When The Beatles essentially invented the stadium gig by default due to the sheer numbers desperate to see them on their US tours, amplification was so much in its infancy that the band’s instruments were channelled through the PA systems of the baseball grounds besieged by hordes of knicker-wetting nymphets. Yet, within four years of the Fab Four’s Shea Stadium concert, amplification had advanced to the point whereby Woodstock could be staged, transmitting every riff, lick and solo across several square miles of farmland.
As with every innovation in technology, what begins in the hands of the wealthy eventually filters down to the plebs. The first synthesizers, for example, were heavyweight slabs of virtual furniture that only the likes of Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman could afford; by the end of the 70s, streamlined synths were within the budget of spotty oiks from Sheffield, Salford and the Wirral, thus facilitating the electronic soundscapes of the 80s. In the space of a decade, recordable tape went from a bulky reel-to-reel machine that had to be carried in a suitcase to the cassette small enough to fit into your pocket and cheap enough to cover the average pocket-money of every kid tuned into the Sunday top 40 show.
The growth of rock music as the leading leisure industry of the 70s and 80s turned the volume up to eleven not only in its attempts to made itself heard by the punters at the back of the venue, but by those who spun the discs at home; the introduction of the ‘ghetto blaster’ then increased the sound heard at street level, whether on the shoulders of apprentice rappers or pumping from the speakers that became as intrinsic an element of a car’s framework as any part that enabled it to be driven. Urban noise pollution had arrived big time.
Naturally, as none of us were around in nineteenth century Britain, it’s easy to assume it was a golden age of sonic serenity, before the rude intrusion of the gramophone. The fact is that those we would now regard as buskers made a tidy packet striding up and down residential streets, deliberately making such a racket that the residents would toss them a coin in order to move them on. And city centre thoroughfares were just as crowded and cacophonous as today, with the main difference being that the noise emanated from the people – hawkers, harriers and tinkers working in tandem with the hooves of a hundred horses clattering the cobbles. And while there were no petrol fumes to be inadvertently inhaled, the stench of the great unwashed mingled with equine deposits in a way that would most likely strike us as far more nauseas than the contents of an exhaust pipe if we could stroll through those streets. But in terms of noise, the towns of the north and the midlands would be the worst, with the newfangled machinery of industry adding to the din whilst the discharge of that machinery coated the surrounding homes in a grimy patina that rendered such communities visual and audible blots on the green and pleasant landscape, a landscape the railways had already cut a dirty swathe through.
Industry certainly played its part in racking up the levels of noise that the ears of the masses would be damaged by on a daily basis as the twentieth century progressed – not only the gradual replacement of horsepower by the internal combustion engine, but also by the road-works the automobile necessitated, as well as the great building projects that required pneumatic drills, diggers and cement mixers to ensure they were erected at a greater speed than medieval cathedrals; and let us not forget the emergency service sirens or the sky-scraping eruption of jet aircraft – all of which could stretch to the same distances as church bells, if noticeably lacking their majestic melody. Towns and cities were therefore fairly noisy locations even before technology was devolved to the people in the shape of sound systems that could expose one’s personal musical tastes to one’s neighbours.
Every teenager experiences the thrill of their first personal record/CD-player and playing the game of seeing how loud they can push the volume before an additional drum pattern is thrown into the mix from the ceiling below or the bedroom door. The inevitable limitations of this are overcome if junior finds his way to further education a long way from home; suddenly surrounded by those his own age and an absence of old farts, junior gets a little carried away and figures he can play whatever he likes at whatever volume at whatever hour of the day, and nobody will complain – fine if he resides in a community wherein all are juvenile creatures of the night, not so if stationed in a neighbourhood that also includes those who aren’t. Not that this matters to junior, mind; nights out are spent touring clubs where shouting instead of speaking is second nature, situated in city centres soundtracked by the smashing of glasses, the screech and squeal of the hen party, the intoxicated chorus of the obscene group chant and the endless swirl of the sirens that seamlessly blend into each other to form an audio stew that junior’s ears export back to the shared student house.
Amongst the lengthy litany of items that can make modern life such a bloody headache, noise pollution is one that is often overlooked. Sure, we’ve had a surfeit of cheap TV documentaries about ‘problem neighbours’ (dis)gracing our screens in recent years, but one doesn’t even have to live next door to a family of seventeen with a caravan in the front garden and a dog-fighting tournament taking place in the back to be pushed to the brink of a breakdown.
The passing vehicle at 3 o’clock in the morning generating a bass of such bowel-churning power that it shakes the foundations of one’s home in a manner that only nature could manage previously; the ‘Starsky & Hutch’-style wail of speeding police cars that zoom around built-up areas in the twilight hours when there is little traffic to block their progress (and justify the employment of said siren); the car alarm that is triggered into life by a change in the wind; the burglar alarm that rings with such unprovoked repetition that nobody cares if a burglar has provoked it; the taxi driver who doesn’t adhere to the highway code when relishing the reverberation of his horn; and – worst of all – the fact that the noise that masquerades as music is always drawn from such a narrow, generic pool. When was the last time Frank Sinatra or Miles Davis or The Beatles or Bowie penetrated the peace before the dawn? I could sleep on were that sleep disturbed by ‘Songs for Swinging Lovers’, ‘The Birth of The Cool’, ‘Revolver’ or ‘Aladdin Sane’; but I cannot do so bereft of ear-plugs when the same old tedium of watered-down, lowest-common-denominator derivatives of the genuinely groundbreaking dance of twenty-five years ago invades my repose and drives me to the edge.
When I read the eloquent and eye-opening dissection of depression co-written by Dr Anthony Clare and Spike Milligan around ten years ago, it was the first time I realised an aspect of my own ‘condition’ (for want of a less sensationalistic word) was extreme sensitivity to loud noise. It took reading of it for an awareness of it to dawn on me. I hate it when I visit friends who have the television on too loud throughout the tenure of my visit – or music, for that; alone in my own home, the TV or the CD player are never above a specific volume; all noise becomes white to me if it exceeds that specific volume, and when it emanates from elsewhere, somewhere beyond my control, I have been made genuinely ill by it. But I don’t necessarily think a strain of mental illness is a pre-requisite for an allergic reaction to the sound of the twenty-first century, whether to annoying ringtones or to an auto-tune dirge on the in-store supermarket radio station. I’m sure I’m not alone, but the voice of opposition is drowned by competition.