The Ten Most Distorted Tunes In Music History - Mastering Media Blog

Thursday, 22 January 2009

The Ten Most Distorted Tunes In Music History

Distortion is the Jekyll and Hyde of recorded music. Strictly speaking it's a fault, but the terrible truth is - we love it.

Don't believe me ? Open your ears and listen around - the evidence is everywhere.

Here's a list of ten highly distorted songs -
 some sound great, some don't. Some are deliberate, some may not be. What is certain is that not everybody will agree about which is which...

Where possible I've linked to online previews of each song, so you can hear them for yourself.

The Beatles "Revolution" - The Beatles didn't invent distortion, but they sure as hell brought it to the masses, most famously in this scorching track from the White Album. Instead of mic-ing up an amp as they usually did, in this case George's guitar was plugged straight into the desk - a technique now commonly known as direct injection, or DI-ing. However it overloaded the sensitive input and distorted wildly. This fantastic, powerful sound combined with Ringo's heavily compressed and limited drums, drives the song along at a frantic rate. Listening to it, it's hard to believe that the same band had released "Eleanor Rigby" and "Yesterday" only two years before.

Oasis - "Some Might Say" - From their massively successful album "What's The Story Morning Glory", which is one of the first heavyweight casualties of the modern so-called Loudness Wars - in fact, some might say (hah!) it was the tipping point at which the trend for loudness at the expense of audio quality began to accelerate out of control. Ironically, even though at times it is just as loud as Metallica's "Death Magnetic" - arguably the current benchmark of crap sound on CD - it often sounds less blatantly distorted.

Primal Scream "Accelerator" from "Xtrmntr". This is the most distorted song I know. If you know better, please tell me ! It's incredibly, unbelievably, fantastically, extraordinarily distorted. And it's great. It's a deliberate, inspired artistic choice, (as you can tell from the relatively clean vocals) and the way it actually gets even more distorted as the song progresses. Many will find this unlistenable - it just makes me giggle.

Iggy & The Stooges "Search and Destroy- from 1973's "Raw Power". Often cited as the loudest CD ever made, the 1997 re-master of this classic album divides opinion - Iggy was unhappy with the sound of the original 1989 release and supervised this one himself; critics say it's worse than the original. What's certain is - it's very loud and VERY distorted.

John Mayal & The Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton - "Key To Love" from "Bluesbreakers". This album is often cited as the first time anyone heard what has now become an "industry standard" guitar sound - a Gibson Les Paul, heavily overdriven through a Marshall amp. In fact we are so used to the sound of distorted electric guitars these days that many people simply don't realise the sound is distorted at all - but the beautiful crunchy, warm valve amp sound is unmistakable, and still impossible to emulate by other means, even today.

The Wildhearts "Why You Lie" from "Endless Nameless" - Legendarily nasty-sounding, the reasons for this album's distinctive sound are unclear. Every interview with the band seems to bring a different explanation, ranging from claiming it was "the sound of drugs [and] frustration at how dysfunctional our band was", through through stories that it was deliberate sabotage as revenge on their record company, to a simple "we were sick of hearing limp-wristed rock albums, and ...we went completely over the top". Certainly it's true that they "destroyed a few when mixing, and usually used the f**ked up tracks "...

Underworld "Rez" (Single) It was only when I heard the rendition of this track on the live DVD "Everything Everything" that it hit me - the signature lead synth sound of this track, the thing that makes it what it is - is pure distortion. Right at the end of the live version, the amazing, fuzzy, glittering sound gradually softens, smooths and clears into a pure, soft, flute-like synth sound, bearing no relation whatever to the rest of the track. They've turned it down, so it stops distorting. Without distortion, this tune would be nothing.

Metallica "The Day That Never Comes" from "Death Magnetic" What, you thought I wouldn't mention it ?! I've already written and said far to much about this album and it's heavily distorted sound - suffice to say it's not big, not clever, and sounds rubbish, in many people's opinion. Moving swiftly on...

