Scaling the Wall of Sound in Worship: Part 1

Kevin Ott At Rocking Gods HouseI was not used to Colorado’s higher elevation yet, so as I walked into the concert auditorium at Estes Park, I was huffing and puffing. The cold thin air made my lungs sting. I found a seat and plopped down to catch my breath. A few thousand people were gathered waiting for worship to begin. Before my heart could slow to a normal rhythm, the band stepped to the stage and began playing. We were on our feet and clapping. The verse played through at a moderate volume, and then it happened. The band blasted into the chorus with all hands on deck—multiple instrument players of every kind hitting their “Go!” button. It felt as if they had lit a stick of dynamite and blew open a hol
e in the side of a dam. Tall swells of sound crashed on our heads and filled every square inch of the auditorium, all but knocking us over.

We had just met the “Wall of Sound”!

That moment was my first experience with the Wall. And, frankly, I enjoyed it. As I lifted my hands in worship, it felt as if I were standing under a waterfall or beneath a torrential downpour of rain where the water is so loud you can’t hear yourself shouting with excitement. It was exhilarating. I couldn’t hear myself or anyone else in the congregation singing. I could only hear the singers on stage. But I didn’t care. I was awash in the Presence of God as we worshiped. The shimmering tower of music that rose before me created a sense of anonymity. It didn’t matter how well I could sing. No one could hear me anyway. My inhibitions were covered over. I belted every word. The band’s massive volume increase turned a giant concert hall into a private prayer closet. It was just the two of us. God and I were floating together in a blissful ocean of sound. Sure, it was supposed to be a communal setting and we were meant to worship as a Body, where each part is aware of the other and connected to the whole. But, in those days, I honestly didn’t care about that. I just wanted my “me time” with God. The people that surrounded me were the last thing on my mind.

In the years that followed, however, I began to have a change of heart. At times, I still relished the power of the Wall of Sound and appreciated the way it depicted the mighty glory of God; but, at other times, the Wall began to feel like a Barrier, especially as events in my life made my heart more sensitive to the Bride of Christ. Jesus had been busy turning my eyes outward during worship to see His Beloved. I began to feel the way Christ cared about His Body. I spent less time obsessing on the quality of my own worship experience, and I began to see some serious cracks in the Wall.

However, before we take a closer look at some of those cracks, we need to know the history of the great Wall of Sound.

It all started with Phil Spector in the 1960s. He and a large group of anonymous studio musicians (who became known as the Wrecking Crew) transformed pop music, and they did it with Spector’s own invention: the Wall of Sound. He created it in the recording studio by having multiple instruments play the same part alongside a wide variety of other players until an ensemble the size of an orchestra was laying down tracks. He would then place the musicians in a large echo chamber to magnify the larger-than-life effect.

In Mick Brown’s 2008 book Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector, Spector’s Wall of Sound is credited for landing twenty Top 40 hits with some of the biggest pop artists of the 1960s. His rise would eventually climax in his famous collaboration with The Beatles in which he rescued the songs for Let It Be and ensured their successful release. The book describes Spector’s Wall of Sound as “elevating the themes of teenage love and heartache to the epic proportions of Wagnerian opera.” Spector himself is quoted as calling his Wall “little symphonies for the kids.” Spector’s personal life, however, was marred with destructive habits and broken relationships. If you were watching the news in 2008, you may have heard about Phil Spector’s murder trial. He is currently serving a prison sentence of 19 years to life for the murder of actress Lara Clarkson.

Despite the monstrous actions in his personal life, no one in the music industry disputes the wide-ranging impact of his early professional life. His Wall of Sound method has influenced every genre of pop and rock music since the 1960s. In fact, no other group in history has made more use of that sound than U2, arguably the biggest rock group since The Beatles. National pundits pointed out U2’s connection with Spector’s Wall of Sound as early as 1991, when the Washington Post ran a feature article connecting the dots between U2 and Spector.

And this is where we find the bridge. This is where we find the entry point of the Wall of Sound into today’s worship music. If you run a Google search for “U2’s influence on modern worship music” you’ll get 175,000 hits. There is a sea of articles, ranging from private bloggers to established Christian publications, discussing the deep influence of U2 in Christian worship. This is neither a bad nor a good thing. It is an observable fact. I first noticed the connection in the latter half of the 1990s when Delirious had just exploded onto the Christian scene. They were huge. Songs like “Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble?” truly made the stadiums tremble as Delirious played their anthem rock at epic Bono-esque proportions in live settings.

With live music, it only takes a few musicians and a high-quality sound rig to match the Wall of Sound that Spector created in the studio. When you’re making music that will be played on small car speakers and radio station broadcasts, it takes a special effort to make the recording feel as grandiose as a live band turned up to 11.

And, ever since, live worship bands have been turning up to 11 and drenching the audience with huge waves of sound. Live worship has become, essentially, an epic rock concert—like seeing U2 live at the Rose Bowl (which I have done).

In the next article of this series, we’ll get into some of the pros of this style of worship before tackling the cons. When looking at this topic, it can become easy to throw the baby out with the bath water. Hopefully, we’ll arrive at a balanced view of the issue as we attempt to scale the Wall of Sound in worship.