ALL THE YEARS COMBINE

By David Gans

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s legendary “Wall of Sound,” here is an excerpt from This is All a Dream We Dreamed: An Oral History of the Grateful Dead. Signed (by both authors!) copies are available now from https://perfectible.net

The Wall of Sound

The Wall of Sound made its formal debut at what was billed as “The Sound Test” at the Cow Palace on March 23, 1974 — a show that also featured the first live versions of two Grateful Dead classics, “Scarlet Begonias” and “Cassidy.” Because the sound system was so enormous, the Dead had to play larger venues that could accommodate the Wall, and because setting it up and tearing it down was so time-consuming, the band couldn’t play two shows on consecutive days in different cities, and the expanded equipment crew actually had two stages out on the road, with one being set up in the next city while the band was playing on the other one. When the group started touring with the Wall that May, they learned what a logistical quagmire their dream system could be. However, it did achieve its main goal, which was to deliver crystal-clear sound in large spaces.

JERRY GARCIA (1974): On a normal stage, it’s up to the sound crew to decide what everybody’s going to hear. Our system, it’s up to the musicians. And we’re hearing the real balance, not a product of vocal monitors or any of that stuff.

Our other system was okay. It was a step towards this direction, just like this is a step towards another direction — more, better. That’s our trend, to make it as good as can be made. What that means is we’re probably going to manufacture the components of the thing, because we’re at the point now where what’s available in the market is not good enough anymore.

RON WICKERSHAM: Bear would walk around the hall and listen everywhere and see what was working and how the sound was covering, and the like. He would buy exotic hi-fi gear, set it up, and either it would burn out because it couldn’t take the signal levels, or maybe he didn’t like the sound of it, so it would be discarded. He was always testing things, trying to find the next better step. We got into making speaker cabinets that were made out of this denser wood that would travel better and be more durable.

Everything that went on in the sound system had to be paid attention to. [Bear] was hyper-critical about building mic cables, how to coil up the mic cables; every detail. You respected every piece of gear.

PHIL LESH: [The Wall of Sound] allows us to play super-loud without killing ourselves or frying those in the front — to get loud, clean sound at the back of the huge hall, and supreme musical control, because we run everything from the stage. For me, it’s like piloting a flying saucer. Or riding your own sound wave.

STEVE BROWN: We did the Wall of Sound at the Cow Palace, and then the next place we went was Reno, outdoors, at the University of Nevada. This was the first time to put up the Wall of Sound [outdoors] and it was like a hurricane! I thought it was going to collapse: “This is really bad!” I was scared. It was untested — 607 speakers being put up with University of Nevada stagehand help. But we survived it.

BILL KREUTZMANN: It was really hard to hear because there was so much sound pressure coming off all these speakers. The very first day in Reno, too, it was sort of windy, and the whole center [vocal] cluster was blowing around — not a lot, but enough, and I had to sit underneath it. At first they had the drums right underneath it and you couldn’t hear anything. It was like being in a tunnel with a bunch of hot-rod cars roaring on both sides of you. You were supposed to have some monitors [behind you] that were going to help — ha-ha-ha! It was not my favorite time. They had done the phase-canceling microphones, and those sounded terrible. Things can look good on paper but not be so great in reality.

RON WICKERSHAM: Another thing that interfered with keeping the sound system is we needed extra time to set up and tear down. A lot of the cities were involved in getting money to build these sporting event multi-purpose [arenas], and they wanted them rented out. So they would do things like send more fire inspectors around to the old buildings that you could otherwise perform in; they were being zoned out of existence. You now had these multi-purpose rooms that weren’t available for rent long enough to build the system. Sometimes we’d need two days to set up the stage.

You can’t put those speakers on the floor of a hockey rink. They have a basketball wood floor that they put over the ice, with insulation. You’ve got a protective covering over that so you’re not messing up the basketball finish. If you put the sound system on top of that, it would crush the Styrofoam insulation. So we had to have a scaffolding company build a bridge out to the sides. How are you going to do that when you’ve got a basketball game one day before?

STEVE PARISH: We’d start at 8:00 a.m., and it would take two hours just to get all the equipment onto the stage. By noon we’d have the speakers stacked and we’d take a half hour for lunch. Then we’d wire it and get all the amps running by 4:00 p.m. for the soundcheck. The show would start around 8:00 p.m., and in those days the band would play until 1:00 a.m. We left the hall around 4:00 a.m. The next day we’d travel all night and start again.

David Gans is one of the best-known media guys in the Grateful Dead world as well as an exceptional interpreter of GD music; he has performed with Phil Lesh, written songs with Robert Hunter, and played with many of the best-known jam band musicians around. He started as a journalist at BAM, the California Music Magazine, and wrote for many music magazines in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In the mid-’80s he helped with the KFOG Deadhead Hour, which became the nationally-syndicated Grateful Dead Hour, still airing from coast to coast. He’s also co-host, with Gary Lambert, of the Sunday-afternoon talk show Tales from the Golden Road on SiriusXM’s Grateful Dead Channel. He’s the author (with Blair Jackson) of This Is All A Dream We Dreamed, An Oral History of the Grateful Dead, and Improvised Lives: Grateful Dead 1972-1985, a book of his photos and stories. He will perform at Skull and Roses.