Take That "Patience" from "Beautiful World". Pointless. Just ridiculous. "Death Magnetic" was a production decision, and in my opinion a bad one. I've no idea where the level was pushed too far on this album, but it's just inexplicable. Take That make polite, well-crafted, clean, classic pop tunes. So why does this album sound thick, fuzzy, and smushed ? [Shakes head]

The Beatles "I Am The Walrus" From the frankly ridiculous back to the simply sublime, and also where we started; with the band whose output almost forms a textbook of production techniques and creative recording for modern music, and another example of how distortion can be exactly what a song needs. As Ian MacDonald describes in his outstanding book "Revolution in the Head", this apparently playful nonsense song can actually be seen as desperate, defensive satire, and the distorted lead vocal fits this perfectly - even though it is probably mic distortion and so may have been a mistake. But there is other distortion here, notably on the electric piano at the start, backing vocals later and finally the gorgeous, quintessentially analogue detuning fizz and sweep of the live radio overdubs during the outro...

Distortion can literally make or break a track, but in the right hands it can be a delicate, beautiful thing. What songs are are your favourite distorted tracks, and why ?

( Thanks to the people who helped with suggestions and info for this post way back in November - Simon, @robgoldie, @fakesensations, @solarosa, @dperis, @ihatemornings and others. If I've forgotten you, remind me ! )


Chris said...

Nice list. I'd say that the first Oasis album "Definitely Maybe" was the first time, as a normal listener with no deeper insight, that I noticed the overly compressed sound.

Was quite surprised not to see "Psychocandy" there for artistic reasons though!

Chris said...

Oh sorry, you were talking about specific tracks. Well, just pick anything from Psychocandy ;)

Anonymous said...

Not sure if I'd call this list the /most/ distorted songs in music history (Merzbow comes to mind too, if you can call his pieces "songs" :D), but it's an edifying survey of distortion in music, the good and the bad.

As for interesting artistic uses of heavy distortion, I too am a tad surprised at no mention of anything from _Psychocandy_, nor from either My Bloody Valentine or Medicine (Brad Laner gets his tone by running his guitar through an old 4-track and overloading the channel). Also, the "Revolution" sound seems to have seen an upsurge lately among "lo-fi" artists such as Jay Reatard and No Age. Not trying to namedrop too much, sorry :D

ianshepherd said...

OK gents, it's a fair cop - I'm overselling it a little in the title to try and catch a few more people's attention :-) Originally it was "Ten Of The Most Distorted Songs In Music History", should I change it back ?

And yes, "Psychocandy" is pretty damn distorted ! There are *plenty* of other examples that I could have used, but I was aiming for a balanced selection of nice/nasty, and to try and have some interesting things to say in each case.

Actually I wanted to round it off with an example of something really *beautiful* and distorted, but couldn;t find the perfect candidate, any suggestions ?

And Simon commented it would be much harder to find something that *wasn't* at all distorted, and I guess he has a point :-)

Thanks for the comments, keep coming with any of your favourites ! What do you guys think of Psychocandy then - nice or nasty ? If it's nasty, then good nasty or bad ?

Anonymous said...

Meh, keep the title. It works. Provokes discussion.

I think opinion may be split on _Psychocandy_. Personally, I'm a fan.

For beautiful distortion, I'd suggest looking through My Bloody Valentine's stuff. Can't name any specific song titles right now, I don't have any with me.

Dubber said...

I think mention needs to be made of The Dead C.


Alun said...

The drums in "Race For The Prize" by The Flaming lips. That intro fill is so powerful yet overdriven, it's beautiful. What a way to start an album!

HollowMarkeD said...

Glad to see Wildhearts made the list, one of my teenage angst best bands :) Ginger is a genius!

ianshepherd said...

Thanks for all the great suggestions ! I'll update the post to include them.

skunk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
skunk said...

try supershit 666, it's a side project of some members of the wildhearts, hellacopters and backyard babies

marcial_ugalde said...

Mr Self Destruct of Nine Inch Nails, it's AWESOMELY distorded, Heresy from nin too... the 'downward spiral'' cd it's very distorded, but in a good way

Various said...

