"Beneath the Music": The sound of Silence!

Silence was the sound of young Britain. Then things got noisy.

By James Naughton
Published August 15, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Tonight on "Beneath the Music": "When Silence Was Golden."

(EXTERIOR: London)

Narrator: Among the so-called Third Way bands that emerged amid the initial euphoria of the Blair years, none left as distinct a legacy as Silence: Brian Nonce, Roddy Terce, Gerald Prime and Dexter Phin. Together they introduced the rock world to a sound it had never heard before.

(INTERIOR of a suburban living room. Roddy, in a cowl-neck sweater, is seated beside Dexter, who wears a tweed jacket. Both are cleanshaven and bespectacled.)

Roddy: We started out like a lot of the rest of them. You know, one guy puts an ad in the papers and the other guys respond. So it was the two of us, Gerald, and of course Brian. We got to talking about what kind of thing we were going to do, and it comes out that none of us could play an instrument.

Dexter: Not a piano lesson in the whole lot.

Roddy: But Brian said it didn't matter. He said, "What do I care about instruments? It's the music that I love." I didn't understand him at the time.

Dexter: None of us did.

(INTERIOR of a loft apartment, bright and bare of furniture. Brian is seated in the lotus position on a circular white shag rug.)

Brian: I remember I said to them: "What is a guitar? It's just wood and some strings. What is a piano? It's more of the same. How can these materials capture what I am hearing in my head?" I looked at each of them. And they looked at me. And that was the moment we became Silence.

(INTERIOR of the Boiler Room, the basement performance space of a Birmingham pub. Silence, dressed in blue blazers, mounts the stage to polite applause, clasps hands behind backs and faces the audience.)

Narrator: The group set out with a unique concept. Unable to play or sing, they simply took the stage, stood stock-still, gazed out into the audience and remained silent.

Roddy: We'd have some noisy buggers open up for us, dance the folks around a bit. You know, tire them out. And then out we'd come and just stand there.

Dexter: It was an electric moment. The albums never captured it.

Narrator: Like any pioneers, Silence was met with resistance.

(MONTAGE: A beer bottle breaks over Gerald's head in Liverpool; angry fans rush the tiny stage of an East End pub; the boys are jailed in Leeds for inciting a riot.)

Brian: I blame myself. What we were doing was never intended for the club scene. We needed a concert hall, an arena, a stadium. You can't hear Silence in some pisspot dance hall in Brighton.

Narrator: But luck finally found them in the person of the aging diva Looloorae Jones.

Looloorae: I figured after those four I could only look good.

Narrator: But the audience liked Silence better.

(INTERIOR: The band stands in smoky blue light on a concert stage, dressed in cardigan sweaters, hands clasped behind backs.)

Roddy: That right there is harder than it looks. Holding the pose is one thing, but you had to keep a steady gaze, too. And God bless you if you'd eaten a noisy dinner.

Dexter: All you could do was stifle it.

Voice off-camera: And what did you do as you stood there?

Roddy: We'd all imagine the music in Brian's head.

Voice: How did you know what he was imagining?

Roddy: Oh, he'd tell us about it beforehand. You know: "Think of something sad."

Dexter: But there was always room to improvise.

(EXTERIOR: mob outside a music store.)

Narrator: The group's first album, "BeQuiet," created a sensation.

Brian: I know it was a bit rough. I think Gerald may have been off his Tums that day, but I still think that album was our greatest contribution. That was the first time that people could really listen to Silence at home. And that changed everything.

(EXTERIOR: an ocean of fans surrounds the group's limousine.)

Narrator: Stardom burst upon them, and like so many groups, they were not prepared for its demands.

Roddy: We weren't really cut out to be rock stars. It's a bit of a coincidence but all four of us are cocaine-intolerant.

Dexter: Gives me the hives.

Roddy: And there's the marriages. I'm very happy with the missus, and speaking for Dexter, I know he is too.

