Book review: Ian Winwood – Bodies: Life And Death In Music
Kerrang! writer Ian Winwood examines the failures of the music industry with startling candour…
The title of world’s loudest band is disputed, but there’s more to being loud than just volume. Although KISS measured an incredible 136dB in Ottawa in 2009, bands as varied as Part Chimp, Killing Joke, Iron Maiden and Agnostic Front can all claim credit for making a din so loud it can feel like a personal attack.
Here we celebrate outstanding achievements in the field. Volume can be measured, whereas loudness is subjective, and merely cranking up introduces distortion, which is uncomfortable and often unmanageable.
Even when "loudness" is desired on a recording, one can only take volume so far in the studio – no microphone is built to record an amp cranked "up to 11". This is also the reason bands record in soundproof environments. Clayton Dillon from Snoring Source notes that soundproofing a studio is conducive to better recording quality and helps to prevent airborne and structure borne sound from entering the environment, as well as leaving it.
But that hasn't stopped bands from pushing the limits on stage. In 1974, The Grateful Dead strapped together 604 speakers for their ‘wall of sound’, maintaining perfect quality a quarter of a mile from the stage. The set-up, however, cost £350,000 and was too difficult to dismantle and transport. They retired the rig after 37 shows.
Loud music is a stress-reliever. Neurologically, it’s a kind of self-medication. The sacculus – a vestigial part of the inner ear relating humans to fish – tells the brain to release endorphins especially in response to low frequencies at 90db and louder. The sacculus loves the bass. The distribution of frequencies at rock shows are custom-built to stimulate saccular activity, and ongoing fMRI tests show that good music at proper volume creates an almost romantic frisson in humans, with brain and body chills following the dopamine rollout. The very anticipation of peak musical moments is enough to do it.
Danger comes with chasing the hit. Exposure to anything at 115dB will do significant damage. At 125dB even low frequencies will cause severe hearing loss. And with decibels, each increase of 10 doubles the loudness: 20 dB is twice as loud as 10 dB, but 30 dB is four times as loud. At the other side of 140dB, the human nose begins to itch, vision becomes blurry, vibrations affect the organs, and permanent hearing loss is likely. At 180dB you’re looking at probable death. At 194dB we reach the threshold of sound on the earth’s surface.
Technically we can find louder sounds in shockwaves and sub-oceanic noises and gas giants in the solar system that have denser atmospheres than our own planet – but let’s stick with earth for now.
If you listen closely you can hear Mogwai without actually putting on their albums. Their dynamics are the key, with delicate parts in Like Herod or Mogwai Fear Satan offering a reprieve before kicking in with a volume that can vapourise tears. People claim that during Mogwai festival appearances moths and insects near the speakers were literally blown to pieces when the loud parts arrived. Their 2001 song My Father My King was described as ‘two parts serenity and one part death metal’, making fans worry that they’d crack ceilings even in venues like the Royal Albert Hall.
Foo Fighters are slick when it comes to loudness but their 2011 show in Auckland is famous for causing actual geological tremors, similar to a volcanic event. The show created seismic activity recorded as far as 2km away, earning them a reading on the GeoNet seismograph. “The ground was shaking three times per second in a nice rhythmic motion,” says the website. The year after, in Belfast, their Boucher Road show in front of 32,000 fans resulted in 140 phonecall complaints for songs that could apparently be heard in the Irish countryside up to 12 miles away.
Jimmy Page’s attack on Whole Lotta Love is a contender for the world’s first metal riff, while the down-picked opening of Communication Breakdown became the starting point for almost every punk guitarist this side of 1969. But it was later that Led Zeppelin became masters of all-encompassing volume – by the time of their 10th North American tour in 1975 they had made Physical Graffiti, with epics like Kashmir sending juddering waves across the audience. Add later moments like John Bonham’s drums on When The Levee Breaks, and you’ve got one of the loudest, most magisterial bands of all time.
Gallows may have operated in their original guise for only a decade, but Frank Carter’s crew created serious noise during those 10 years. In 2007 they reached a record-breaking volume of 132.5 dB, although their accomplishment is sometimes dismissed because it happened in an isolated studio instead of in the wild. Even so, guitarists Laurent Barnard and Steph Carter met staff from the Brighton Institute of Modern Music in a secret location near Birmingham and smashed all records for the loudest bass and guitar stacks by playing for 60 seconds at jet-engine volume.
Kevin Shields’ band epitomise loudness, with the so-called ‘holocaust section’ of the song You Made Me Realise hitting crowds like a gale you could lean into at an angle. The sound at My Bloody Valentine gigs was mixed with earplugs in mind, to the extent that the band themselves would hand out foam plugs so fans could hear what was going on beneath their maelstrom. With the album Loveless, in 1991, Kevin basically reinvented what the guitar could do, but he has also had tinnitus ever since. “I regard it as a friend,” he says.
Since releasing Streetcleaner in 1989, Justin Broadrick and G.C. Green have made an especially heavy, grim and loud contribution to the history of rock and metal. Their performances have been brutally and sometimes dangerously loud, with one fan now only able to use the phone with his left ear since standing next to the right-hand speaker at a gig more than a decade ago. Coming from Birmingham – a city sometimes called the Detroit of England – makes Godflesh pioneers of truly industrial noise, capable of playing loud enough to make your teeth hurt.
