Behind the Hollywood Hills, tucked away in the San Fernando Valley, hidden on a side street in Van Nuys, was the recording studio, Sound City. It was open for business in 1969 and would go on to be a recording studio for some of the greatest albums of the 20th century. However, time has not been kind to the recording business and Sound City, and as Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age said, “There are no more book stores, no more music stores, and no more Sound City.” Sound City is more than a documentary about a recording studio. It is Dave Grohl’s love letter to music and its legacy.
The heart of Sound City is the recording board, The Neve Console. An English Electronic Engineer, Rupert Neve, designed the Neve Console, and it is a unique and handmade apparatus that was purchased for $75,000 when Sound City opened. The board not only gave producers are a wide variety of control over recording individual instruments but also allowed for the human elements of the music to come through. The combination of the recording room and The Neve Console produced the best drum sound one could hope for. Guitars can be recorded just about anywhere, and they sound like guitars, but drums are a little trickier. Sound City was just the place to record if you wanted that great backbeat, the spine of the song to really come through. Once that is pointed out, it is inescapable how much you will notice it. Mick Fleetwood admits that the success of the albums they recorded at Sound City (Fleetwood Mac and Rumors) was because of the drums.
Sound City boomed in the heyday of the seventies, recorded the hair metal of the eighties, but started to drop off until a little band from Washington drove down and recorded Nevermind. Grohl doesn’t remember why he, Kurt, and Krist Novoselic decided on Sound City, but he was taken with awe when they entered and saw all those gold and platinum albums hanging on the wall. Think about how many times you’ve heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” since 1991. Now think about how that record blew you out of the water when you first heard it. Hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in Sound City is like hearing it again for the first time. I forgotten how raw Kurt’s vocals are, how hard Grohl hit the drums, how powerful the song really is. Nirvana and producer Butch Vig revitalized Sound City, and everyone wanted to record at the studio that Nirvana did.
Sound City closed in 2011, and Dave Grohl bought the Neve Console and installed it in his own private studio. He invited some of his favorite musicians of Sound City’s legacy to come and record new music with him on the Neve Console. This is Grohl paying tribute to the music that not only inspired him but, as he say’s, “The board that literally changed my life.” Butch Vig steps into the producer’s booth again, and Stevie Nicks, Rick Springfield, Trent Reznor, among others, came into record new tracks. The album is called “Sound City: Real to Reel” and is out now. The highlight of the album and the climax of the documentary is when Sir Paul McCartney shows up to record “Cut Me Some Slack”. Naturally, everyone is in awe of the Beatle, but the song “Cut Me Some Slack” is also the first time that Grohl, Novoselic, and Pat Smear recorded together. A Nirvana reunion with Paul stepping in for Kurt, which has its own form of cosmic irony because Kurt’s idol was John Lennon. There is no doubt in my mind that John and Kurt were looking down and giving their blessing.
Sound City, as was the recording business, was strong in the nineties, but the turn of the century was not kind to either. Record sales dropped significantly, and as such, so did production budgets. This drove more and more artists to record in their own studios, on their own computers, in their own homes. The advent of Pro-Tools, consumer recording equipment became affordable, and there you have where we are. There seems to be a hidden irony that while Grohl and his companions lament the lost of tape recording, that human feel of music, the lack of talent in the digital age, they record their documentary on a digital camera, the RED EPIC. It just so happened that I watched three documentaries in the past two days that all seem to sync up to this theme, Sound City (music), Side by Side (cinema), and Photographic Memory (photography). Side by Side is a 2012 documentary from Christopher Kenneally about celluloid versus digital in movie making. Photographic Memory, also from 2012, is by Ross McElwee, where he explores the difference between himself and his son. Both are artist: Dad uses film and tape, the son uses digital. All three documentaries seem to agree that digital is just another tool and if in the right hands can be used correctly, but in the wrong hands (or the mass hands), then the product lack soul or a heart to it. I’m not sure that I agree with this conceit, but I understand it. I think George Lucas says it best in Side By Side when he states, “We are at the top of the photo-chemical process, and we are at the bottom of the digital process.” Maybe classic reel-to-reel rock ‘n’ roll, celluloid, and film photography have reached their apex, and it’s time to move on to something new. Granted, ProTools and Autotune haven’t turned shitty music into gold, but what guys like Trent Reznor and Skillex can do with a computer is amazing. Embracing the future doesn’t mean that we ignore or discredit the past. It just means that we are moving forward. We still need to look back, and that is what makes Grohl’s movie so wonderful.
The passion that Dave Grohl feels for music and the history of music is palpable, and it comes across in every second of this documentary. That is what elevates it from being just a bunch of talking heads fawning over a recording studio. There does seem to be a great deal of fetishizing about the Neve Console that makes me wonder if Grohl is superstitious. Yes, the Neve Console gave Nevermind that great sound and transformed his life, but Nirvana was talented, Dave Grohl is talented, he would have succeeded and found a way with or without the Neve Console. Now it is in his own private studio with a painting of himself lording over the control room. He grew up listening to The Beatles, learning music from The Beatles, and now he has played with a Beatle. He gleefully admits that recording new music on the board that changed his life brings things full circle. Recording a song with the man who inspired him to write songs is the closing of another circle. What will Dave Grohl do next? He is an incredibly talented and skilled musician, and for a first-time feature documentary, this is a very impressive effort. What a future he holds for himself.
Sound City (2013)
Directed By: David Grohl
Written By: Mark Monroe
Produced By: David Grohl, John Ramsay, James A. Rota
Starring: Dave Grohl, Rick Springfield, Mick Fleetwood, Taylor Hawkins, Josh Homme, Krist Novoselic, Pat Smear, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Trent Reznor, Rick Rubin, Butch Vig, Frank Black, Lee Ving
Variance Films, Running Time 108 minutes, Not Rated, Released January 18, 2013.