Bad vibrations: Is it time to crank down the volume at concerts?

Loud bands have existed since the birth of rock'n'roll, but now earplugs are to be given out at concerts.

Elisa Bray
Thursday 06 August 2009 00:00

Last week's issue of NME featured a list of the 20 loudest songs ever released, to mark the return of Spinal Tap. Included on it were the Jesus and Mary Chain as well as Atari Teenage Riot, Black Sabbath, and a track from My Bloody Valentine. The latter's song, "You Made Me Realise", a four-minute track released in 1998, would be transformed into a blistering live performance when the band repeated a single chord over and over before shifting into a deafening wall of sound lasting up to 20 minutes. It was with this track that they chose to end their five 2008 comeback shows at London's Roundhouse. Not surprising, then, that two of their members – guitarist singer Kevin Shields and his girlfriend singer guitarist Bilinda Butcher have tinnitus and a perforated eardrum between them.

Now, My Bloody Valentine are teaming up with earplug company to hand out the protectors at their gig. It will be seen as a gimmick by many. And, anyway, surely it's a bit late. The band have been going for 25 years and you only have to type tinnitus and My Bloody Valentine into Google and a plethora of blog sites appear with fans lamenting their loss of hearing, thanks to a MBV gig.

One blogger said: "I was lucky enough to catch My Bloody Valentine live back when they were touring Loveless. If I recall correctly, I withstood the band's now legendary 15-minute noise blitzkrieg during the climax of "You Made Me Realise" without any earplugs, and I'm sure it had a great deal to do with the tinnitus I've been grappling with since 1999." Another said, on the Royal National Institute for Deaf People tinnitus forum: "I remember My Bloody Valentine, a classic band. Saw them live in 1991, but they were very loud and probably not good for tinnitus in the flesh!" On the band's own forum, one member – a self-proclaimed fan of the group for 19 years – who has suffered ever since attending last year's Roundhouse show, went as far as to say he'd be "too bitter to listen to them again". All regretted not using earplugs.

Shields himself blamed his hearing damage on "listening to mixes in headphones at very loud levels without giving my ears time to recover" while Butcher said: "I had a punctured ear drum which fortunately they were able to put right, but for a while I couldn't hear out of one ear and it was very depressing. On stage, we all wear hearing protection and encourage anyone who sees us regularly to do the same."

Albums should be at a consistent sound level so that when you have your iPod on shuffle, no track will deafen above the others. Last month, American rock band Dinosaur Jr. recalled the European CD version of their new album, Farm, because it was too loud. While the album was being mastered, the software program had "doubled" the sound layers, resulting in a thee- decibel increase in the overall sound volume. But the same sound regulation does not apply to live music.

Gigs regularly exceed the recommended decibel limit that it is safe to be exposed to for any length of time, with sound levels easily reaching 115 decibels, which causes hearing damage in less than 30 seconds, the safe level being 85 decibels. But MBV's shows have been known to reach more than a deafening 120 decibels. At their comeback shows at the Roundhouse, there were fans complaining afterwards that their ears hurt, it was so loud, a definite warning sign of hearing damage. On that tour, free earplugs were available, but this is the first time they will be proactively distributing them. Earplugs are readily accessible at gigs across Europe, but in Britain your best chances of saving your ears is to sidle up to a security guard at the gig in the hope they have a spare set. Under law, if you're working amid sound levels above 90 dB, you can work only short periods of time and are given hearing protection.

If everyone at a gig is wearing earplugs to muffle the sound, why don't the promoters putting on the gig simply turn down the volume? The reason is that the power of volume is all part of the physical experience of the gig. Howard Monk, promoter at the Local, and drummer explains, "A band like MBV is super loud. Part of the experience is the wave of sound which is exciting. It's the rumblings and vibrations you can feel. There's an experience to be had which you wouldn't get if it wasn't loud. MBV playing wave after wave of amplifying and increasing sound does not only have an effect on the ears but the chest – and the bowels as well. A lot of the way is how deaf people would experience the music."