Dexter: Once we started going to all those bloody parties my lawn went to hell. And Gerald couldn't keep up the stamp collection the way he once did.

(INTERIOR: Silence, in khakis and blue button-downs, stand silent on a stage while an arena full of fans, dressed the same way, gazes at them in soundless adoration.)

Narrator: As their fame grew, Silence held steadfast to the sound that had made their name.

Brian: That's not an easy atmosphere to sustain. One person with the sniffles can compromise an entire performance. That's why he had the HAS Force.

Narrator: The Hyper Auditory Sensitivity Force was a "noise anticipation" team, trained to prevent sound before it occurred.

(INTERIOR: a fast-moving member of the HAS Force extends his index finger beneath a fan's nose, thus averting a sneeze.) By all accounts they carried themselves with the utmost professionalism.

Roddy: If they'd have been there that night, it never would have happened.

(INTERIOR: the Oakland, Calif., Coliseum as fans file in.)

Narrator: Jan. 11, 1996. Silence had performed the previous night in Ames, Iowa, and gotten off the ground just before a snowstorm closed the airport. The HAS Force, which flew commercial, was left behind. In a tight spot securitywise, Brian made the fateful decision of hiring the Hells Angels.

Roddy: I'll never forget it. First there's one sneeze. Then another. And then a third.

Dexter: Cat allergies. Somebody had brought their kitty with them. And once I spotted it, I knew what would happen.

(INTERIOR: Gerald Prime, eyes red and nose running, sneezes and sneezes again.)

Narrator: When Gerald sneezed, the audience gasped, and the Angels went wild. In a twinkling they had waded into the crowd, pummeling anyone who so much as sniffled. But it was less the bloodied lips and broken noses that incensed the crowd than the fate of the offending feline.

Dexter: You can say what you want, but they didn't need to set the poor thing on fire.

(EXTERIOR: The cat is buried at Pet Haven Memorial Park.)

Narrator: But more than a cat went up in flames that night.

Brian: People thought we didn't care. We did care. I did everything I could to stop the violence. I was thinking of a very tranquil tune, but my mates didn't pick it up.

Dexter: Just like Brian to blame it on us.

(EXTERIOR: Wembley Stadium. Brian in a black cassock stands silently on the stage, eyes to heaven.)

Narrator: Brain offered a solo performance of his new composition, "To a Kitty Dying Young," at a benefit concert for the cat's family. Prime disappeared the following day and has not been seen since.

Roddy: Some people say he is Thomas Pynchon and others Vanilla Ice. But I know the real Gerald is out there somewhere.

Narrator: Roddy and Dexter remain friends, but they and Brian no longer speak. Today the Terce and Phin families live side-by-side in the pleasant suburb of Compline.

(EXTERIOR: Roddy and Dexter on a rolling lawn.)

Roddy: Funny thing, we made a lot of money and then what happened was, we saved it.

Dexter: Yeah, so we're rich.

Narrator: Gerald's disappearance and the retirement of Rodney and Dexter left Brian as the only musically active member of the band.

(EXTERIOR: Brian on the beach.)

Brian: Performing doesn't interest me at the moment. I'm exploring the nature of sound. I mean, what is sound? Is this sound? [He screeches.] Is this sound? [He gives us the raspberries.] Is this sound? [He cups his hand in his armpit, producing mock flatulence.] The questions are inexhaustible.

Narrator: But at our request, Brian agreed to go back into the studio one more time and grace us with an old favorite.

(INTERIOR: Brian standing silent at the microphone.)

Voice off: OK, that was great!

Brian: But I haven't done it yet.

Voice: What?

Brian: I haven't done it.

Voice: I thought that was it.

Brian: What, then? [Laughs.] I was just standing there.

Voice: Perhaps you could give us a signal or something.

Brian: What, maybe, lift an eyebrow or something?

Voice: Brilliant.

(INTERIOR: Brain stands in the studio, raises his right eyebrow and silence descends.)

James Naughton

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