How the Grateful Dead’s “Wall of Sound”–a Monster, 600-Speaker Sound System–Changed Rock Concerts & Live Music Forever

There is a scene in Return of the Jedi when Luke Skywalker defeats the monstrous, man-eating Rancor, crushing its skull with a portullis, and we see the beast’s keeper, a portly shirtless gentleman in leather breeches and headgear, weeping over the loss of his beloved friend. I think of this scene when I read about a night in 1974 at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom when Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart walked on the stage and found the band’s sound engineer Owsley “Bear” Stanley standing in front of “a solid wall of over 600 speakers.”

As Enmore Audio tells it:

Tears streamed down his face and he whispered to the mass of wood, metal, and wiring, with the tenderness of any parent witnessing their child’s first recital, “I love you and you love me—how could you fail me?”

The story sums up Owsley’s total dedication to what became known as “The Wall of Sound,” a feat of technical engineering that “changed the way technicians thought about live engineering.” The "three-story behemoth... was free of all distortion... served as its own monitoring system and solved many, if not all of the technical problems that sound engineers faced at that time.” But, while it had required much trial and error and many refinements, it did not fail, as you’ll learn in the Polyphonic video above.

Live sound problems not only bedeviled engineers but bands and audiences as well. Throughout the sixties, rock concerts grew in size and scope, audiences grew larger and louder, yet amplification did not. Low-wattage guitar amps could hardly be heard over the sound of screaming fans. Without monitoring systems, bands could barely hear themselves play. This “noise crisis,” writes Motherboard, “confronted musicians who went electric at the height of the war in Vietnam," but it has been “routinely snuffed from the annals of modern music.”

In dramatic recreations of the period, drums and guitars boom and wail over the noise of stadium and festival crowds. For ears accustomed to the power of modern sound systems, the actual experience, by contrast, would have been underwhelming. Most Beatles fans know the band quit touring in 1966 because they couldn’t hear themselves over the audience. Things improved somewhat, but the Dead, “obsessed with their sound to compulsive degrees,” could not abide the noisy, feedback-laden, underpowered situation. Still, they weren’t about to give up playing live, and certainly not with Owsley on board.

"A Kentucky-born craftsman and former ballet dancer"—and a manufacturer and distributer of “mass quantities of high-grade LSD," whose profits financed the Dead for a time—Owsley applied his obsession with “sound as both a concept and a physical thing." To solve the noise crisis for the Dead, he first built an innovative sound system in 1973 (after serving a couple stints in prison for selling acid). The following year, he suggested putting the PA system behind the band, “a crazy idea at the time.”

His experiments in ‘74 evolved to include line arrays—“columns of speakers… designed to control the dispersion of sound across the frequency range”—noise-canceling microphones to clear up muddy vocals, six separate sound systems that could isolate eleven channels, and a quadraphonic encoder for the bass, “which took a signal,” Enmore notes, “from each string and projected it through its own set of speakers.” The massive Wall of Sound could not last long. It had to be streamlined into a far more manageable and cost-effective touring rig. All the same, Owsley and the band’s willingness take ideas and execution to extreme lengths changed live sound forever for the better.

Related Content:

11,215 Free Grateful Dead Concert Recordings in the Internet Archive

Jerry Garcia Talks About the Birth of the Grateful Dead & Playing Kesey’s Acid Tests in New Animated Video

The Grateful Dead’s Final Farewell Concerts Now Streaming Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” Played by 28 Trombone Players

28 trombone players got together and played Queen's beloved 1975 hit, "Bohemian Rhapsody." They call it, "Bonehemian Rhapsody." Enjoy.

Contributors in the video above include:

Jiggs Whigham - Glenn Miller, Stan Kenton

Denson Paul Pollard - Met Opera / Jacobs School of Music

Jennifer Wharton - Leader Bonegasm -

Thomas Hultén - Houston Grand Opera/Houston Ballet

Josiah Williams - Blast: The Music of Disney

Joseph L. Jefferson - Southeast Missouri State University -

Gerry Pagano - Symphony -

Javier Stuppard - Fresh2Def Horns/ Rath Artist

Peter Moore - London Symphony Orchestra

Marshall Gilkes - New Album!

