“Sound City is where real men went to make music.” – Shivaun O’Brien, Studio Manager of Sound City 1992-2011
Ms O’Brien was referring to the legendary recording studio in Van Nuys that is the main focus of Sound City, an astonishingly awesome documentary from director Dave Grohl. Astonishing because Grohl, an incredibly talented musician, had no experience with making movies before he took on this project. The finished product looks like it was made by a master documentary filmmaker.
Anyone who has even a tiny bit of love for music needs to see this film.
In 1969, near the Busch Beer Gardens in Van Nuys, an existing building was converted into a recording studio. In 1970, Tom Skeeter bought the studio and that is where the story of Sound City Studios begins. Realizing that if they were going to attract the best recording artists to Sound City, he borrowed $75,000 and ordered a custom-made Neve console. The combination of this console and the unique acoustics of Studio A created a nearly perfect facility for making incredible music. Analog music. In particularly, Sound City was renowned for the quality of the drum sound it could capture. As one artist being interviewed in the film says “once you’ve got the drums right, the rest is easy”.
But it isn’t just the high quality recordings that are at the heart of the story. The influence of Sound City Studios on music from 1970 through its last days in 2011 cannot be overstated. It was where the album Buckingham Nicks was recorded. Then Mick Fleetwood came to town to make a record but Bob Welch left the band. Needing a guitarist and having heard Lindsey Buckingham on a track played for him at Sound City, he invited him to join Fleetwood Mac. Buckingham agreed, on the condition that his musical partner and girlfriend, Stevie Nicks, could also join. The new lineup of Fleetwood Mac released the self-titled album recorded at Sound City. It sold over five million copies.
Listing all of the amazing artists who recorded albums at Sound City Studios would take up the rest of this article’s available space. Notables include Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Neil Young, Rick Springfield and Foreigner. The studio was fully booked during the late 1970s and through much of the 1980s era of “hair bands”.
But by 1991 business had dried up and the studio was on the verge of financial ruin. Enter a van full of musicians who had heard of the legendary sound that could be captured in Studio A. Nirvana recorded the album “Nevermind” and launched a renaissance period for the studio. Paula Salvatore, who had been the studio manager for years, was no longer there and enter Shivaun O’Brien, who would remain the manager until just before the studio closed for good in 2011.
One of the things that made Sound City Studios so unique was that it was, in the words of several recording artists, “a sh**hole”. The brown shag carpet on the walls that had been ‘hip’ in the 1970s was the height of tackiness in the 1990s. Years of spilled booze, too many cigarettes and users basically not caring how they treated the place had taken its toll. But no one cared about the aesthetics. It was the music, not the creature comforts that kept people in search of that analog sound coming.
Grohl has made a documentary that basically tells three stories, using a linear structure of the studio’s history. There’s the story behind Sound City Studios. There is the story of that amazing Neve console, which now resides in Grohl’s private studio. And there’s the story of the film’s soundtrack, which is due out in March, with an amazing lineup of artists and tracks.
But the real story, the real message of this terrific documentary is that when the digital era of music was born, something was lost. Digital music may be perfect, but the humans who make that music are not infallible. It is that ability to be imperfect that gives the best music its character and humanity. Grohl gets this and that shows. He said “my mission in making this film is to inspire people to go to a yard sale, buy a used guitar and form their own garage band.”
Mission accomplished. Many of the people, particularly young people, who see this film will be in search of an axe as soon as the end credits are finished rolling. Well done, Dave Grohl.