My son told me about the Sound City documentary a while back but I never seemed to find the time to get around to watching it. Finally did this weekend. Glad I did. It’s a tribute not only to a great studio (and soundboard) but also to a lot of the music we love. It was directed by Dave Grohl. Here’s my report.
Wikipedia: “Sound City Studios is a recording studio in Los Angeles, California, known as one of the most successful in popular music. The complex opened in 1969 in the Van Nuys neighborhood of Los Angeles. The facility had previously been a production factory of the English musical instrument manufacturer Vox. Throughout the late twentieth century, the studio became known for its signature sound, especially in recording drums and live performances of rock bands.
The studio was created by Joe Gottfried and Tom Skeeter, who wanted to start a record company and get into artist management. After a rough start, Skeeter and Gottfried purchased a state-of-the-art recording console for $75,175 from the English electronics engineer Rupert Neve – “One of four in the world” – a 28-input, 16-bus, 24-monitor 8028 with 1084 EQs and no automation.”
Now, these guys would be the first to admit that while yes, they loved music, they were really getting into it for the money. But the problem is they were stuck in this shithole neighborhood of run-down factories and nobody had ever heard of them. And they really didn’t know how to attract the big acts.
And so this is where shit gets real. Enter Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. When they first met, Nicks was a senior in high school and Buckingham, one year younger than she, was a junior. According to Nicks:
“I met Lindsey when I was a senior in high school and he was a junior, and we sang a song together at some after-school function. Two years later, in 1968, he called me and asked me if I wanted to be in a rock & roll band. I had been playing guitar and singing pretty much totally folk-oriented stuff. So I joined the band, and within a couple of weeks we were opening for really big shows: Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin. All of a sudden I was in rock & roll.”
“Nicks worked several jobs, as a hostess at Bob’s Big Boy, a waitress at Clementine’s, and as a cleaning lady for her record producer, Keith Olsen, so as to support herself and Buckingham financially; they had decided that it would be best for him not to work and to instead focus on honing his guitar technique.” (Nice play Lindsey! – ME).
One thing led to another, they got a contract, they got connected with Sound City, they recorded Buckingham/Nicks, and then….. nothing. This was in 1973 and that album was the first one ever recorded at Sound City. It had modest success but Stevie who “hated being poor” was ready to pack it in. Enter…
..Mick Fleetwood. Fleetwood Mac had just lost their guitarist Bob Welch and Mick was looking for a studio. In order to impress him with the great Neve/Sound City sound, they played him a cut from the Buckingham/Nicks album. Per Buckingham, Mick just stood there grooving to the song “Frozen Love” and the guitar. He eventually asked Lindsey to replace Welch in Mac and Lindsey told him “you gotta take my girlfriend too.”
Per Buckingham, the main reason Sound City and the Neve (NEEV) console were important was because of the great drum sound. And so on the first day of 1975 – just about when I moved to the Boston area – this new incarnation recorded the Fleetwood Mac album which had great tunes (and hits) like “Rhiannon,” “Over My Head,” and “World Turning.” . And…
..that was it. All of a sudden, Sound City was, if not THE studio, then certainly one of them. A few albums had been recorded there before, notably albums by Spirit and Dr. John. (After the Gold Rush was recorded there. And for historical accuracy, Charles Manson). But after the success of Fleetwood Mac, they recorded Elton John, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, War, Rick Springfield, Grateful Dead, Santana, Tom Petty – you name it. Sound City was on the map.
The documentary goes into the usual stuff about the staff that worked there – notably a gal named Paula that the rockers all lusted for – and what a rundown shithole the place was. But for a good twenty years or so the studio continued to crank out some great stuff. What killed it?
Well, in a word – digital. In the same way that Tower Records died because of streaming, Sound City died because of Pro Tools which allowed any idiot with a buck in his pocket to make a record. I think also that the slow death of the classic rock genre along with the ascension of hip-hop didn’t help either.
Sound City was on its way down one of its dirty toilets when Nirvana decided to record there. (“I don’t even remember why we chose the place,” Grohl says.) And in 1991, Nirvana recorded Nevermind there. And here we go again with money and bands pouring in – Rage, Tool, Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash, Weezer, Frank Black, Queens of the Stone Age, Nine Inch Nails, Death Cab for Cutie.
