when crunching guitars often had less sway in the format and hearing piano or even synthesizers wasn't out of the ordinary. In 1989, Don Henley's "The End of the Innocence," carried by co-writer Bruce Hornsby's trademark piano playing, reigned for four weeks. Five years earlier, and as an especially stark example of how much rock radio has evolved, Phil Collins' piano ballad (and now soft AC staple) "Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)" led for a week. (The rockiest thing about the song now, other than Collins' association with Genesis, may be the sand on the beach in its video.)

So, despite occasional outliers, hearing Disturbed's version of "Silence" on mainstream rock radio at all, let alone its standing as the most-played song at the format, is an oddity in the 2010s. Warner Bros. Records CEO Cameron Strang chalks its success up to the "willingness of a great band to be courageous and push the boundaries of its music, combined with a format and programmers who are loyal to artists and help make careers by being open-minded to amazing new music."

Before "Silence" debuted on the Feb. 6 Mainstream Rock Songs chart (at No. 36), its official video arrived in December and since has racked more than 20 million global YouTube views. The track has become the band's first entry on the Rock Streaming Songs chart, this week rising 22-18 as the Greatest Gainer (up 12 percent to 2 million domestic streams).

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The cover is also selling, as it leads the Hard Rock Digital Songs ranking for a 10th week (23,000 downloads sold, up 14 percent, in the week ending March 3) and has sold 251,000 so far. It rises 42-33 on the overall Digital Songs chart, helping spur its 88-81 rise in its second week on the Hot 100, where it's Disturbed first hit since 2010.

The track has also crossed to the Alternative Songs chart, rising 39-36. (The song's strongest radio supporter: mainstream rock station WRAT in Monmouth, N.J., with more approximately 400 plays to date.)

Despite "Silence" being a piano-based cover of a half-century-old hit, Strang says that the song's newly-minted domination on Mainstream Rock Songs isn't a shock to his team, which knew it had a hit from the start. "We thought it was potentially a big song," he says. "Sam Maloney, the A&R person on the record, worked with the band and producer [Kevin Churko] to add strings and round out the sound, because we thought it had great potential."