Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Could you turn it down a bit? It's not big and it's not clever.

Loud music is a bit like free speech. Take it just that tiny bit too far and you want to kill someone.

Mark Ellen and I were talking to Katherine Whitehorn about loud music. As a member of the pre-rock and roll generation, she was keen to know what people of the rock and roll generation thought about the fact that everywhere we go nowadays we are exposed to music at a level that would have considered intolerable to the people who'd got their idea of noise from hearing actual munitions being dropped on their heads.

It was very difficult to get over how we felt. Obviously we have spent the last thirty years with headphones clamped to our ears and thereby we are by any measure clinically deaf. Nevertheless in the last few years even I have been forced to beat a retreat from both live gigs and clubs where the level of the music was actually making me feel ill. I cannot imagine what it would do to somebody of Katherine's generation. I have left branches of Abercrombie & Fitch with teenage shopping list unfulfilled thanks to the hammering my ribcage was taking from the sound waves coming from the speakers.

The world must be getting louder and people must be getting deafer. There is no other explanation.Loudness is a form of inflation that has been raging for years. It is driven not just by technology but also by humanity's incorrect belief that there is a notch on the volume knob which, once achieved, will bring about a massive explosion of human delight. They are all seeking this plateau of delirium. It never happens. It doesn't exist. Delight comes from within, not without.

In shops the rising tide of volume is driven by the staff. They are bored out of their minds and play music loud in order to persuade themselves that they work in a club and not a haberdashery. At office parties it's driven by people who have drunk slightly more than everyone else and believe that cranking the "sounds" up sufficiently will make everyone else do the thing they don't actually dare do themselves - dance. Party goers try to make themselves heard by talking louder. DJs respond by turning it up even louder. Far from increasing the sum of human happiness in the room they clearly reduce it and inevitably shorten the party.

I have talked to a number of people about the recent Leonard Cohen shows. The praise they universally volunteer is this. "It wasn't *loud*." Is it possible that this marks the moment the worm turns?


  1. First 'titivate', then 'haberdashery'. You know how to press my buttons, David.

    Anyway, I agree. I remember going to the Hoxton Electricity Showrooms a few years ago, and noticing that as it got more crowded, the music was turned up louder and louder, so you couldn't hear a bloody word of what your pals were saying. That was what made me realise that if it's too loud, you're too old. But what happens in kids' drinking establishments today comes to pubs tomorrow and much as I love a top jukebox, when it's played so loud you can't hear what your drinking partners are saying, it's ludicrous. And don't get me started on those nitwits who think it's a good idea to wind down all the windows in the car - even in the winter - and blare your crappy music into the street.

    Can we have a campaign to Bring Back Talking?

  2. I agree totally. However lower volume concerts will unfortunately mean that all those pillocks who insist on talking loudly throughout the band's entire set will be able to drown out everything and not just the quiet numbers.

  3. When I saw LC at the NEC, there was a couple behind us who sang loudly all the way through - apart from the French bit in "The Partisan" - obviously not linguists.

  4. I have had tinnitus since my mid-20s. The volume in many shops and bars leaves me in physical discomfort. I can understand loud music in clubs and at concerts, but I recently went to a pub where the music was so loud it was impossible to hold a conversation, which seems rather pointless. *feels old beyond her years*

  5. You might find this interesting:

    For me, it's not only the loudness, it's the lack of music quality and fidelity that goes along with high volume. Some music is manufactured to have a limited harmonic range and can be belted out, but a lot of more complex recorded stuff just doesn't sound so good at higher volumes. I think that's part of the reason why it hurts so much, it's ragged.

  6. I don't think loudness even mitigates deafness. For me, if music gets too loud, I lose the ability to perceive rhythm, melody or words. I know it's my ears and brain that can't handle it, because if I block my ears the music is back with good fidelity. I don't know whether this is a form of deafness. I'm quite proud to say that at 35 years of age, I can still hear those mosquito ringtones.

    I've had to buy musicians' earplugs in order to enjoy concerts again.

    One of the most enjoyable concerts of the last couple of years was a pre-Ys Joanna Newsom. She was so quiet that camera shutters were audible over the music.

  7. I was 14 or 15 so this would have been 1970 or 1971.

    Three of my school friends and I made some sort of dodgy arrangement to get out of our respective family homes for the evening, and we went to see The Who at The Roundhouse.
    I think a couple of us had been to a 'one-dayer' at Hyde Park ('Jesus' was there!) and so we were experienced gig goers, of course...

    That Who gig still scars me to this day. Two of us stayed relatively near the back, but for some reason beyond sanity, Stephen and Julian decided to get as near the speakers as possible.
    To come to the point (though there are many off-shoot anecdotes to this tale) we will move to the end of the gig and the four of us meeting up outside the Roundhouse. Stephen B's ears were (literally) bleeding. I could not hear a single thing for a couple of days, and didn't return to 'normal' hearing for at least a week.

    When you add into the mix that there was rarely a Clash gig in London that I missed between 1977 and 1980, then it is little wonder that the word I say most commonly these days is "Pardon?"

  8. I've thought the same at the really enjoyable 'gigs' i've been at over the last five years or so, most notably Robert Forster and Magnetic Fields' shows (oh, and yes, that pre-Ys Joanna Newsome show as well!).

    I've seen the video footage of the My Bloody Valentine reunion shows and i still scratch my head in confusion. For although I always loved MBV records i never got the obsession with the loudness.

    As for music in shops etc, well, thankfully these days of internet shopping makes it pretty much a moot point. Hurrah! for technology.