THE WALL OF SOUND - El Solitario


The wolves not only feed on motorcycles but also rely heavily on music for our survival. Just after we found that Jerry Garcia, one of our all time heroes, was of Galician ancestors!!!, we decided to write a little piece surrounding one of the best pieces of musical equipment ever designed. The Grateful Dead was all about the music, and no less than 3 trailers and 21 people were needed to install what they called the Wall of Sound. Designed by Owsley Stanley “Bear”, it was one of the largest mobile public address systems ever constructed. Stanley also designed the band’s trademark skull logo and was the first known private individual to manufacture mass quantities of LSD. Quite a character!



The ‘lil” monster had 586 JBL speakers and 54 Electrovoice tweeters powered by 48 McIntosh MC-2300 Amps (48 × 600 = 28,800 watts of continuous (RMS) power!!! 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 was and still is the coolest ever sound system ever projected.

It was 1969. It seemed the sounds of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, the psychedelic rock Holy Land to which the Dead were revered almost as gods, had beamed to the Moon and beyond. Compared to virtually all electrified musical output to that point, music was louder and more urgent than ever before. Perhaps the drugs had something to do with it, but there was a vitality to music, something unprecedented that resonated for those who believed their generation’s moment had come.

There was just one problem. Even the day’s leading edge of amplification technology carried bands only to a point, before the mixes muddled. Put frankly, Garcia or Jimi Hendrix live, at their loudest, sounded chaotic—in a not-so-good way. Today, defenders of How Things Sounded in 1969 must face critics who argue that everything back then sounded unsound on account of these gear constraints. That’s not necessarily to question the pure, unbridled daring of baby boomer bands like the Dead, at least not in their prime. The point is that amp tech just wasn’t keeping up with their sonic ambitions.

Conventions like using on-stage monitors (speakers pointed back at performers so they could hear themselves) were still in their infancy. This confined sound techs at both indoor clubs and outdoor venues to jury-rigged public address systems, which rebroadcast the noise of a band toward the audience—at the time, PAs were positioned level with, if not slightly in front of the musicians, and were distinct from the musicians’ backline speakers and amp. The result was that a performer’s chops often were undercut by blistering volumes, roiling echoes, harsh distortion, and feedback. Unstable audio frequencies skipped over audiences, ricocheted between walls, and decayed into space


This meant it was hard for Weir, Garcia, Lesh, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, and Bill Kreutzmann—the rest of the Dead’s founding lineup—to hear themselves individually as well as their bandmates while playing live.

This noise crisis that confronted musicians who went electric at the height of the war in Vietnam is a dissonant truth routinely snuffed from the annals of modern music history, a poignant example of technical difficulties being overlooked in favor of a higher narrative. The sounds that so radically realigned the arc of history, musical and otherwise, were not perfect, and this imperfection was largely due to rudimentary PAs. From a highly discerning, or modern sonic perspective, live music in 1969 sounded bearable at best, and messy at worst. That was about to change.


Bear, a Kentucky-born craftsman and former ballet dancer, was obsessed with sound as both a concept and a physical thing. Mickey Hart, the Dead’s on-again, off-again second drummer, told Rolling Stone about one night in 1974 before a Dead show at the former Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, when he caught Bear in an intimate moment of sonic communion with some of the band’s speakers. Bear was alone, as Hart remembered. Sobbing, he spoke tenderly to the electronics as if they were people.


“I love you and you love me,” Bear wooed the speakers. “How could you fail me?”



By the end of 1974 the Wall had hit the proverbial ceiling. Then it all but disappeared.

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.


7 Responses

  1. Ahhhh … the mighty ‘ Bear ‘ Owsley Wall of Sound ! By far to date despite all the ‘ new ‘ techno ‘ wonder bull**** the BEST PA system I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing . Y’all might be interested to know not only was I in the audience in front of the Wall of Sound .. but had the opportunity to be behind the board during the last months it was used . And yes … once … in a brief moment of inattentiveness … I got Owsley’ed . 😉

    My greatest regret ? That when I had the opportunity to do so once the system was completely mothballed I didn’t buy a couple of the small cabinets for what would later became my eclectic electric guitar rig directly influenced by the ‘ Wall ‘ ( a ‘ Stubby ‘ custom built tube stereo pre-amp , Crown 100 watt per channel amp and a pair of Klipsch ‘ industrial ‘ ( pro-audio ) Heresy’s ‘ )

    Sigh … what a short strange trip it was ..

