According to my iPhone, my headphone level is higher this week than last week. It’s 71dB this week whereas last week it was 66 dB. It’s (relatively) interesting to google “What is a safe headphone level?”. “Gadgetbriefs.com” say anything below 85dB. “Headphonesty.com” say the same thing but include an interesting diagram.
So it appears that although I turned up the volume a little when listening to “The Morning After” by Spiritualised while sitting in the garden this afternoon, I’m still safe. It hasn’t always been the case. Listening to The Cure or The Velvet Underground 30 or 40 years ago only ever achieved the desired effect when the volume was turned up to maximum. That probably explains the mild tinnitus I get in my left ear.
I have been to some loud concerts. The War On Drugs at The Dome in Brighton four years ago were very loud but also crystal clear. Teenage Fanclub at The Town And Country in 1991 were excruciatingly loud. Roo and I were upstairs, right at the back and it was so loud that Roo fell asleep, standing up. Go figure, as they say. Conversely, when John and I went to see Van Morrison at The Fleadh in Finsbury Park, it was so quiet, we couldn’t really hear anything. A year or so later when Roo and I went to a similar event in Finsbury Park, I watched The Waterboys while she went into a tent to see Mark Olson and The Creekdippers, featuring Victoria Williams. (A difficult decision for me but I’m glad I saw The Waterboys). I was halfway back, a long way from the group but I stood right by a speaker that presumably had been placed there to amplify the sound for those of us not determined to groove on down to the mosh pit. The sound was perfect. Not too quiet, not to loud, “Just Right”, as my friend Percy would have said.
It always amuses me in films when people have conversations while watching a live band. there’s a scene in “High Fidelity” when John Cusack and Todd Louiso go into a club where Jack Black and his band are playing. They turn to each other and say, at 60dB (if the above chart is correct) “he’s pretty good”. So unrealistic. They would have had to be shouting at each other.
The worst case of all was Sugar at The Corn Exchange in Cambridge in 1993. Roo and I sat upstairs in “The Circle” in about the tenth row. A new feature of the venue from the previous time we had been there was the erection of some perspex at the front of The Circle, maybe to stop people throwing themselves off the balcony in excitement. It felt like you were watching the band through a slightly strange medium – not the same as watching them on TV but it didn’t feel like a clear uninterrupted view. When Sugar started playing, we wondered if the Perspex was there to deaden the sound a little but even so the decibel levels were so high as to make listening to the music meaningless. As my Dad would have said about The Rolling Stones in 1965, “it was just a noise”. It was so loud, we left early. We could only decide on this by gesticulating to each other. Shouting into her ear (at 110 dB) wasn’t loud enough to be heard. I can’t remember ever leaving a concert for that reason before or since.
This was a real disappointment to both of us because the record that had just come out “Copper Blue” was delightful. It was slightly heavy jangly guitar music but every song had a great melody. I’ve just played the first song “The Act We Act” to Roo and asked her if she could identify the group. Quite understandably, she guessed R.E.M. because it sounds like something off “Murmur” or “Reckoning”. Right now I’m listening to “If I Can’t Change My Mind” which is very poppy – a mixture of The Cure in their pop mode and The Lemonheads. In 1992, the NME made “Copper Blue” their Album Of The Year. They described it as “The last word in love songs, and the full stop after heartbreak.” The leader of Sugar was Bob Mould and he said that the release of “Nevermind” by Nirvana had a “profound impact” on him. “When ‘Nevermind’ came out, that album changed the way people listen to music. Had it not been for ‘Nevermind’, I don’t know if ‘Copper Blue’ would have stood a chance in 1992. But people were now receptive to this sound.”
The “AllMusic” website describes the record like this. “A more aggressive, contemporary guitar attack aside, stunning power punk masterpieces like “The Act We Act,” “The Slim,” and “Fortune Teller” bear all of the vintage Bob Mould musical traits: tell-tale lyrics, great hooks, and snappy melodies. It’s all underpinned by that unexplainable, chilling tension between innocent beauty and dark melancholy that fans came to expect from Bob Mould and topped by his somewhat nasal, almost timid vocal harmonies. Other highlights include the ’60s-style “If I Can’t Change Your Mind,” the loud, beautiful guitars of “Man on the Moon” and “Helpless,” and the tongue-in-cheek Pixies tribute “A Good Idea.” “
It’s a great album but it was a terrible concert.