In 40 YEARS IN 52 WEEKS, GARY STEEL trawls through his archives and selective memory banks to celebrate a lifetime of writing about modern music, and pens some new perspectives to mark the occasion. The subject of today’s piece: aural agony.
I’d only recently embarked on a career writing about music, first for Rip It Up and then for The Evening Post, but I went to see the very hot New York new wave band on its Fear Of Music tour simply as a fan. It blew my tiny mind, and nearly blew my eardrums.
They played ‘Heaven’, ‘Electric Guitar’ and ‘Psycho Killer’, and the performance was intense and charged and fucking loud.
I’d started out as a Hamilton-reared adolescent going to just about every single international act that deemed to perform at Founders Theatre, but none of them had split my head open with sound or left my ears ringing. With the technology then available and the crappy PA gear in New Zealand at the time it was always a struggle for bands to get a good sound, with vocalists in particular often inflicting excruciating feedback on the audience and both mixes and room acoustics playing a part in the sorry state of affairs. But despite these shortcomings, I don’t remember the gigs being particularly loud. I do remember rocked-up folk band Steeleye Span (at Auckland Town Hall) pushing the sound levels way beyond that which suited music of that type, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that I noticed the decibel levels creep up to a point where gig-going was habitually uncomfortable.
If I’d stayed at the back of the hall at that Talking Heads gig I probably would have been okay, but my excitement took me towards the throng out front and I was carried in a surge of bodies towards a position directly in front of the right-hand PA speaker. It was an amazing gig by a band at their post-punk peak, but my right ear was subject to a sustained sonic battering that night, and it’s never been quite the same since.
I’ve never tallied up all the concerts I went to in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but these days, I’d rather listen to a recording in the audiophiliac safety of my own environment where I can move away or turn the volume down or change the band at will. I found that too often, while I liked the music, I found the whole ritual around concerts unutterably dull. But the worst thing was that most of the time I was being bombarded by an appalling battering-ram of sonic degradation, and I felt that it was an insult to the intelligence. Bands would spend months getting the perfect mix of sounds and textures on their latest album, then tour it and hear their performances turn into mush. The band of course were listening through onstage monitors, so they weren’t hearing what we were hearing.
Probably the most sonically challenging concerts I attended in the ‘80s were by Christchurch sonic assassins, The Gordons. I went to every gig of theirs I heard about through the grapevine, and they were always louder than any other band of the day. There was one particular Gordons gig at Thistle Hall in Cuba St that was so loud that the resultant tinnitus played feedback-type sounds to me the whole subsequent week. It was like I was still listening to them, minus the voice and drums. But somehow, I relished in this self-harm. They were such an astonishing experience that I felt any damage sustained by exposure to their musical force-field was necessary collateral damage.
When I first heard The Gordons in 1980 they were stranded in Wellington with shitty gear, but in 1981 they came back with a really good Cerwin-Vega PA system, and when they performed at The Last Resort in Courtenay Place, they sounded incredible. The room acoustics were right and they were able to play loud and make it sound like it was louder than it was because it was clear. I was in heaven that night.
To some degree The Gordons and the band they eventually evolved into – Bailter Space – are a great example of a group whose music actually sounds louder than it is. Most of the gigs I’ve attended to by both bands seemed really loud at the time, but I never wore ear plugs, and never sustained any noticeable damage, or even screaming tinnitus.
By contrast, the most damaging concerts I’ve attended haven’t been the loudest, but have had horribly mixed sound in venues with horrendous acoustics. An outstanding example of this was the Siouxsie & The Banshees concert in Wellington Town Hall in 1983. (Why does that venue crop up so much in my tales of aural agony, I wonder?) It wasn’t that the music itself was too loud, but that Siouxsie Sioux’s vocals were mixed so loud that her caterwauling was like a cat’s claw scraping the nerve-endings in my inner ear. It was worse than excruciating.
Back then, earplugs were rare and if you did wear them you were considered a wimp. Personally, I’ve always felt that earplugs limited my enjoyment of live music by cutting out too many of the “fun” frequencies. It’s always seemed like an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff situation to me. Why encourage everyone to wear earplugs in the same way that everyone is implored to wear sunscreen to protect them from the sun? The sun will shine and it will damage skin if a human stays in its unforgiving glare for too long. A band or performer surely has a responsibility to get the sound right, and to project it at a decibel level that’s not damaging to members of the audience. I predict that in the near future, bands and the people/robots in charge of their sound mix and levels will be held personally responsible for hearing damage sustained by patrons.
By the time the ‘90s came round I was developing new strategies. I would find out when a band was really going to hit the stage (not the advertised time, which was always wrong) and in the case of Motorhead, turn up only for the encore. That way, I could get a good strong dose without subjecting myself to long haul aural punishment. And as I my hearing became more precious to me, I started to go to fewer gigs and choosing the ones I wanted to see much more carefully.
And by the mid-‘90s I was bored with rock and getting into bass music: jungle/drum’n’bass, industrial dub, dark ambient, trip-hop, minimal techno and IDM (so-called Intelligent Dance Music). This also suited where my ears were at: rock music crammed the guitar, voice and drums together in a hash of compression/sibilance and the compact disc era enhanced the nasty thinness of it all. Electronic music had a sonic purity to it that teased and seduced my ears.
In 2014 I was approached by the promotional arm of a company that makes high-end hearing aids which are mostly sold to musicians, and I was offered a free hearing check-up and a chance to try out their wares along with an interview with the firm’s “New Zealand ambassador”, Mike Chunn (of Split Enz, Citizen Band and Play It Strange Foundation fame). They were shocked when I passed the hearing test with flying colours, and therefore couldn’t effectively audition the hearing aid. (I still haven’t transcribed that interview).
Sure, I have tinnitus and when I’m tired or ill it can really bug me, but I’ve somehow learned how to tune it out most of the time (touch wood). And even going back to the 1980s I found it difficult to hear properly in a crowded café: in an acoustically poor room the babble is overwhelming. My real hearing issue is that I’m over-sensitive in certain frequencies. If an ambulance or fire truck passes me in the street with its sirens wailing, it’s literally painful unless I plug my fingers in my ears.
I figure this is a small price to pay when I could be as deaf as a post with all the loud music performances I’ve attended. I’ve always been a volume freak and love turning my stereo up as loud as I can handle it when the opportunity presents itself. A lot of my favourite music really comes alive at specified volumes. Frank Zappa’s music, for instance, takes on a much more visceral, physical and exciting dimension if I crank it up, and that’s when I know what he was talking about when he described his guitar solos as “sonic sculptures”. But I’m discerning about how I ingest loud music, and don’t tolerate sonic shrapnel at all well. I guess that’s why I’ve always loved the hi-fi aesthetic. There’s a lot about the audiophile scene that bugs me, but ultimately, a really good amp and pair of speakers convert sounds into magic, and I don’t even believe in magic.
I don’t listen to nearly as much music now, though; a phenomenon that’s typical of people in their 50s and 60s. My peak musical experience this morning was an early morning walk in which I took in the sonic holographic/stereophonic wonder of mating-mad cicadas doing their thing at high velocity. The sound of cicadas scraping their bits could drive a person crazy, but we live in a kind of basin that makes for a 3D acoustical environment. Insects rule, okay?