One of the world's most acclaimed percussionists, Evelyn Glennie, has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12. She performs bare foot to feel the music, and deals with vibrations and the physical sensation she gets in her chest.

It's not only that gigs are too loud. Sometimes, they are too quiet. Many fans attending the first Field Day in 2007, an annual one-day festival in London in August, featuring pop, folk and acoustic acts, complained about being unable to hear the acts. As well as the sound level being too low, with five stages in Victoria Park, sound would bleed from one stage to another and there was hardly an area you could be without hearing the music from another band. Last year, the Mercury nominated folk star Laura Marling, could not be heard from the back of the crowd. Admittedly, quieter music is going to be harder to project in the outdoors, but it wasn't just acoustic acts that suffered poor amplification. One punter told me they were at the back thinking they were listening to a DJ, when all the time they were missing a band's set.

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It's a problem that is not limited to Field Day, it happens at several festivals and is the promoter's responsibility to prevent. At Wireless, a bandstand stage dedicated to Bella Union acts was just as compromised. While it worked for the inner circles of fans watching the bands, anyone else would have heard grime star Chipmunk or the electro beats of Fischerspooner.

Monk, a drummer as well as promoter, is well aware of the pitfalls: "I was playing with The Memory Band at the Big Chill Festival in 2006, and Tunng were playing a quiet number when a sound check started in a big tent next door with powerful dubby dance music. It became clear that somebody hadn't given much thought to the space. In promotion, you have to give yourself space. When I'm booking a PA for a gig in a church, it might be quiet music and might be a quiet space but you still have to make sure it's audible over the sound of people's mumbling." The Local, known for their programming of folk music, came as a result of matching the sound to the space available. Starting out in a venue beneath a pub in Crouch End, the vibrations would go into the pub upsetting the pub-goers. As a result, they started to put on less noisy acts. "That's how we got into that folk world where we exist right now – you programme stuff according to the venue."

More people than ever are exposing themselves to loud music because of the growth in live music. Still, according to a poll, 81 per cent of people don't realise that they can permanently damage their hearing after just 15 minutes of exposure to loud music. The handing out of earplugs at gigs and festivals is long overdue, and music-lovers should look to other options on the market which do not affect sound quality. Neon foam earplugs may not look particularly rock'n'roll, but it's about time that a rock band demonstrated the importance of hearing protection so people can continue to enjoy music for years ahead. Just remember Morrissey wearing a hearing aid on Top of the Pops in the Eighties to support a female fan too embarrassed to wear one. He made hearing aids look cool.

The sound and the fury Six of the loudest bands ever


More than 30 years of performances and albums have made Kiss's ear-splitting noise and make-up legendary among rock and metal lovers well after the American band rose to fame in the late 1970s.

The Who

In 1976, The Who won the 'Guinness World Records' title for "The Loudest Band in the World", playing at 126dB. Pete Townshend once apologised to fans who had been leaving concerts with their ears bleeding.


More than 30 years of performances and albums have made Kiss's ear-splitting noise and make-up legendary among rock and metal lovers well after the American band rose to fame in the late 1970s.


The Australian rock band's "Black in Black" track for the eponymous album has an unforgettable riff that has led to them being hailed as one of the loudest bands ever.


Snatched The Who's title in 1994 when they played at 129.5dB, and, most recently in 2008 at 139dB. As of 1994, the 'Guinness World Records' no longer celebrates the "The Loudest Band in the World" for fear of promoting damage to ears.

The Jesus And Mary Chain

The East Kilbride rockers, famous for rarely playing for more than 20 minutes, should have short, sweet and loud as a disclaimer. "Inside Me", from the 1985 album 'Psychocandy', is symptomatic of brothers Jim and William Reid's penchant for decibels.

Black Sabbath

The 1970 song "Iron Man" is credited by 'NME' as one of the loudest tracks of all time. Formative in developing the heavy-metal genre, Black Sabbath are among the most influential of the loud bands.

Ruth Gillbe

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