Volume can be a musician’s friend or foe.
Playing six-string in a straight-up rock or country band with a drummer who hits like a kicking mule, a bassist with severe hearing loss and a keyboard player or rhythm guitarist who turns up to 11 is like shouting in the midst of a tornado – pointless and painful. It’s even worse if you’re also the singer. On the other hand, if your band is called something like Nihilistic Death By 10,000 Taloned Demons, it’s likely a dream come true and you’re probably the loudest member.
This story is about groups for whom high-level volume was or is a badge of courage – a scientifically measurable gauge of power and intensity. Any volume measured at more than 85 decibels (dB) is considered dangerous and can potentially cause hearing loss or damage, like the permanent ringing known as tinnitus. For our list of the 10 loudest bands of all time, we’re only considering performers whose volume has checked in at an eardrum-rampaging 115 dB and above.
Our list of volume-drunk champions:
The exact dB levels of concerts by these punk-fueled granddaddies of speed and thrash metal – the sonic foundation of groups like Metallica and Napalm Death – is not published, but there are so many anecdotal tales of their outrageous displays of howling volume that they’ve earned their place on this list in spades and aces. Mötorhead titled their third album Everything Louder Than Everyone Else… ’Nuff said.
These days The Who don’t seem terribly dangerous, with Pete Townshend wielding his Gibson SJ-200 as often as he hefts an electric axe. But in 1976 they earned a place in The Guinness Book of World Records for achieving a measured 126 dB roughly 100 feet from stage at the Valley, a London sports arena, touring behind The Who By Numbers.
According to their manger John Sinclair, Detroit’s MC5 were so loud they practiced with their Marshall 4x12 cabinets face-down flat on the ground, with the speakers firing straight into the floor. “Kick Out the Jams” wasn’t just a song to this influential pre-punk outfit; it was their manta. Part of that balls-out-all-the-time attitude was raw volume pushed to the maximum. Another part was sheer endurance. When they played at the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago to protest the war in Vietnam, their set lasted eight hours.
In the early 1980s these Aussie maniacs were hell bent on becoming the world’s loudest band, fueled in large part by Angus Young’s Gibson SG-powered wall of amps. During the Back in Black tour, the group turned in a series of concerts at a whopping 130 dB. Complaints from promoters, however, moved the group to drop things down a few notches to the mere bone-crunching volume they play at today.
My Bloody Valentine
These modernist art rockers from Dublin use volume as a tool for creating fireworks and swirls within their textural guitar sound. Live, their feedback spikes and eddies of pitch-bent notes create an intoxicating and occasionally disorienting effect which is even more mesmerizing than it is painful to the naked ear. Expect no kindness from a group named after a 1981 Canadian slasher flick that was compelled to cut nine minutes of gore by the Motion Picture Association of America before it could be released the theaters.
This might sound like urban legend, but The Guinness Book of World Records crowned Deep Purple the world’s loudest band after a 1972 concert at London’s 3,000-seat Rainbow Theater that rendered three fans unconscious with the intense pressure created by 117 dB of sound in an enclosed space. As Robert Ripley said, “Believe it or not!”
Writer David Krebs made the case in Rolling Stone that Led Zeppelin’s live performances of “Whole Lotta Love” were the loudest on stage in 1970. But the year before that, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has already proven Zep’s big sound credibility by measuring a performance of “Heartbreaker” at 130 dB.
These metal mongers from New York State are literally the band that broke the record on volume. After they scored Guinness’ recognition for the loudest musical performance at 129.5 db in 1984, they claim to have reached or exceeded that level again in 1994, but this time the famed book of records refused to acknowledge that accomplishment. Guinness had stopped including a category for world’s loudest band, supposedly because of the dangers of hearing damage caused by record seekers.
How loud must a group be to bring the roof down? For British electronica excessives Leftfield, the answer was an excruciating 137 dB in June 1996 at South London’s Brixton Academy, where chunks of plaster and dust began raining on their dance-crazed audience.
Thirty-six-years into their career KISS were still making headlines and defying gravitas. During a 2009 concert in Ottawa the group was reportedly clocked at 136 dB and were forced to turn down after police responded to complaints from neighbors in the area around the sports arena.