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 ! )