Finally got the chance to see Sound City, the directorial debut from famed Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman, Dave Grohl. I’ve been wanting to see this film for quite some time now, and can say I was satisfied with it overall. It seems a little disjointed at times in terms of it’s flow, but, again, overall it’s a really good music documentary.
Sound City focuses on the life span of the famed Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, Los Angeles, California. If you’re not familiar with Sound City Studios, well, you should be. I learned about Sound City from the liner notes of some of the albums I’ve purchased down through the years. That studio alone helped shaped the legendary sound of analog recording as well as played host to the production of over 100 certified gold and platinum records. Some of the greatest contributions to music were written, recorded and mixed in that studio. Albums such as Buckingham Nicks, After the Gold Rush, Fleetwood Mac, and Nevermind were recorded in that studio. And, that’s just scratching the surface. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have a 30+ year history of recording in that studio, so let that one sink in a touch. On a weirder note, Charles Manson even recorded some stuff in Studio B of Sound City before the horrific and utterly evil Manson “family” crime spree in 1969. The documentary does a pretty good job of laying out the history of the studio for us.
One of the interesting aspects of the film that many non-gearheads may or may not find interesting is the role that the legendary Neve 8028 Console from Studio A plays. The console, as I said, is legendary in the sound that it produced. It basically handled every instrument remarkably well. You could even tweak the pre’s and EQ in the worst ways, and it would still sound amazing. There were very few of these consoles produced because it took months and thousands of man hours using the best components to build them. This particular console was special ordered from Rupert Neve back in the 60s for over $70,000. This was a truckload of money at that time and to give you some perspective the owner of Sound City at the time had just bought a house when he purchased that console, a house that cost him about $35,000. Rupert Neve was a genius engineer, by the way. Quite simply, there just isn’t anything like it in the world today. It’s analog to the max, the Rolls Royce. I’m not sure the coverage of the console is really going to interest the typical music fan, but I found it rather interesting myself. Then again I love music gear. The most astounding thought, at least of me, is to sit back and think about the conversations that probably took place over that console. Musically speaking, some amazing parts were crafted and written from men and women sitting at that console. Enough about the console though, suffice it to say… it’s amazing. When Sound City officially closed a few years ago, the console was sold to Dave Grohl who installed it in his personal studio. Very few of the consoles exist in working form today, and event the components of non-working consoles demand high dollar.
The odd thing about Sound City Studios is that it was such a complete hole-in-the-wall. Honestly, it’s a crappy building situated around factories and railways. Neil Young himself said it was in such an odd location because it was in The Valley; a sprawling suburbia of houses typically everyone just drove through to get from Point A to Point B. Inside, there was brown shag carpet on the walls, holes and stains everywhere, the parking lot flooded up into the building… Originally Vox Amplifiers were assembled there before Sound City was started. Yes, those Vox amps. Typically, people don’t construct live rooms (the rooms where instruments are recorded) as big square rooms with lots of right angles. If that is the nature of the space, things are done to curtail some of those hard angles. I’ll spare you the jargon as to why that is done. However, at Sound City the main live room was a big square room that somehow defied the logic of music physics and actually sounded amazing. That’s an interesting story in and of itself. Nothing about that studio should have “worked” in that it would house the production of some of the most influential music ever written. Somehow, however, the place worked. One former employee of Sound City stated that Tom Petty treated it as his own garage for writing and recording music. The operative term being “garage”, if that’s any indication of how much of a hole it was.
As a musician, it’s hard for me to fathom the songs written there, the legendary guitars and amps screamed, and just the history that is contained in that space. C’mon, Rick Springfield recorded Jessie’s Girl there for crying out loud! There are some seriously talented songwriters and musicians that walked into that studio and made some great music before walking out. The fingers that have pushed faders and turned knobs in that studio are some of the best to ever touch music and Sound City does a great job of giving you an idea of who those folks were and what they did there.
The documentary does stay very true to the studio itself and the music created within its walls. The film focuses in on a couple acts specifically as they relate to creating the buzz around the studio in its infancy, but eventually culls together the voices of some fairly influential musicians, songwriters and producers in order to give you the grander scope of what Sound City Studios represents to music history. In some ways, the documentary is personal for Dave Grohl, but he does a good job of balancing himself and everyone else in the film. You don’t get too much Dave Grohl in the film. The most you see if Grohl is towards the end when the film takes a turn to document the sale and installation of the Neve console in his personal studio. Grohl pulled many of the legendary musicians who recorded at Sound City into his own studio to record music in tribute to Sound City Studios and for the forthcoming tribute album. Oddly enough, and this is where it gets a little disjointed, Grohl pulls in Paul McCartney to collaborate on a song. To the best of my knowledge Sir Paul may not have ever recorded at Sound City, although I could be wrong. As best as I can tell, Grohl did so because he wanted there to be a touch of Nirvana on the record. And, since Kurt Cobain is obviously unavailable McCartney is a logical choice as he is a musical hero to Grohl. Seeing the remaining members of Nirvana with Paul McCartney leads to a rather humorous quip from Grohl. It’s actually probably one of the funniest lines in the whole film.
If you’re into music, but not necessarily the equipment aspect of music, then a big chunk of this documentary probably won’t do much for you. Although, you might find it interesting. There is enough there about the history of the music, however, to keep you focused and entertained. If you’re easily offended, this film probably won’t be for you either, because, after all, it features rock musicians who have some fairly salty language and a couple images that required editors to blur them out. I’ll leave it at that. If you’re just a music fan in general, then this is a great documentary that explores a little historical corner of the rock n’ roll arena. As a musician, Dave Grohl has had considerable impact on my, musically speaking. The music of Nirvana and The Foo Fighters’ The Colour and the Shape had tremendous impact on my as a musician, so to see something through Grohl’s eyes is always insight for me, personally. Grohl is a music geek, and that certainly comes out in this film and speaks to the music geek in all of us.