One of my very favourite drummers of all time, Dave Grohl, has directed a movie called Sound City, a documentary about a famous recording studio in Los Angeles. Sound City Studios was an integral part of the LA music scene from 1969 to 2011 and the list of artists that recorded at Sound City reads like a who’s who of the American rock scene in the 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s. Everyone, and I mean everyone, recorded there; Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, Tom Petty, Metallica, Grateful Dead, Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Chili Peppers, Cheap Trick, Kyuss and Rage Against The Machine are just some of the acts. (We’ll skate over the fact that Vincent Price, Evil Knievel and Charles Manson were also clients.) You can have a look at some of the albums recorded in Sound City here – it’s jawdropping stuff.
Like many great stories, the beginnings of Sound City Studios is about the right elements coming together at the right time aided by sheer luck. The main room in the studio wasn’t built by an audio expert, it just happened to work perfectly for recording live bands. The owner of the studio, despite having no technical knowledge whatsoever, spent $76,000 on a custom Neve desk (bear in mind, his house only cost $38,000 at the time) which became legendary amongst musicians for the sound it gave the drums. The first album recorded on the Neve desk was Buckingham Nicks which lead to the formation of Fleetwood Mac and the recording of their eponymous 1975 album, which in turn lead to other musicians beating down the door to record in the studio. And thus a legend was born.
Grohl decided to make a film about the history of the studio from its early days until it closed in 2011 and along the way it evolved into a conversation about digital technology and how it is transforming the musical landscape. Sound City also documents Grohl’s purchase of the Neve console, which he moved to his personal studio, Studio 606. (Of course the Neve desk is famous for its drum sound therefore the band with two of the greatest drummers in rock would want it!) The making of the film then branched out and also became an album called Real to Reel which was released last week. The album sees Grohl collaborate on different tracks with Sound City almuni, including Trent Reznor, Rick Springfield, Paul McCartney, Stevie Nicks, Josh Homme, Lee Ving and Alain Johannes.
Sound City is almost a eulogy for analogue recording and it’s emblematic of how technology has changed our cultural landscape in far reaching ways. As Josh Homme says, “There’s no bookstore [anymore], there’s no music store, and there’s no Sound City.” The film was first shown at Sundance this year and is now screening across America. I rented it from iTunes where you can also buy it. If you’re interested in the American rock scene this is definitely one to watch.