Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Wikimedia/Alamy)

Music

Bowie, Burroughs and the Black Noise Bomb

@SamWKemp

On average, the human ear can pick up frequencies between 20 and 20,000hz. Infrasound resonates just below this frequency range – at around 19hz. For David Bowie, therefore, it was perhaps the most dangerous sound that he never heard. In the early 1970s, Bowie became fascinated with the hidden world of infrasound, specifically with the idea of “black noise”. Speaking to Dick Cavett, Bowie explained the term: “Black noise? Black noise is something [William S.] Burroughs is getting interested in. One facet of black noise is that everything – like a glass – if an opera singer hits a certain note, the vibrations alter the metabolism of the glass and it cracks it. So black noise is the frequency at which you can crack a city or people. It’s a new controlled bomb. It’s a noise bomb, in fact.”

With The Cold War simmering away, the idea that an invisible bomb could destroy an entire city must have sounded a little unnerving. The blanket destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, let’s not forget, was still in living memory, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was barely ten years old. Dick Cavett was clearly surprised by Bowie’s talk of infrasonic warfare and immediately asked the musician if an unnamed “tyrant” could use it to destroy his enemies. Far from quelling Cavett’s Cold War anxieties, Bowie explained, “until last year you could buy the patent for it in the French patent-office for about 3-4 dollars.” Mouth agape, Cavett went on to ask Bowie if the bomb could destroy a city as big as, say, LA. “It depends how much money you put into it,” he replied. “I mean a small one could probably kill about half the people here. But a big one could…destroy a city. Or even more.”

Infrasound first rocked the scientific work in 1883, when the eruption of Krakatoa between the islands of Java and Sumatra released subsonic vibrations powerful enough to circle the world seven times. But it wasn’t until the end of World War Two that scientists started to explore the technical applications of infrasound. In the early years of the Cold War, scientists began working with the military to explore the possibility of harnessing infrasonic vibrations as weapons of physical and psychological destruction.

Bowie had learned about black noise through a conversation with the Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs. The pair were discussing the relationship between musicians and their fans, and how the individualism of the counterculture movement had prompted rock musicians to come up with increasingly specific genres to cater to this new wealth of individuality. “The fact that you can now subdivide rock into different categories was something that you couldn’t do ten years ago,” Bowie began. “But now I can reel off at least ten sounds that represent a kind of person rather than a type of music.”

Here, Burroughs makes an intellectual leap – drawing a parallel between music’s social power and the use of sound as a tool of control and destruction. “Like infra-sound, the sound below the level of hearing,” Burroughs muttered. “Below 16 Mertz. Turned up full blast it can knock down walls for 30 miles. You can walk into the French patent office and buy the patent for 40p. The machine itself can be made very cheaply from things you could find in a junk yard.” Interestingly, if he were to subtract the term ‘black noise’ for Sex Pistols or Ramones, Burrough’s could easily be describing punk. In his view, this ‘sound bomb’ is a tool for social change, one which implies that music, if used in the right way, could be used as a form of dissent.

“They have riot-control noise based on these sound-waves now,” Burroughs continued. But if you could have music with infrasound, you wouldn’t necessarily have to kill the audience.” “Just maim them…” Bowie concluded.