“The internet’s cool for some stuff, but like many things, there’s no book store, there’s no music store, and there’s no Sound City.” — Josh Homme
SOUND CITY (2013 Roswell Films)
Directed by Dave Grohl
Uncle Meat persuaded me to see this movie, and I’m glad that he did. He said it wasn’t optional; that it was a must and that I would love it. So I bought it on Blu-ray, invited him over to co-review it with me, and we viewed it one afternoon after work in 5.1 surround. Needless to say, Sound City was good. So good that we never felt we could do it justice in a review, so I sat on my notes for over a year! Having recently re-watched Sound City (directed by Dave Grohl) with Mrs. LeBrain, now I can finally finish what Meat and I started last year.
Van Nuys, California. Sound City Studios, the legendary place where everybody who is anybody recorded. Nirvana? Check. Fleetwood Mac? Rick Springfield? Tom Petty? Check. Slipknot? Also check. Neil Young recorded much of After the Gold Rush there, after being enamored of the vocal sound that he got on “Birds”. Keith Olsen learned his craft there. It’s not much to look at on the outside: according to producer Butch Vig, it’s “kinda dumpy”. On the inside, there’s booze and cigarettes everywhere. Big room, huge floor. Lots of black magnetic tape.
Grohl narrates, personal anecdotes flow, then he steps out of the movie’s way. Grohl has a nice visual style, a combination of close ups and wide shots with plenty of details to look at. He infuses the movie with plenty of humour, sometimes at his own expense. The film has two phases: the first is a history lesson regarding the studio and the artists who created the hits there. The second consists of Dave purchasing the studio’s Neve board, moving it north to his own studio, and recording a brand new album with the same legendary artists. Pretty cool concept.
The huge Neve console was built like a “brick shithouse” (Keith Olsen), or a “tank” (Neil Young). Its original purchase price: bought for $75,175 in 1969 dollars. A nice house at the time cost around $30,000! The Neve was one of only four. Combined with the room itself at Sound City, the drum sound you can capture is incredible. The studio’s acoustics were not designed; it was a complete fluke. It was originally a box factory that happens to sound magical.
As for that Neve console, it is of course entirely analog. The one at Sound City was unique, considered the best sounding one. Rupert Neve tried to explain the electronics of it to Grohl in one of the movie’s more humourous scenes. The very first song recorded on that board was “Crying in the Night”, by Buckingham Nicks. This led directly to Mick Fleetwood hearing them while at the studio, and hiring not only the studio, but also Buckingham and Nicks! Essentially, the modern Fleetwood Mac formed right there at Sound City. The studio’s success really began with Rumours. Then, everyone wanted to record there. As for Tom Petty? It appears that Tom Petty pretty much spent his entire career at Sound City. In fact one of the coolest scenes was an old behind the scenes video from the 1990’s. Seeing Rick Rubin produce Tom Petty and being brutally honest was very interesting.
Rick Rubin to Tom Petty: “Sounds like you’re aiming a little lower today than you should be.”
Along came the compact disc, and the infancy of digital recording. Digital was the latest trend, and you could do new things with a computer that were harder to do on tape. Sound City suffered during this time, as newer rival studios were on trend. Sound City was dead…but one album helped resuscitate it: Nevermind. Then came Rage Against the Machine, Tool, Slayer, Kyuss. Analog tape and vintage equipment became popular again. Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash recorded Unchained there with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Nine Inch Nails combined the old with the new, by bring in their own computers to record on ProTools along with the Neve.
Unfortunately ProTools was heavy competition, and working with tape was so difficult by comparison, that Sound City finally shut its doors. They just couldn’t pay the bills anymore, even after selling off their excess equipment. Then Dave bought the board. It is amazing to watch it taken apart, boxed up, reassembled and functioning in Seattle. Regarding the sale of the board, Grohl says, “I think they knew that I wasn’t just going to bubble wrap it, and stick it in a warehouse. I was gonna fuckin’ use it. A lot.”
On November 2, 2011, reassembly of the board began at Dave’s Studio 606. Then he invited all the original artists back to record a new album on it, produced by Butch Vig. Regarding Stevie Nicks, in a memorable moment Vig says, “Fuckin’ A, that girl can sing!” More artists arrive. The Foo Fighters plus Rick Springfield create a monstrous sound together, a neat amalgam of their respective genres. Lee Ving (Fear) is hilarious, and performs the fastest count-in of all time. I discovered a new respect for Trent Reznor, a guy who uses the technology to create original sounds, but desires the warmth of tape. It’s incredible to see him collaborate with Homme and Grohl. It’s the sound of humans communicating with instruments. And they wrote a pretty frickin’ cool song together. Then, watching Paul McCartney writing “Cut Me Some Slack” with the surviving members of Nirvana is a moment that I’m glad was frozen in time.
Grohl: “What can’t it always be this easy?”
McCartney: “It is.”
The blu-ray bonus features include three additional performances: “From Can to Can’t”, “Your Wife is Calling”, “The Slowing Down”. It was these bonus features that inspired Meat and I to add “Your Wife is Calling” (with Lee Ving) to our 2014 Sausagefest lists. Our votes allowed the song to clock in at #64. (The track was my #1.)
Sound City is a complete triumph of a music documentary. It is the kind of music documentary designed for serious fans, not just passers-by. I would welcome another movie directed by Dave Grohl with open arms.