In the late 1990s The Prodigy were considered one of the loudest phenomena on planet earth, and in 1997 the success of Fat Of The Land took them to even bigger stages. The bass on Firestarter made people’s skeletons rattle as their live sound engineer Jon Burton unleashed untold kilowatts of power. Burton made multitrack recordings of every show on their 26-month Invaders Must Die world tour, saying that the monitoring set-up alone had the power to bring down airplanes. “It’s the loudest thing in the world,” he said. “The most important thing, though, is getting good crowd noise.”
Stephen O’Malley has called the oppressive, priestly drone of Sunn O))) a ‘sound massage’, and he once imagined playing so loud that the audience would levitate up from the floor in a transcendent act of sonic baptism. Sunn O))) typify the physical effect of loudness, with every slow ripple of each riff making your body tremble with phantom frequencies and ghostly sounds. Their combination of sheer volume and low end gives the music an almost tangible quality that has caused nosebleeds and broken sound boards. But given a chance, their unorthodox shows are actually quite soothing.
The Who's 1970 record Live At Leeds is still considered one of the best live albums from one of rock’s loudest bands, but their 1976 performance at The Valley – home to Charlton Athletic, in south east London – made it into the Guinness Book Of Records in 1982 as the loudest concert of its time. Their 126dB beat Deep Purple’s standing record of 117dB, making a sound as loud as thunder. The bookkeepers at Guinness would later cancel loudness as a measure of achievement, in order to protect music fans’ hearing in the long run.
Ramones delivered short, sharp shocks with incredible pace and deafening volume. They arrived in Europe with columns of guitar amps, filling rooms with of thousands of flailing punks, but they were so loud that some people can remember only the one-two-three-four count-in followed by 90-second blurs of noise. Rob Freeman, who recorded the album Ramones at Plaza Sound Studios in 1976, says that the secret lay in how Johnny and Dee Dee set their amps. “There was no finesse here,” he said. “They just cranked the volumes all the way up.”
The modern-day ‘loudness wars’ in music studios means that engineers have been turning up the volume at the expense of detail, creating heavily-compressed tracks which are ultimately tiring to listen to. Volume is exhausting, and fatigue is real. The wars have, however, resulted in some really great analysis: little spiky graphs show that the 1997 remaster of Raw Power by The Stooges is the loudest, most compressed album of all time. It doesn’t matter that the original recording was nicely dynamic – towards the end, the remaster is actually off the chart.
In 1990 the Washington Post described Sonic Youth as ‘the masters of high-decibel rock’, warning that their shows created some amazing moments – if you could handle the volume. In their earliest days they shared a New York rehearsal space with Michael Gira and Swans, which made 1983 studio debut Confusion Is Sex a significantly louder and more dissonant album than the Sonic Youth EP. Like My Bloody Valentine, their noisy experiments had a profound and lasting influence on bands across the spectrum of rock and metal, impressing groups from Nirvana to Sigur Rós and Napalm Death.
Born in the same desolate Birmingham streets as Godflesh, grindcore pioneers Napalm Death often produce pure distortion, but they deserve credit for solid walls of sound played loud enough to induce auditory hallucinations. Barney Greenway considers Lemmy of Motörhead a hero, saying that they’re the first truly extreme band because of their tempos and volume. More recently, Napalm Death included a cover of White Kross by Sonic Youth on the Logic Ravaged By Brute Force EP. “It lifts itself beyond the constraints of cover song,” says Barney, “into a bit of a rumbling wall of sound epic.”
Swans can change the composition of human bodies. Their ‘audio womb’ can reach a pitch of intensity that creates claustrophobic panic attacks. Combine this with the frequency of long sustained notes, and you can feel like you’re being dragged along the ocean floor. Songs like the 45-minute The Knot have a tendency to terrify the meek, but at the Liverpool Mardi Gras in 1987, Michael Gira began by tickling an incredibly loud 12-string guitar. As the volume increased, a fan named Dave Jackson's eardrum burst in time with the first beat of the drums kicking in.
For 40 years Motörhead were so loud their songs held people hostage. During the Bomber tour in 1979 they hit 130 decibels onstage, and a 1984 show in Goulburn, Australia was loud enough to send one fan’s balance so far out of whack that he ran away and fell down the stairs on the way to the outside toilet. In the UK, they cracked the roof of Newcastle City Hall, shattered the windows in Wolverhampton Polytechnic, and set the speakers on fire at Port Vale FC. As they were fond of saying, it’s everything louder than everyone else.
Kerrang! writer Ian Winwood examines the failures of the music industry with startling candour…
As Billie Eilish paid tribute to Taylor Hawkins during her performance at last night’s GRAMMYs, the Foo Fighters also won all three awards they were nominated for: Best Rock Performance, Best Rock Song and Best Rock Album.
Foo Fighters’ 2009 compilation Greatest Hits has re-entered the Top 5 this week, following the tragic passing of drummer Taylor Hawkins.
Paul McCartney has shared a beautiful written tribute to the late Taylor Hawkins, calling him a “great drummer” with a “big and shiny” personality.
The Cover Story
He was obsessed with rock’n’roll and one of the greatest drummers on the planet, but more importantly Taylor Hawkins was a man brimming with love and kindness. Here, we remember a true one-of-a-kind…
Foo Fighters have announced “the cancellation of all upcoming tour dates” in a statement on social media.
“What I’m gonna do from this day forward is to try to make music that I think Taylor would really love…” See Jane’s Addiction singer Perry Farrell’s moving tribute video for the late Foo Fighters drummer.