Martin McCain - Texas State University -

Zsolt Szabo - Western Carolina University

Jeremy Wilson - Vanderbilt University -

Isabelle Lavoie - Thunder Bay Symphony

Amanda Stewart - St. Louis Symphony -

Dr. Natalie Mannix - UNT -

Zoltan Kiss - Mnzoil Brass -

Matyas Veer - Essener Philharmoniker Saatsoper Stuttgart -

Paul The Trombonist - The Internet -

Karen Marston - Mt San Antonio College/Omni Brass

Javier Nero - Jazz Soloist / Composer -

Dr. Deb Scott - Stephen F. Austin State University -

Tolga Akman - Lätzsch Performing Artist

Domenico Catalano - SlideSticks Trio/Basel Symphony/Haag Artist

José Milton Vieira - Orchestra Brazil

György Gyivicsan - Szeged Trombone Ensemble -

Brian Hecht - Atlanta Symphony -

Tom Waits Releases a Timely Cover of the Italian Anti-Fascist Anthem “Bella Ciao,” His First New Song in Two Years

La Complaine du Partisan,” a song about the French Resistance written in 1943 by Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie with music by Anna Marly, was adapted into English as “The Partisan” by Hy Zaret, author of the Righteous Brother’s “Unchained Melody.” Covered by artists like Joan Baez and, most famously, Leonard Cohen, the song’s folk melody and melancholy lyricism have become so closely associated with Cohen that it has often been credited to him. Even Cohen himself remarked “I kind of re-introduced ["The Partisan"] into the world of popular music. I feel I wrote it, but I actually didn’t.”

Now another artist of Cohen’s stature, Tom Waits, may do the same for those who have never heard the World War II Italian anti-fascist song, “Bella Ciao,” which has been covered for decades in many languages and now appears as the first release on guitarist and composer Marc Ribot’s Songs of Resistance: 1942-2018, an album of protest music that comes out today and features guest vocals by Waits, Steve Earle, Meshell Ndegeocello, Justin Vivian Bond, and more. You can stream and buy the album here at Ribot’s Bandcamp page. Waits’ track is the first song he has released in two years, and it’s a helluva return.

The song comes from an old Italian folk ballad that was “revised and re-written during World War II for the Italian anti-fascist resistance fighters,” notes Sam Barsanti at The Onion’s A.V. Club. It has "since become an anthem of sorts for anyone looking to stick it to fascists.” Ribot and his collaborators fit the description. Waits' “Bella Ciao” was released with a video, directed by Jem Cohen, “that makes its parallels with modern life very explicit,” Barsanti writes, “pairing Waits’ vocals with footage of police and soldiers guarding barricades at anti-Trump protests. It may sound heavy-handed, but fuck it, nobody said fighting fascists had to be subtle.”

Subtle it isn’t, but neither is the banning of Muslim refugees, the kidnapping and detention in camps of hundreds of migrant children, the transfer of $169 million dollars from other programs—including FEMA and the Coast Guard during yet another fatal hurricane season—for even more camps and ICE raids, the lying denial that thousands were left to die in Puerto Rico last year, and so on and so on.

Other songs on the album draw from the U.S. civil rights movement and Mexican protest ballads. At his site, Ribot acknowledges the perennial problem of the protest song. “There’s a lot of contradiction in doing any kind of political music, how to act against something without becoming it, without resembling what you detest… I imagine we’ll make mistakes,” he avows, but says the stakes are too high not to speak out. “From the moment Donald Trump was elected,” he decided “I’m not going to play downtown scene Furtwangler to any orange-comb-over dictator wannabe.” (The reference is to Wilhelm Furtwängler, leading classical conductor in Germany under the Nazi regime.)

Like so many folk songs, “Bella Ciao” has a complex and murky history: the original version, a peasant work song, may have a Yiddish origin, or in any case—explains the blog Poemas del rio wang—emerged from a region “where Jews, Romanians, Rusyns, Gypsies, Ukranians, Hungarians, Italians, Russians, Slovakians, Polish, Czech, Armenians, [and] Taters lived together” and where “melodies did not remain the exclusive property of only one ethnic group.” This submerged background gives the re-written “Bella Ciao” an even deeper resonance with the anti-fascism of the 1940s and that of today.

See the video and hear Waits and Ribot’s haggard yet determined “Bella Ciao (Goodbye Beautiful)” at the top; hear Italian singer Giovanna Daffini’s recording above (hear her version of the original folk song here); read more about the song’s long history here; and read Waits’ lyrics, slightly revised from earlier versions to be even more explicitly anti-fascist, below. All proceeds from Ribot’s album will be donated to the Indivisible Project.

