Why a non-review? I actually learned once in The Long, Long Ago how to write a film review and this is most certainly not that. Being that I’m a bit of a Dave Grohl fangirl, this post will be completely biased. However, I promise The Foo Fighters actually have very little to do with this review, so rest easy, hoss.
Sound City is a documentary, directed by Dave Grohl, that is all about the San Fernando Valley recording studio of the same name. Incorporated in 1969, Sound City Studios has used their completely analog technique to record more than 100 gold and platinum albums over the years including Nirvana’s Nevermind.
The documentary starts out with producers, sound engineers, Sound City employees, and musicians like Neil Young, Trent Reznor, and Fear’s Lee Ving describing the aesthetics of the studio. There was brown shag carpet on the walls—similar to many a 1970s van—and the parking lot constantly flooded running into the studio and down the hallway.
Despite its motley appearance, Sound City housed many famous bands and musicians over the years including Buckingham Nicks (pre Fleetwood Mac), Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Grateful Dead, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Rick Springfield, Pat Benatar, Fear, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Slipknot and Metallica.
When Neil Young came to Sound City to record After the Gold Rush, he pulled into the lot in a beat up, ancient car with smoke billowing out of every window and trailed by two LAPD officers with guns drawn. Neil states that he attracted a lot of cops because of the cars he was driving at the time and that he didn’t have a license because he was Canadian. After five minutes the cops drove away.
Mike Campbell, lead guitarist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, recalled that when the band visited to record Damn the Torpedoes, they had to play “Refugee” about 150 times to get it right since bands played live when they record on analog tape at Sound City.
This studio also had a distinct advantage and can attribute most of its success to the Neve 8078 Console which was made by the British engineering genius, Rupert Neve.
This board was one of four of its kind ever made and the only one custom ordered. When Sound City closed, Dave Grohl bought it for his studio.
In the ’80s, when the digital revolution happened to music and CDs became a reality, Sound City struggled, but never broke from its uniquely analog methods.
In 1991 Nirvana went to Sound City to record their Diamond (Diamond, not Platinum) album Nevermind. In Dave Grohl’s 2013 SXSW Keynote address, he talks about Nirvana before Nevermind and the fact that they practiced in a barn in Seattle. When they went to LA to record their second studio album, they were already used to playing and recording live so it took very few takes to get the songs perfect.
After Nevermind topped the charts in the first week, Sound City was back on the map. One of the Sound City receptionists recalled that she would come in to work on Monday morning and there would be 500 messages on the answering machine. After that, albums like the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ One Hot Minute, Weezer’s Pinkerton, A Perfect Circle’s Mer de Noms were recorded in droves.
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In the second part of the film, Dave Grohl invites back all of the musicians to play in his studio and record once again on the Neve Console. The main focus was “feel” which basically means the relationship between musicians and the music-making process as related to the music.
A major theme throughout the documentary was that the transition to digital allowed people to perform, record and produce entire albums completely on their own. A few musicians weighed in on this notion and their thoughts on “feel.”
I think the downside these days is thinking that I can do this all on my own. Yes, you can do this on your own, but you’ll be a much happier human being to do it with other human beings. I can guarantee you that.
The tools are better. The tools are much better than they were five years ago, certainly better than 30 years ago. Now that everyone is empowered with these tools to create stuff, has there been a lot more great shit coming out? Not really. You still have to have something to do with these tools. You should really try to have something to say.
In the studio you’re trying to boost your own performance from the energy that you’re feeding from in your partners. You can’t do that if you’re standing there alone.
In the very end of the film, Grohl and Krist Novoselic (the bassist from Nirvana) play with lead from Paul McCartney. Grohl notices that he feels different and looks up to see that Novoselic was playing and moving the way he used to move when they were in Nirvana. Grohl says that the way they reverted back to their old playing styles felt very strange—almost like it was Nirvana again, but it was with Paul McCartney.
I highly recommend this documentary to anyone who proclaims themselves a fan of rock and roll. You can buy Sound City or catch it in theaters.