Another intentionally-distorted song: Radiohead's "Myxomatosis"

With Oasis, I know that (WTS)MG? has a bad reputation for distortion, but I've never really been bothered by it. Possibly because it was one of the first CDs I ever bought and I'm just used to it? However, there are parts on Be Here Now where the sound quality annoys me - mostly the vocals on "Stand By Me".

Incidentally, I remember seeing an interview with Noel Gallagher where he talked about why Definitely Maybe was so loud, and he used the "pub jukebox" reason I think you've mentioned before.

A more general comment on this blog: I've noticed that most of the songs you talk about are ones that were badly-mastered on their original release. Any plans to do a post about albums that were fine originally but then ruined when they were re-released in remastered form? The worst such example I've encountered is the "24-bit Definitive Remaster" of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' The Uplift Mofo Party Plan (though I don't have the original release to compare it to). It's even harsher on my ears than Californication.

I mention this partly because of the rumours that remastered versions of The Beatles' catalogue will be released some time this year and I hope they're not affected by the loudness wars! (What did you think of the sound quality of Love, Let It Be... Naked and the Yellow Submarine Songtrack?)

Speaking of which, nice that you mentioned Revolution in the Head. Brilliant book!

ihatemornings said...

How about Julian Cope's Citizen Cain'd album? Brilliant distorted garage-space-rock. I Can't Hardly Stand It is pretty much pure distortion, but the energy is great. More like Raw Power than Metallica.

I saw him play a solo gig on the tour for this album, and his guitar and vocal were this distorted for the whole gig. It took balls (and scared the shit out of my girlfriend), but it was amazing. ;)

ianshepherd said...

Thanks Ben, you're actually the second person to suggest that one.

OK, let's move the goalposts a little - how about some really soft, delicate, beautiful distortion ? Like what Goldfrapp do to Alison's vocals on "Felt Mountain", or Fripp & Eno do in some of their ambient excursions ?

@Various - sorry, I meant to reply to this ages ago. In fact I don't agree that most of the original list was distorted in the mastering - it's only for the Oasis, Take That and Iggy examples where I think the mastering is responsible. (And even these we can't be sure, apart from Raw Power. Mastering engineers are usually very reluctant to distort things.) All the others were distorted in the recording or mix, I believe. This may seem like splitting hairs but on the whole I think creative distortion is seldom used effectively at the mastering stage.

Personally I don't have many CDs where I'm especially unhappy with the re-mastering - usually the original CD versions suffered from being rushed releases and used inferior early D to A converters, so I prefer later masters. Raw Power is obviously a controversial one in this respect, as is the RHCP album you mention.

Anyone else have pet hate re-mastered albums ?

TommO))) said...

Aphex Twin - Ventolin

1000 times more distorted than anything on this list.

Matthew said...

Somebody has to try and set people straight and mention My Bloody Valentine's Loveless album.

Goatlips said...

...I'm only here looking for a remaster of 'Definitely Maybe'...If that thing could even be saved after they, seemingly, recorded it with a dictaphone/cassette recorder? Apparently, there have been some uploads of remastered versions taken from a Oasis DVD left lying around on the net (currently all dead).

smithn383 said...

Extreme metal is as distorted as fuck in its best (lowest-fi) production.

Examples: Ahab - "The Hunt" (extreme doom)
Nortt - "Hedengangen" (extreme doom)
Darkthrone - "Transylvanian Hunger" (black)

John Burns said...

Revolution by the Beatles was the first record to have guitar distortion up front without a doubt. What other records had such distortion prior to this?

Fuzz boxes were introduced on the market about 1965/66, but in Revolution it is clearly not fuzz.

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Christena421 said...

Thanks chris for guiding,nice song i like this.

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The Gift - Live in New York City/ 1967 by The Velvet Underground

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Flip Jork said...

bottom-heavy ensemble with two cellos and a double bass (and remember that the piano also covered this range with the left hand playing in the bass clef).

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