Most Dave Grohl aficionados know the affinity the Foo Fighters frontman has for Los Angeles’ Sound City Studios. The great Classic Albums documentary on Nevermind features archival footage of Grohl and his Nirvana bandmates arriving at the studio for the first time – ahead of recording one of the most iconic record of the 1990s – and marvelling at the platinum records on the walls. So it shouldn’t have surprised when Grohl announced plans to make a documentary about the studio’s history and legacy. But still – legendary skinsman, multi-million selling singer…. Filmmaker?
Sound City, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival, is Grohl’s homage to the recording studio that quite literally changed his life. An impressive list of rockers – from Neil Young and Stevie Nicks to Trent Reznor, Josh Homme and Frank Black – line up to be interviewed; offering insights, anecdotes and general enthusiasm about their craft.
Established in 1969, Sound City was notable for its completely analogue recording technology and – Grohl explains – the enormous custom-built Neve 8028 console. With a laugh, studio co-owner Tom Skeeter explains that the price he paid for the console – just over $75,000 – was almost twice the cost of his house at the time.
The documentary celebrates the studio in chronological order, from the early success of Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush and Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled album and Rumours, up to its closure in 2011.
Stories are told through interviews, archival photos and footage and music – lots of loud music. Grohl is an unobtrusive interviewer; we rarely see him on screen with his subjects and he allows them to share their memories without interruption.
The sheer volume of hits recorded in the place is almost unbelievable. Think Rick Springfield’s 'Jessie’s Girl', Pat Benetar’s 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot' and Tom Petty’s 'Refugee'.
When the studio began to financially struggle in the late 1980s – thanks to that 1980s tendency to over-produce everything, technology Sound City couldn’t keep up with – three young kids from Seattle came and changed everything. Understandably, Nevermind is devoted more time than any other Sound City record. Grohl, Krist Novoselic and producer Butch Vig reminisce about the two weeks Nirvana spent recording (Vig recalls unplugging all the studio’s phones for Cobain to record the intense 'Something in the Way'; Kurt ended up singing it lying on the floor). Grohl reveals that whenever he hears 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' on the radio, he’s taken back to the raw energy and enthusiasm generated in Sound City, before his band became the biggest in the world.
Nevermind’s success spawned a string of classic 1990s and 2000s albums, including Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut (“why did we want to record there? Because Nevermind was made there!” says drummer Brad Wilk), Tool’s Undertow, Weezer’s Pinkerton and Queens of the Stone Age’s Rated R. The members of Rage decided that the old-school way of recording was conducive to gigging; so around half its debut album was recorded live on the same night in front of a group of friends.
Grohl has an enjoyable on-screen presence and a true passion for rock history. When he chats to fellow musicians, he comes across as much of a fan as anybody in the audience. His style of directing is short, sharp and to the point – at no point does the 108-minute film labour and if anything, it would be nice to see more in-depth interviews with key players (that’s what Blu Ray extras are for).
The final third of the documentary is devoted to the events following Sound City’s closure. A nostalgic Grohl purchases the Neve console for an undisclosed price and transports it to his own Studio 606. There, he phones some Sound City alumni and invites them around to work on some original tracks. Through candid footage, we see the creative process behind tracks by Nicks, Springfield and a collaboration between Homme and Reznor. But it’s when Paul McCartney shows up that Grohl almost loses his mind (“everything I know about music, I know from the Beatles!” he exclaims). As we now know, Sir Paul jammed with Grohl, Novoselic and Nirvana/Foo Fighters man Pat Smear on 'Cut Me Some Slack', a track premiered at the 12-12-12 Hurricane Sandy benefit. It’s a joy to see McCartney do his thing; improvise, rock out and kick back and declare “magical” afterwards. The wide-eyed, “can you believe it?” expressions on the others’ faces say it all.
Sound City is a gem of a documentary. It has enough technical music talk to keep the nerds happy, enough stories to please a historian and enough hits to delight a casual music fan. Another successful project to add to the CV of the most popular man in rock? You bet.
Sound City is released on DVD/Blu Ray in March, along with the soundtrack. Dave Grohl's also coming over for a visit, so watch this space for more information.
Dave Grohl on Sound City