It isn’t a proper rock gig if you don’t leave with your ears ringing

My personal belief is that volume levels have dropped since the golden age of rock
  • @cmaume

There’s a very funny clip on YouTube of Pink Floyd in 1967 on the BBC’s The Look of the Week. They play one of their best-known early numbers, “Astronomy Domine”, and are then interrogated (and patronised) by the musicologist Hans Keller.

“Why has it all got to be so terribly loud?” he asks them.

“Well, I guess it doesn’t have to be,” Roger Waters replies, “but that’s the way we like it.”

That’s the way UB40 like it, too – but some of their fans are firmly in the Keller camp. When the reggae-flavoured heritage-rockers played the Corn Exchange in Cambridge on Monday, some punters walked out during the first number. And they found that even the foyer was filled with a painful bass boom.

One dissatisfied customer reported that her ear started bleeding, although she acknowledged that she has a perforated eardrum as a result of a childhood illness. “It was actually altering heart rhythms,” she also reported.

Another said: “The bass crashed into you like a steam train. I had a pain in my chest.”

It sounds like a great gig to me, but then I speak as someone whose hearing has had its top notes shaved off thanks to 40 years of gig-going. My personal impression is that volume levels have dropped since the golden age of rock. It’s a long time since I’ve had that ringing in the ears that went on for three days and was a reliable indicator that a good time had been had. I used to stray perilously close to the speaker stack: you couldn’t help it if the mosh pit was your preferred area of operations, though even my eyebrows would be raised at the sight of mad lads sticking their heads in the cabinets.

One of the most extreme experiences I had was at a My Bloody Valentine gig about 20 years ago, when the climax of the set was a 20-minute ear-blistering assault of feedback, pedal effects and white noise. It sounds painful – and yes, I guess it was a bit – but it was also utterly exhilarating, and even if it left my hearing slightly the worse for wear I don’t regret a single second.

Sadly, I never attended a gig by the dark cult band Swans, who built their entire act round great big slabs of noise. I don’t know if it’s apocryphal, but there’s a story of a bouncer opening the doors as they performed a soundcheck and being knocked off his feet by the renegade soundwaves surging down the hall.

There is a proud history of loud music used as a weapon and instrument of torture. Deicide’s “Fuck your God” and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” were among the rock opuses blasted at Guantanamo inmates, and the FBI famously used the likes of Andy Williams and Nancy Sinatra to discombobulate the Branch Davidians during the Waco siege. I’ve no idea of the age of the complainants at the Corn Exchange, but given UB40’s entrenched position on the dad-rock circuit I’d be willing to bet they’re the wrong side of 40, and that a foyer filled with booming bass notes would be a thrilling matter to the young things UB40 used to attract in their pomp. 

Doctors may well accuse me of being cavalier – and there is evidence, as The Independent reported a couple of years ago, that noise levels above 110 decibels strip insulation from nerve fibres carrying signals from the ear to the brain, similar to multiple sclerosis. But there is a simple, if not entirely elegant, solution – ear plugs. Not only do they protect the ears, but they also improve the sound, taking away that top layer of unmusical noise. The Corn Exchange had earplugs to hand out, and if other venues don’t then they should follow suit forthwith, if only to avoid nanny-state health-and-safety kicking in and a volume czar being appointed. So remember, young and old alike: plug in and wig out.

Who says men don’t read books any more?

Those dread words “according to a survey...” at the start of a news article can be really quite useful. All too often they mean that you can skip the piece and claw back a few minutes of your life that would otherwise have been wasted.

One survey just out, conducted by OnePoll for the Reading Agency, claims that 63 per cent of men don’t read books. And if my default position on surveys is disbelief, I see no reason to change things with this one. Most men I know read books, even if they’re only sports books. Surveys always have an ulterior motive, and at the end of any piece carrying the results of one there’s usually a brief line indicating what’s being publicised. In this case it’s World Book Night, next week.

That’s fine, of course – I have no problem with trying to get people to read more, and the organisers have drawn up a list of 20 books they feel will appeal specifically to young men. But I can report that my 12-year-old son is a voracious reader, as are most of his friends. So let’s not panic; reading isn’t going away just yet.