One fine morning
I woke up early
o bella ciao, bella ciao
bella ciao, ciao, ciao
One fine morning
I woke up early
to find the fascists at my door

Oh partigiano
take me with you
bella ciao, bella ciao
goodbye, beautiful
oh partigiano
please take me with you
I’m not afraid anymore

And if I die
a partigiano
bella ciao, bella ciao
goodbye, beautiful
Bury me
up on that mountain
beneath the shadow of the flower

So all the people
the people passing
bella ciao, bella ciao
goodbye, beautiful
So all the people
the people passing
will say: “What a beautiful flower”

This is the flower
of the partisan
bella ciao, bella ciao
bella ciao
this is the flower
of the partisan
who died for freedom

this is the flower
of the partisan
who died for freedom

Related Content:

Hear a 4 Hour Playlist of Great Protest Songs: Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Bob Marley, Public Enemy, Billy Bragg & More

Rebecca Solnit Picks 13 Songs That Will Remind Us of Our Power to Change the World, Even in Seemingly Dark Times

Stream All of Tom Waits’ Music in a 24 Hour Playlist: The Complete Discography

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

94-Year-Old Stroke Survivor Plays Jazz Piano for the First Time in Years




View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Frederic Yonnet (@fredyonnet) on

French musician Fred Yonnet posted on Instagram an ever so poignant video. He writes: "Great day today - took my mentor Don Burrows to visit our old mate Julian Lee in Mossvale 🎺🎹. He hasn’t played piano for many years since his stroke - he turns 95 this year and we share the same birthday."

The scene that unfolds will make your day...

via @TedGioia

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

Related Content:

81-Year-Old Man Walks into a Guitar Shop & Starts Playing a Sublime Solo: Ignore the Talents of the Elderly at Your Own Peril

96-Year-Old Holocaust Survivor Fronts a Death Metal Band

Discover the Retirement Home for Elderly Musicians Created by Giuseppe Verdi: Created in 1899, It Still Lives On Today

Behold Mystical Photographs Taken Inside a Cello, Double Bass & Other Instruments

“If God had designed the orchestra,” remarks a character in Rick Moody’s Hotels of North America, “then the cello was His greatest accomplishment.” I couldn’t agree more. The cello sounds sublime, looks stately… even the word cello evokes regal poise and grace. If orchestral instruments were chess pieces, the cello would be queen: shapely and dignified, prime mover on the board, majestic in symphonies, quartets, chamber pop ensembles, post rock bands….

With all its many sonic and aesthetic charms, I didn’t imagine it was possible to love the cello more. Then I saw Romanian artist Adrian Borda’s magnificent photos taken from inside one. The photo above, Borda tells us at his Deviant Art page, was taken from inside “a very old French cello made in Napoleon's times.” It looks like the belly of the HMS Victory mated with the nave of Chartres Cathedral. The light descending through the f-holes seems of some divine origin.

Borda has also taken photos from inside an old double bass (above), as well as a guitar, sax, and piano. The stringed orchestral instruments, he says, yielded the best results. He was first inspired by a 2009 ad campaign for the Berliner Philharmoniker that “captured the insides of instruments,” writes Twisted Sifter, “revealing the hidden landscapes within.” Without any sense of how the art director created the images, Borda set about experimenting with methods of his own.

He was lucky enough to have a luthier friend who had a contrabass open for repairs. Later he traveled to Amiens, where he found the French cello, also open. “To achieve these shots,” Twisted Sifter notes, “Borda fit a Sony NEX-6 camera equipped with a Samyang 8mm fisheye lens inside the instrument and then used a smart remote so he could preview the workflow on his phone.” Depending on the angle and the play of light within the instrument, the photos can look eerie, somber, ominous, or angelic—mirroring the cello’s expressive range.

Borda gives the cello interior shot above the perfect title “A Long, Lonely Time….” Its play of smoke and light is ghostly noir. His photo below, of the inside of a saxophone, pulls us into a haunted, alien tunnel. If you want to know what’s on the other side, consider the strange surrealist worlds of Borda’s main gig as a surrealist painter of warped fantasies and nightmares. Unlike these photos, his paintings are full of lurid, violent color, but they are also filled with mysterious musical motifs. See more of Borda's interior instrument photos at Deviant Art and Twister Sifter.

via Twisted Sifter

Related Content:

Watch a Luthier Birth a Cello in This Hypnotic Documentary

Why Violins Have F-Holes: The Science & History of a Remarkable Renaissance Design

Nine Tips from Bill Murray & Cellist Jan Vogler on How to Study Intensely and Optimize Your Learning

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch the Sex Pistols Play a Gig on a Thames River Barge During the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and Get Shut Down by the Cops (1977)

Getting your gig shut down by the cops is always excellent publicity--just ask the Beatles. But there’s a world of difference between the 1969 rooftop concert and this June 7, 1977 boat party to publicize the Sex Pistols’ second single “God Save the Queen.” It shows how quickly the hippie dream of the ‘60s had curdled into the grim economics of mid-‘70s London, where race riots and police brutality, along with numerous national strikes, had made the UK fertile ground for the birth of punk.

This film above, low in quality but a marked improvement over other versions circulating, is the longest documentation yet of the infamous and antagonistic trip.

