(*As one of his bandmates in the Sound City Players said on stage at the Hollywood Palladium, Jan. 31, 2013.)
It’s not enough that Dave Grohl writes songs, plays guitar, handles lead vocals, and oh yeah, plays drums like no one you’ve ever heard before. (Cf. Nirvana, the Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures.) Now it turns out that Grohl also makes documentaries, and does that well too.
Grohl was inspired to make Sound City, his doc about the Sound City recording studio in the San Fernando Valley, when the studio shut down in 2011. Even if you’ve never heard of Sound City, you’ve definitely heard it, in a sense, given how many famous albums were recorded there. Grohl not only serves as eulogist for the studio, he’s part of its storied history: Nirvana recorded Nevermind there in 1991. (And the rest, in this case, really is history.) When Sound City closed, Grohl himself bought the studio’s fabled Neve board, a big mixing console that in the movie is treated with such awe that you might mistake it for the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Grohl interviews the studio’s owners as well as many of the musicians who struck gold (creative and otherwise) there, chief among them Tom Petty, a cool cat at 60, who has been putting in time at Sound City ever since 1974 (!). Grohl serving as interlocutor for a lineup of music-biz heavyweights and bit players undoubtedly made a huge difference in how entertaining Sound City turned out to be. The movie is nothing but colorful personalities and good stories. Everyone we see on camera is candid and funny, loose but also lucid. The talking heads don’t feel like talking heads.
Grohl is generous enough to include a few 1980s hair metal dudes who became passé overnight once alternative rock elbowed them aside in the wake of Nevermind. With a couple of these hard rock guys, it’s not hard to detect a certain wistfulness as they think back to the good times at Sound City, scene of youthful hijinks and million-dollar triumphs.
As the reminiscences make clear, crucial to Sound City’s cherished status among bands was a rec room vibe, both in the big studio and in the control booth, which had wood paneling and shag carpets in addition to the almighty Neve console. One musician comments that you could spill a bottle of Jack Daniels at Sound City and no one would be overly perturbed.
It’s as if Sound City’s homey atmosphere kept bands in touch with some essential inspiration from their teenage selves. The warm, welcoming vibe reflected the unpretentious nature of the middle-aged owners, who, while clearly out to make money off their business, come across as anything but mercenary.
As the swami-like producer Rick Rubin notes, it’s instructive to contrast the slightly dingy Sound City with the other L.A. recording studios that gradually took away Sound City’s business. Grohl gives us some telling glimpses of these places: 72-track consoles and banks of antiseptic technology, clearly the province of professionals. You wouldn’t dream of spilling a bottle of Jack Daniels here. What’s funny is that some of these recording palaces come equipped with frills like hot tubs and meditation rooms to help musicians loosen up, but the overall vibes nonetheless scream big money and high stakes. The atmosphere is all but guaranteed to make artists self-conscious — whereas cozy, downscale Sound City had no need of any frippery.
Founded in 1969, Sound City was a little-known mom-and-pop operation that had the drawback of being located in an “ass ugly” (in Rick Springfield’s words) part of Van Nuys, a locale so unfashionable that record company A&R men supposedly never dreamed of venturing across Mulholland to drop in during sessions. It took young musicians who had nothing to lose to draw the industry’s attention to the place. Using interviews with Mick Fleetwood, Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, Grohl provides a succinct account of how Fleetwood Mac 2.0 came together circa 1974–75 to record Fleetwood Mac, which was such a smash that suddenly everyone decided that they too needed to record at Sound City.
Sound City enjoyed boom times in the latter ‘70s and got a fresh infusion of pop currency in the early ‘80s when soap opera actor Rick Springfield recorded “Jessie’s Girl” there, and promptly became an old-school pop idol. But as the ‘80s wore on, recording technology became more and more high tech, and the music industry became ever more obsessed with fashioning slick, “perfect” sounds. Sound City’s owners didn’t keep up with the changing times, and the bookings started to dry up. Things were moribund for the studio by 1991.
Grohl’s documentary gets what’s like a pivotal plot twist when he comes into the story as a 22-year-old drummer with Nirvana. The band settled on Sound City to record Nevermind because it had the old Neve board, but perhaps more important, because it was cheap. The band drove down from Seattle in a van and recorded the album in 16 days. No one expected much to come of it.
Nevermind revived Sound City’s fortunes; the following year Rage Against the Machine recorded their debut there, and the rush was on. Suddenly Sound City was where you went if your band was hungry, if you wanted to show you were for real. Even more than in the Fleetwood Mac era, these were the flush years for the studio. The music industry was awash in cash from CD sales, and even relatively minor bands had budgets of $200,000 or more to record their albums. Grohl shows us cover after cover of discs made at Sound City during the ‘90s, and it’s like an assembly line of million-sellers from second- and even third-tier metal bands.
Everyone knows what comes next: plummeting CD sales and the unstoppable march of technology conspired to slowly dry up Sound City’s business. Years after other studios went all digital, working at Sound City still meant cutting tape by hand — the recording equivalent of being a craftsman in a medieval guild.
But compared to the ease with which the digital blips and ringtones of today’s novelty hits can now be recorded on a PC or laptop, the demanding antiquarian methods of Sound City found fewer and fewer adherents in the first decade of the 21st century. This time there would be no Nevermind to come along and save the day.
Grohl appends a lengthy but welcome coda to Sound City showing the Neve board being put to use in his own studio, as he records a Sound City tribute album with a cast of guest musicians that’s impressive, to say the least. (You get the impression that everyone was happy to get a call from Dave Grohl.) Stevie Nicks, Rick Springfield, John Fogerty, among others, as well as Trent Reznor, who is shown recording an ominous instrumental with Queens of the Stone Age singer Josh Homme and Grohl, back behind the drums.
Reznor provides a valuable perspective, because he’s not a guy who puts up with any cant about the virtues of analog versus digital recording. In an interview he makes the obvious but needed point that you don’t use computers to simulate instruments, you use them to make sounds you couldn’t create otherwise. (If only the recording industry shared this sentiment.)
The recording sessions allow Grohl to avoid having to end the movie with the bummer of Sound City’s closing. And speaking of closing on an upbeat note, Grohl saves the biggest name for last, when Paul McCartney shows up to record a new song with Grohl and Krist Novoselic. It’s amazing how the track taps into the spirit of “Helter Skelter” all these years later; nothing like having the rhythm section of Nirvana behind you to put your 69-year-old self in touch with your youthful mojo. McCartney’s appearance in the studio also provides Sound City with one of its most amusing moments: Grohl cuts to producer Butch Vig in the control booth, and someone behind Vig mutters, “Yeah Butch, tell Paul McCartney how to do it.”
You can watch Sound City via iTunes, On Demand, DVD and in theaters. (I highly recommend catching it in a theater with a good sound system if you get the chance — the stuff from Nevermind sounds especially great. Click here for a list of theaters and screening dates.)
Watch the trailer for Sound City here: