46 Years Ago The Grateful Dead Debuted “The Wall of Sound” And Changed Live Music Forever

"Bear envisioned the band and crowd experiencing the same thing." - Vice

Grateful Dead Wall of Sound Debut @ Cow Palace 3.23.74 © Richard Pechner
Grateful Dead Wall of Sound Debut @ Cow Palace 3.23.74 © Richard Pechner

Today marks the 46th anniversary of the full, official debut of what the Grateful Dead lovingly called their Wall of Sound, a full PA system invented by the band’s LSD-maker-turned-soundman Owsley “Bear” Stanley.

We’ve collected some photos, links and videos around the web that detail out what made this a sound system worth talking about 45 years later. What may have seemed excessive to some at the time and cost the Grateful Dead a ridiculous amount of money went on to change live, concert sound and it basically invented some of the sound systems and companies that power the live music industry today. And they were all inspired by that 1974 debut, whether they know it or not.

You can hear the show as part of the Dick’s Picks series (Vol. 24), which is now available to stream on Spotify. Scroll down to stream the show and check some photos and other clips and whatnot.

First up, stroll through the Wikipedia entry if you want a textbook history lesson. Also, some early schematics were captured here.

“The Wall of Sound is the name some people gave to a super powerful, extremely accurate PA system that I designed and supervised the building of in 1973 for the Grateful Dead. It was a massive wall of speaker arrays set behind the musicians, which they themselves controlled without a front of house mixer. It did not need any delay towers to reach a distance of half a mile from the stage without degradation.” – Owsley “Bear” Stanley

There are a few great YouTube clips showing some great interviews with the band and the crew as they learned the setup and dealt with the enormity of the situation.

In the one above, don’t miss Phil Lesh absolutely geeking out on what type of feedback he can get by running a video camera through it. And Bill Kreutzmann and Donna Jean Godchaux walk through what it felt like to play under it.

Vice did a huge piece on the history and brainstorms behind how the Wall of Sound was originally concocted, perhaps best summed up as a lofty goal on behalf of the sound engineer: “Bear envisioned the band and crowd experiencing the same thing.” And even though it didn’t last for the entirety of the Dead’s touring career, it’s still being coveted as a collector’s item and piece of folklore that modern fans love discovering.

Over four decades on, and a short-lived, 75-ton mass of electronics still tickles the fascinations of not just devout Deadheads but audiophiles, engineers, and historians, some of whom could not care less for the Dead’s music. It’s testament to the Wall’s groundbreaking physics, it seems, that a busted pair of Garcia’s speakers, used during only a sliver of the 2,318 shows played in the band’s initial 30-year run, can fetch over $10,000 at a high-end auction house. That even reputed Wall components are sought after like shards of a sonic Holy Grail.

This video from Polyphonic details out the history of the Wall of Sound in video/narration format

Finally, don’t miss the enmore audio blog post walking everyone through some of the audiophile nerd details that a casual fan may miss.

“I started talking to Bear about our sound problems. There was no technology for electric instruments. We started talking about how to get around distortion and get a pure musical tone. He did some research and said, ‘Let’s use Altec speakers and hi-fi amps and four-tube amps, one for each instrument, and put them on a piece of wood.’ Three months later we were playing through Bear’s sound system.” – Phil Lesh

Some addition reading:

Call Them Hippies, But the Grateful Dead Were Tech Pioneers [Wired]