‘I want to ask one fundamental question,” said Hans Keller after a Pink Floyd performance in 1967. “Why has it all got to be so terribly loud?”
“I don’t guess it has to be,” bass guitarist Roger Waters replied. “But that’s the way we like it. It doesn’t sound terribly loud to us.”
The Austrian-born musician and musicologist’s attitude to the group — severe, like a schoolmaster telling off naughty boys — made him look like the quintessential square on the wrong side of the generation gap: he just couldn’t get the high-volume psychedelic sounds that the kids were digging.
Wind forward 41 years to the Roundhouse, London, and My Bloody Valentine are about to play You Made Me Realize.
Guitarist Kevin Shields gestures for his already fearsomely loud guitar to be turned up — into uncharted territory way beyond 11 — and midway through the song they launch into the 20 minute “Holocaust” section of guitar noise and trouser-rippling sub-bass.
At this point, the plastic beer glass is buzzing in my hand and I am nervously recalling some of the known physical effects of sonic weaponry on the human body. I prod my earplugs in further and wonder what Keller might have made of it all: Why has it all got to be so terribly loud?
From prehistoric ritual to the symphony orchestra, people have always engaged with loudness, but the 1960s was the first decade when sheer volume became an essential part of youth culture. This was the time of the Who’s My Generation, with its famous lyric “I hope I die before I got old” drawing a line between young and old, a line often drawn in sound.
The Who went on, in 1976, to become officially The Loudest Band in the World at 126 decibels (dB)(A) (The “A” signifies an average or typical decibel level over the period of a performance).
Since then, the group’s Pete Townsend has suffered significant hearing loss, although he actually blames that on headphone usage.
Bands viewed volume as a mark of connection to the primal forces of rock. By the late 1970s, the pro-hunting, gun-toting, heavy rock guitarist Ted Nugent told his fans: “If it’s too loud you’re too old.” Nugent has admitted that the story of how he killed a pigeon with a power chord at an outdoor show was apocryphal, but even so he is now partially deaf. The experimental metal band Sunn0))) spoke in an interview in the Wire magazine, with apparently straight faces, of their desire to play so loud that the audience would be lifted into the air by a carpet of volume.
It’s not only the myths about volume that have increased, however; so has the actual noise at gigs. By 1994, the heavy metal band Manowar claimed a reading of 129.5dB(A), at which point the Guinness Book of Records decided to stop encouraging such activity and abandoned the category, not that it has changed the attitude of noise mavens. In an admittedly statistically non-significant poll conducted for this article, around 100 musicians, journalists, photographers and regular gig-goers — from their 20s to their 60s — were asked to name the loudest band or DJ set they had experienced and whether they had incurred any hearing damage. Some interesting testimonies emerged.
One respondent said of a 90s gig by Tackhead: “Loads of hissing in the ears for an eternity ... but felt more like the spoils of victory.”
Others likened the experience of extreme volume to a rite of passage: That ringing in your ears could be likened to a bonding experience, recounted with the same sort of jocularity-in-adversity with which you might discuss a hangover with fellow sufferers.