But eventually, Pro Tools got better, there were fewer rock bands, the founders died- whatever. Name your poison. And in 2011, they shuttered the place and sold the Neve console to..
..Dave Grohl who installed it in his Studio 606 in Northridge California. The last 1/2 hour or so details the recording of an accompanying soundtrack album called Sound City: Real to Reel. I found this interesting but not nearly as interesting as the history part. But still, worth watching as some of the original artists (including Stevie Nicks) return to record new tunes with the Foos and there is one up-and-comer from Liverpool near the end who really rocks out with a (sort of) Nirvana reunion.
The Sound City documentary came out in 2013 and for all intents and purposes, seemed to serve – at that time – as a eulogy for the studio. But I’m happy to report this from Wikipedia:
“In early 2017 a partnership was formed between Sandy Skeeter, daughter of founder Tom Skeeter, and Olivier Chastan in order to reopen the studio. Sound City is now the home of two of just 11 surviving Helios Type 69 consoles and continues to use classic analog recording techniques in many of its productions. While the control rooms received some upgrades, including Pro Tools, the main studio remains exactly as it was built in 1969.” (Not sure if that’s good or bad – ME).
I can’t say that overall the list of artists and albums that have issued from the new revitalized Sound City are quite on par with the studio’s heyday. Death Cab for Cutie have recorded there and Dylan did his Rough and Rowdy Ways album there. But it seems like maybe the times -and the scene- have moved on.
Anyway, if you care about rock and are as nuts about how and when and where it was recorded, this is as good a way to spend a couple of hours as any.
Here’s a nice soundtrack of stuff recorded there, put together by some thoughtful soul. Minus, of course, Neil Young and Nils Lofgren who are listed but removed their songs go protest podcaster, Joe Rogan.
10 thoughts on “Music Documentary – Sound City”
I think ProTools and other technology works for genres of music that are supposed to be pristine, like electronica or pop. But rock music needs a bit of grit and stuff made in studios generally works better.
Exactly Grohl’s point. And you can’t beat the interaction among people.
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This sounds like the kind of documentary that’s right up my alley. I also just watched the trailer and saw you evidently can watch the entire film for free on YouTube. I hope I can carve out the time to do so this weekend!
You absolutely can watch it there and you will totally dig it. I can’t believe I waited so long to watch it.
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I caught this a few years back and really enjoyed it – both the history and the making-of stuff which made me think a little differently about Trent Reznor (my wife, a classically trained pianist who I wish would play more, particularly appreciated his comments about the importance of his training on the instrument) and the album it resulted in isn’t too shabby either.
I think the fact that despite having gone to these lengths and cost to secure the console, Grohl has made so little of it since telling of just how much he bounces from one project to the next
It’s interesting to me that Reznor’s music in NIN would lead you to believe he’s some sort of Goth nutjob. But he’s a pretty sober guy who now does a fair amount of soundtrack work.
As to Grohl, he has really become over time, one of the real forces in rock. My guess is that the Neve itself isn’t of much interest outside of us music wonks.
It was more Reznor himself… I don’t think I ever really considered him a nutjob more that he’s pretty opinionated / stand-offish / bit of a knob-head and some of the accounts I’ve read of those who’ve worked with him in NIN have kinda backed that. But I think that’s par for the course with a lot of people that have a very single-focused determined vision; they don’t have time for anything they consider not part of it.
Grohl… agree absolutely. I read his memoir at the tail end of last year and heartily recommend it.
Actually in re-reading my comment, what I should have said is ‘would lead one to believe.’ The ‘you’ in there makes it sound like I’m saying that you drew that opinion but it was probably more my, or general, opinion.
As to the Grohl book, I didn’t even know he HAD a memoir. I’m surprised my son hasn’t read that. I’ll have to check that out. Right now I’m reading Peter Guralnick’s latest homage to music, ‘Looking to Get Lost.’
A buddy of mine and I were chatting music at work just yesterday and this came up. I was telling him about the Wrecking Crew documentary and he mentioned this one. I need to watch it.
I’ve seen Wrecking Crew and lately have been re-watching Muscle Shoals. Can’t beat a good music doc.
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