Sunday, March 3, 2013

Love Letter to Days Gone By: Dave Grohl's Sound City

Sound City is a very sentimental look at one of L.A.’s most successful recording studios. It was established in 1969 and became famous for recording some of the best known and biggest selling albums in rock. For Director Dave Grohl it was his connection to the human-side of the recording process, a point that he repeatedly makes throughout the movie. In 1991, his band Nirvana made the trip from Seattle to Van Nuys, California, to record their second album, Nevermind, over a period of 16 days. The result was a smash hit for the band and the studio, which had fallen on tough financial times. For Grohl, who learned that the studio was closing in 2011, it was the last straw. Somebody had to tell the story of the studio and the people behind it, before it was permanently closed. The result is Sound City, a slick, yet informative documentary that covers everything you need to know about the recording business from the technical to the creative.

Sound City, the studio, ranks with some of the most important and beloved recording facilities in music. Considering the history of music, studios often take on a status of importance that is as significant as the music it documents. When you think of Sun Studios for instance, you think of Elvis Presley or Carl Perkins. When you think of Abbey Road in London, you automatically think of The Beatles or Pink Floyd who recorded their best work there. So it is with Sound City whose wide-ranging facility was the home of the Nirvana’s Nevermind, and Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled recording in 1975 with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. In fact, Mick Fleetwood met Buckingham just after the release of Buckingham Nicks their acclaimed debut.

For a list of Sound City recordings, click here.

As a movie, Sound City is a fairly linear documentary. Grohl uses his personal memories and significant musical connections, to tell the story quickly and efficiently. He elected to put himself in the film, which has its advantages, namely a point of view. But rather than wax nostalgic about the studio in a “good-old-days” manner, Grohl talks to the people who worked there including engineer Neil Giraldo who started as a runner and worked his way up to tape operator and eventually engineer. What I liked about his story was the fact that he earned his way to success and learned something about analog recording by hand. His story, like many of the men and women who worked at Sound City, centers the film and adds the human touch to what can seem like a very mechanical process.

Dave Grohl and Lindsey Buckingham

Recording is as much about the equipment as it is about capturing performance on tape. For Grohl, it’s personified in the Neve mixing board located in Studio A of Sound City. Originally purchased for $75, 000 in 1972, this board symbolizes everything about the music industry that Grohl, along with Trent Reznor and Tom Petty, love. It was behind that board that producers, such as Butch Vig, could work their magic and literally affect sound by using the various dials and gadgets the Neve 8028 mixing console provided. (Grohl even gets the British inventor to explain how it works.) The film also includes a very creative segment about Grohl’s purchase, removal and re-connection to his personal recording studio 606. It’s here where the film pushes the argument that analog recording is significantly better than digital recording and the director gets enough witnesses to prove his point, including Neil Young whose wry comments add great colour to the film. But that’s not enough for Grohl who adds several recording sessions, albeit condensed, to the last half hour of the movie. These include Paul McCartney recording his song with Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear. We also witness Grohl recording an instrumental with Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) and finally Grohl recording with Lee Ving. Ving recorded his punk band Fear at Sound City in 1982.

Dave Grohl
As a film, Sound City works well with archival images and footage from some of the sessions, including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers working on their hit album, Damn The Torpedoes, in 1979. We hear from most of the producers and engineers who worked there including founder, Tom Skeeter plus many of the musicians who had an affinity to the place in spite of its rather dingy interior. I would have liked more of those stories, but Grohl decides to tackle the analog vs. digital argument head-on with little success. He doesn’t get past the simple “analog good – digital bad” discussion.

Nevertheless, Sound City is a love letter to days gone by, for the most part, as digital technology has virtually replaced analog recording. Grohl accepts this as much as anybody, but feels he’s making a real contribution by making a film about those so-called “days of yore” and for the most part, he and the film succeed. Sound City had a limited theatrical release in February after making its debut at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. A soundtrack is scheduled for release in March. Meanwhile Dave Grohl is being particularly generous by streaming the doc for free on the movie website.

 - John Corcelli is a musician and member of the Festival Winds Orchestra. He once played bass in a rock group called, Support Band.

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