40 Years Ago: The Who Become the World’s Loudest Band
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The title of “World’s Loudest Band” used to be a rock ’n’ roll merit badge. To some bands and their fans, loudness was tantamount to greatness. Groups actually spent time and effort to get the Guinness Book of World Records to come to their concert and tally the decibels, with the hope that they would win the sound war … at least until another band went one louder.
Although there’s no evidence that the Who were cranking the volume in a specific effort to win such an accolade, it’s what happened when the Guinness Book declared the British rock titans the loudest band due to a concert held on May 31, 1976. The Who’s performance at The Valley – an open-air stadium in Charlton, London – was measured at a whopping 126 decibels (dB) at a distance of 32 meters (a bit more than 100 feet) from the speakers.
Pete Townshend and pals beat the standing record of 117 dB, recorded by Deep Purple at London’s Rainbow Theatre in 1972. That was an indoor show at which the band’s sound knocked three people unconscious.
To put these record decibels in perspective, a clap of thunder from a storm that is directly overhead registers at around 120 dB. Even though the clap only lasts a few seconds, the short exposure can cause permanent hearing damage. Now imagine stretching that type of blistering sound over the course of an hour or two. Health experts say that significant damage can occur due to sustained exposure to any noises above 85 dB.
However, when fans who attended the Who’s record-setting gig think back on the 1976 show, its loudness isn’t usually what comes first to mind. In various recollections posted online, concert-goers remember how it rained all day or how crowded it was (people entering with fake tickets pushed the attendance over 75,000). They mention the spectacular laser display or the Tommy highlights or Keith Moon’s ridiculous hunting outfit before the historic volume levels.
That’s understandable, for two reasons. One, if you have more than 75,000 people at a show, they’re not all listening to the Who at a 32-meter distance. If you’re at the back of the stadium, it might get loud, but not nearly that loud. Two, this would be Moon’s last major performance with the Who in the band’s hometown of London. The drummer played a pair of shorter shows in 1977-78 for inclusion in The Kids Are Alright documentary. Moon died on Sept. 7, 1978.
While the Who would never be as loud again (at least not officially), other bands would take a stab at making eardrums bleed. New York heavy metal band Manowar overtook the Who’s record in 1984, and then beat their own number twice, registering at 129.5 dB in 1994 and 139 dB in 2008 (although the latter performance was at sound check). Motorhead clocked in at 130 dB in 1986, when their sound did physical damage to the Cleveland Variety Theater. Most recently, Kiss hit a sound pressure level of 136 dB at an outdoor performance in Ottawa, Canada in 2009 until the neighbors complained and the volume was turned down.
As for the current record-holder of the World’s Loudest Band? Well, there isn’t one. Even before Manowar’s record-breaking 1994 show, the people at Guinness had stopped considering loudness as an achievement for fear of encouraging bands to damage fans’ hearing.
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