    PS; Book recommend ; ” Bear : the Life and Times of Augustus Owsley Stanley III ” by Robert Greenfield

    1. OMG!!!
      I was waiting on your response but as many other times you went well passed my expectations. So rad to have been part of those years. Although believe the world has never been as good for so many people as it is today, I hold a nostalgic view of those days when innocence was the king of cool and nothing was crazy enough not to be worthy of trying

      1. Nice to know one is appreciated And here I was afraid y’all was getting a bit sick of my comments .

        And yes for one who is neither rich ( albeit comfortable ) nor famous ( almost famous comes close ) I’ve led an interesting life

        As for the past I was fortunate enough to fall into albeit at the tail end of an era . Here’s the thing . It wasn’t that things were so much better then . Trust me there was as much if not more crap than good stuff in the arts along with things like the Viet Nam War , racial discrimination ( which is once again on the rise ) King Richard ( Nixon ) my favorite nemesis ( J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI clowns ) your Franco etc – et al – ad nauseam .

        What brought about the high levels of creativity sometimes verging on madness ( of the very best kind ) was the fact that everybody was shooting blind … the money men were clueless … formulas had yet to be established ( formulas lead to conformity ) .. which is to say none of us had a clue what we were doing so we just kept taking chances … sometimes culminating in a moment of genius like the ” Wall ” Frank Zappa etc … but more often coming up snake eyes but still willing to fail in order to find the good stuff .

        And that was the other thing . Because nobody had a clue WTF they were doing … the corporate suits were willing to gamble on almost anything .. giving everything multiple chances before giving up ( try that in todays music business where if the first aint a hit you don’t get no second )

        Sigh … so were things better ? ( Bleep ) no ! But in all honesty they were a helluva lot more interesting especially for those of us willing to go right up to the edge staying just in front of the ” Song of the Sausage Creature “… who in my opinion took over the show lock , stock and barrel once the Reagan” Greed is Good ” and the GHB /GWB ( now Trump ) ” Greed is God ” era began

        PS; One more book recommend should you care to look a little deeper into your fellow Galacian Jerry Garcia – ” Dark Star ” ; by Robert Greenfield .. the best , most unbiased and honest Jerry bio by a country mile

        Rock On – Remain Calm (despite all the bs ) and do Carry On … taking chances that is 😎

  2. If Billy is right and the Reno concert of 1974 was the debut of the Wall of Sound, then I saw it for the first time the same day Billy did. It was a very windy day. I think they had a big balloon advertising Robert Hunter’s new album and that balloon was blowing around like crazy. As they wound down, I was standing by the edge of the stage, and Bob said, “We’ll be right back.” I thought, “There’s no way they’re coming back.” I just walked backstage and said hello to the guys. Jerry told me I should ask for my money back because it was a bad show what with all the wind. Somebody had some very, very good LSD at that concert. I was satisfied with the whole day and didn’t ask anyone for a refund.

  3. We traveled south and experienced the GD then the Who in ’75? at Day on the Green in the Oakland Collisium. At 7:30 am a guy was playing a clarion call with some kind of horn in the parking lot. At 40′ in front of the stage we experienced the GD and the wall of sound. After 4 hours I went up to the very top of the stadium at the 6 0’clock and took in the whole thing,. then a high note from the piano came flying up, very loud. I noticed the Who used a 1/2″ reel to reel for the keyboard intro on ?? ” Out here in the fields”,. “We don’t need to be forgiven”. The whole thing was amazing. Our local University FM radio plays 1 hour of GD weekly,. Ive’ listened to and recorded lot of it and play it on guitar and piano(Wurlitzer spinet)/b3 (k2500s). My wall of sound are two Dyna-Might cab’s with ELV 15’s + horns. The other day on TV the GD’s percussionist mentioned that Jerry’s style had influence from the music of northern India. We travelled south and experienced that too in the Salt Palace in ??75,. with Ravi and George.

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