The brainchild of manager and provocateur Malcolm McLaren, the river boat ride was a satire of the Queen’s royal river procession that was due to take place two days later, celebrating the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. The flotilla was just one event in a jubilee year that had been going on since February. It was all pomp and ceremony, and many saw it as an insulting distraction from the real problems facing the country.

But there was the other reason, one that animated McLaren: The band had been dropped by EMI and then picked up by Virgin. The single had been banned and kept out of the official BBC charts and radio, despite selling enough to send it shooting up the charts. They were already controversial, and McLaren wanted to stoke that fire.

On board the Queen Elizabeth, the band and their manager, music press writers, fellow artists, punk fans, and a film crew directed by Julien Temple set off in the afternoon, with some publicly available beer to drink and some speed to do in secret.

Jon Savage, who would go on to write one of the seminal books about the Pistols and punk, England’s Dreaming, was on board and provides one of the best descriptions of the day:

The atmosphere on the boat was paranoid and claustrophobic, but also very exciting. They were by far the best I ever saw them that day. You can't beat the Sex Pistols, jubilee weekend, "Anarchy in the UK," outside Parliament.

While the sun was up and people milled about, it was just like any other relaxing cruise up the Thames. You can hear the lilt of reggae being played over the P.A. system. Also see some great photos from the day here.

But once the sun went down, the Sex Pistols were ready to rock, and so they did, blasting out a furious set, releasing a lot of built up tension, not just personally, but as Savage suggests, all the frustrations of that year.

It wasn’t long till the police surrounded the boat on the water and forced it back to dock, and then pulled the power. Despite protestations the party was over, and the police took out their own frustrations on a combative McLaren, beating the hell out of him before arresting him and carting him away. (The Pistols escaped in the chaos.)

(The video ends with a fascinating recording from Capitol Radio explaining why, despite being number one, the station can't play the song.)

It was perfect theater for McLaren, who was always a Situationalist at heart. And along with the single it announced the mainstream arrival of punk music, despite the establishment’s protestations. Punk was never meant to last. And in a bizarre capper on events, the son of McLaren and punk fashion designer Vivienne Westwood set fire to around $8 million of punk memorabilia in 2016...on a barge in the River Thames.

Joe Corre, the man in question, explained it this way: "Punk was never, never meant to be nostalgic."

Related Content:

Watch the Sex Pistols’ Christmas Party for Children–Which Happened to Be Their Final Gig in the UK (1977)

The Sex Pistols’ 1976 Manchester “Gig That Changed the World,” and the Day the Punk Era Began

When the Sex Pistols Played at the Chelmsford Top Security Prison: Hear Vintage Tracks from the 1976 Gig

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

David Gilmour Talks About the Mysteries of His Famous Guitar Tone

The phrase “holy grail of tone” shows up a lot in the marketing of guitar gear, a promise of perfection that seems more than a little ironic. Perfect “tone”—that nebulous term used to describe the sound produced by an ideal combination of instrument, effects, amplifier, and settings—is ever sought but never seemingly found. Guitarists bicker and advise on forums, and religiously consult the gear guides of the pros, who often deign in magazines and videos to explain their own peculiar setups.

While more and more manufacturers are promising to recreate the tone of your favorite guitarist in digital simulations, true tone-ophiles will never accept anything less than the real thing. Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, a guitarist whose tone is undeniably all his own, has inspired a cottage industry of fan-made videos that teach you how to achieve “The David Gilmour Sound.” But there’s no substitute for the source.

In the clip above from a BBC documentary, Gilmour vaguely discusses “the Floyd sound” and some of the techniques he uses to get his distinctive guitar tone. Every discussion of tone will include the admonishment that tone resides in the player's fingers, not the gear. Gilmour suggests this initially. “It’s the tiniest little things,” he says, that “makes the guitar so personal. Add a hundred different tiny inflections to what you’re doing all the time. That’s what gives people their individual tone.”

It’s a true enough statement, but there are still ways to get close to the sound of Gilmour’s guitar setup, if not to actually play exactly like him. You can buy the gear he’s used over the years, or something approximating it, anyway. You can learn a few of his tricks—the bluesy bends and slides we know so well from his emotive solos. But unless you have the luxury of playing the kinds of huge stages, with huge volume, Gilmour plays, he says, you’ll never quite get it. Small amps in small rooms sound too cramped and artificial, he says.

And if you’re playing stages like that, you've probably discovered a holy grail of tone that's all your own, and legions of fans are trying to sound like you.

via Laughing Squid

Related Content:

Watch David Gilmour Play the Songs of Syd Barrett, with the Help of David Bowie & Richard Wright

Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour Sings Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18

Italian Street Musician Plays Amazing Covers of Pink Floyd Songs, Right in Front of the Pantheon in Rome

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

« Go BackMore in this category... »