“Kerouac’s in a little bar in Mexico. He says that was the only time he ever got to hear music played loud enough – in that little bar in Mexico. It was in On the Road. The only time he ever got to hear the music loud enough. I always remember that.”
The quotation above comes from Annie Dillard’s father. He is quoted towards the very end of Dillard’s An American Childhood (see book review #38) as she recalls dancing with her father in the living room with the record player turned up all the way. When I read this passage I got the idea for this list. Here are the loudest bands I’ve ever heard.
5) The Architects: This band hails from Kansas City and just released their fourth album. I’ve been to hear them a half-dozen times. Sometimes they headline and sometimes they open for national touring acts that come through Kansas City. With a mix of blues, punk, and straight-up rock & roll they embody Kerouac’s line better than any other band on this list.
4) Hum: Hum was loud. They were loud in a way that transcended sound. They were loud in a way you felt through your entire body. I went to hear Hum in Portland, Oregon, in 1998 when they played a venue called La Luna. It has been said that one of the aesthetic innovations of 90s alternative rock was that bands played loud music without the showmanship of metal bands. Hum was loud without makeup, without hair gel, and without tights. They were loud without a wardrobe fashioned out of leather, chains, spikes, and spandex. They were loud without laser light shows and pyrotechnics. Indeed, the members of Hum looked more like members of a math club than rock musicians. “I come to you all dressed in sound,” sings Hum front man Matt Talbot in the opening line of one of their songs. Their music dressed the listener in sound. It penetrated the fibers of your clothes, your skin, your skull, your ribcage. Hum was loud.
3) C.C.C.C.*: When I was 19 I had a musical experience… I think. I went for the first and only time to hear a noise band play in the Reed College student union. Noise bands experimented with musical minimalism at maximum decibels. They attempted to answer the question, “What would happen to music if you removed rhythm, melody, harmony, structure, tonality, and instruments?” For the performance the floor of the Reed College student union was filled with couches, easy chairs, and coffee tables. At one end of the room a young man furiously ground a microphone into a mason jar full of sand. Another young man shook a black box with a dozen guitar pickups inside. A third young man received the inputs and passed the digital signal through a tall stack of sound equipment. Speakers poured forth sound, noise as thick as pea soup. Students lounged on couches and easy chairs and let the sound wash over them.
* I may not have actually heard the group C.C.C.C. I think the noise band I went to see might have had another name. Possibly they had no name at all.
2) National Fire Theory: Another Kansas City band, the now defunct National Fire Theory never failed to play catchy rock songs at high volume. They never produced the viscous sound that a group like Hum or a noise band managed to, but they never failed to play guitar in a way that sent shivers down your spine and drums and bass that you felt in the marrow of your bones.
1) Dinosaur Jr.: I have never heard a band as loud as Dinosaur Jr. No band’s volume level has ever been so uncomfortable. In 2006 I went to hear Dino Jr. play at Liberty Hall in Lawrence, Kansas. I had been waiting for this chance. After nearly a decade apart the band had reunited. I should have known I was in for trouble when I saw the setup for front man and guitarist J Mascis. He employed three full amplifier stacks; one amp stack faced the audience and the other two faced in at modest angles. He stood at the center of this wall of sound. In went my earplugs. Before the end of first song I was standing at the back of the room. Then I was standing out in the foyer. I actually tried listening from one of the venue’s bathrooms. I actually listened from out in the street with my earplugs still in. Half an hour later I was listening to a Dinosaur Jr. CD (in my car and at a reasonable volume) while driving home from Lawrence. Would Jack Keroauc have stayed and listened? Or would he have gotten back on the road?