Thursday, 11 September 2008

I'm all ears

I woke up in a hotel room on my own. It was dark and there was a ringing sound - kind of distant but very distinct. Where was it coming from? I lay there and thought about things, the mind did its conversational tricks, jumping from one subject to another and gradually drowsiness descended again. But just as I was about to drop off, the noise reappeared. What the hell was it? I leaped out of bed and drew the curtains - maybe it was a street light with faulty wiring. Yes, that was bound to be it. Outside it was deathly quiet, I wasn't used to this of course, living in Camden above the World's End pub, silence was not in great supply; even in the hours when everyone else in London slept, Camden High Street played host to all the world's nomadic insomniacs. And frequently it was my own friends, back from some fresh Britpop hell at five in the morning and wired out of all proportion to the event, it was a virtual no-brainer to pop by Ben's and see what he was up to. As if he'd be sleeping! Here in Southwold though, the streets were deserted by six and now, at four in the morning, the silence swallowed everything. Except, of course, there was no silence, there was only this fucking ringing.

That was how I discovered I had tinnitus. I joke about it now of course, but even writing about just then, brought back the terror. It was like discovering I had a rare disease that no one knew much about and really there was nothing I could do. With the added horror that my job - at that time I was beginning a run of A&R success with Indolent Records - depended on my ability to hear things. Scary.

I mention it now mainly because I read that news last Friday about the RIND survey which claims that half the 2700 people they interviewed said they had damaged their ears listening to loud music. And 80% of them had experienced ringing or the temporary reduction in hearing. I know I don't normally get terribly earnest in this blog but that is pretty worrying isn't it? I mean, fair enough for some A&R person to suffer a bit, after all, he's listening to music all day and if he's not listening to music he's on the phone the rest of the time (this was of course in the days before email, texting and Myspace). But this is normal people, kids who go to see bands or to festivals for fun. We all remember coming home from our first gigs with that exciting ringing in the ears - it was all part of the experience, it was a rite of passage.

There were two surprises in store for me when I discovered I had tinnitus. The first surprise is that doctors don't actually know what causes it, they kind of have an idea that it's the tiny hairs inside your ear canal getting permanently flattened by excessive noise but they're just guessing. There could be psychological as well as physiological factors that cause it. And along with the ignorance of causes goes the inability to do anything about it. I was lucky enough to have medical insurance at the time and I B-lined it straight to Harley Street. The Ear, Nose and Throat doctor there - or surgeon to be precise - was a Harley Street cliché, complete with clipped vowels and a deeply patronising manner. He advised me to "get used to it" a tip which I understandably felt reluctant to pay for. He did though, confirm that the sound I had - a very faint whine, as if someone in the room next door was rubbing their wet finger around the rim of a wine glass - was tinnitus, which at least prevented my natural hypochondria from imagining I had something much worse. The second thing I discovered, once equipped with the knowledge that I had it for life, was a good thing: Geraldine Daly.

The surgeon's other advice was that you I should wear protection whenever I went to gigs. What's the point? I probably countered, Surely I'm too late, the horse has left the stable etc. Well, yes but you can easily build on hearing problems, so I decided to treat my ears with the respect they deserved. After all, they were the keys to my fortune - they had helped me sign Sleeper (stop giggling at the back). So the patronising ENT surgeon sent me to a neighbouring Harley St practice, which specialised in making ear plugs and it was there that I met with my nice surprise.

Geraldine Daly is a music business legend. You won't find any articles in Mojo or Q about her, in fact you won't even find out much online about her, but her subtle influence in written into the fabric of the UK music business. I was shell-shocked when I first went up in the tiny old fashioned cage lift to the top floor of the Harley St building where she is based. After seeing the surgeon I was full of fear and loathing and consequently expecting to meet another indifferent professional who would sell me an ugly, malfunctioning piece of rubbish. Instead I met a dark-haired, petite lady with a favourite-auntie-like demeanor and a gorgeous, singsong Irish accent. "Oh poor you," she said, after I had given her the lowdown on my position, as if I was a family friend and it was the first time she'd heard this sort of story,"let's make you a good pair of plugs so you can't do yourself anymore damage."

I won't go into the detail of the plugs you get from her other than to say I still wear them - not all the time, it's true, sometimes the sound at shows is fairly reasonable (unless I really am going deaf) But most of the time I do wear them, they cut out 15db and crucially don't remove any of the top end which is what those crappy high street earplugs do, rendering everything into a muffled blur and not giving you any real protection anyway. I also used to have a pair of 30db ones, which I would wear in rehearsal and showcase rooms. Frankly, I would advise all drummers to get a pair immediately because it's those hi-hats sizzling away constantly that will do for the ears.

I've been back and forth to Geraldine many times since then - mainly to get replacement mouldings (the ear canal does change shape over time) and she's is always a treat to see - more often than not she will say, "Oh I had that XXXXXX in last week, do you know him?" And it will be the singer of a huge British band or the guitarist from a legendary metal band and she'll tell me about their hearing problems and always say how very lovely they are even if their public reputation depends on scariness or arrogance. I'm convinced she once told me that she'd made plugs for a very famous warty bass-playing who always bangs on about how loud he likes everything to be but I might be imagining it. Frequently, she will have seen one of my colleagues - the more successful the music exec, seemingly the more varieties of different plugs they will be having made. The fashion now seems to be getting plugs which fit over your iPod headphones. Hmm...

But what is fascinating is that she single-handedly and seemingly effortlessly has the monopoly on making and servicing ear plugs for the industry. There is no one else - as far as I know - who anyone uses in the UK. And who can blame them? Her bedside manner is too good! You'd be surprised how many industry people have plugs now - and even more surprised how many bands do too. Most of them are protecting their hearing, some of them (like Pete Townshend, Andy Partridge etc) have spoken publicly about it and many other much younger stars who have not, are dealing with tinnitus.

I'm loathe to say this but the ENT surgeon was right. After a harrowing six months back in the mid 90s, where I barely slept a night, I did gradually get used to the tinnitus. I used to de-tune an old radio to white noise and this would take my mind away from focusing on the whine. Eventually I stopped using the radio and now I only notice it very occasionally. Rarely does it give me the stomach-leaping fear that it initially did. My hearing is slightly less good in the left ear, which ironically I don't put down to rock & pop music per se but a decade of listening to managers talking bollocks to me down the phone.

So when I read reports like the one last week, I'm reminded of how I felt when I thought the game was up with my ears, and my heart goes out to anyone who may be in those early stages. Amusing though it may sound, I blame shoegazing for it. I'm convinced that my problems started back in the early nineties when I saw My Bloody Valentine at Cambridge Corn Exchange - the entire crowd stepped back as one when that wall of noise first came. I'd never been their biggest fan, frankly, but I did think that was just taking the piss out of the audience. So those pictures of the latest MBV crowds standing in front of the stage with their hands over their ears brought it all back. And actually, when you hear that both Kevin Shields (who now has tinnitus himself) and their crew were all wearing earplugs, you have to start to question the point of it.

Sermon over, I'll throw in some poo gags next week.


  1. Yeah Miss Daly is the works and has been doing it for 30 years. Glad to join in the applause

  2. Hey, Really great work, I would like to join your blog anyway so please continue sharing with us,