Sound City

It’s 2007. I’m in a soaking wet field in Staffordshire at V Festival. My friend Detta had got a tip about a band that we had to see called 606. None of us, her included, had heard of 606. We didn’t know what they did, who they were, or what we were letting ourselves in for. Nonetheless in the talks of clashes, stages, bands we couldn’t miss, and bands we could, we left open the slot for 606. As a result, we caught a paired back set by the Foo Fighters that had no more than 400 people in attendance. They were headlining that night after performing at the secondary venue the night before and used this small slot in the middle of the afternoon as a loosener.

Why does that have any relevance to a small but legendary studio called Sound City in Van Nuys, California? Well, Sound City spent $75000 dollars on a Neve Console for their studio. The Neve console that Dave Grohl asked to purchase when the studio went bankrupt and had to close. The Neve console that sits in his home studio called 606.

In a nutshell that’s the plot of the documentary Sound City. It charts the rise and fall of a studio that was responsible for recording a colossal number of influential and successful albums. The ignition switch was Dave Grohl. He came up with the idea, produced, and directed the documentary. His directorial debut no less.

As well as being one The Nicest Guy in rock, Dave Grohl was also the drummer in Nirvana. As if you didn’t know.  Nirvana recorded Nevermind at Sound City. Three kids driving down the coast from Seattle to California to turn their dreams into reality. They signified the rebirth of the studio that had struggled during the overproduced ’80s where everything moved away from the honest, natural analog sound and pushed into the drum machine, synthesized, electronic world. Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, and others wanting to dial things back to the best natural sound; who needed to harness the power and authenticity of their live performances, Sound City was the obvious choice. They had a stable of producers and techs, the Neve Console, and the died in the wool authenticity that modern studio spaces couldn’t buy. It would also have been relatively cheap after the fallow late 80s. Not being cynical like, just saying.

Rage Against The Machine outside the studio in 1992

The documentary begins with artists running off a list of other artists that have all recorded at Sound City and it begins properly with Neil Young and Tom Petty, two wily old godfathers of rock who set the tone for the studio and it’s earlier days. Rick Springfield chimes in as the first artist they signed to the in house label and the rest of the artists that follow wax lyrical about how much of a run-down old shit hole in a deeply uncool area managed to feel like a family-run home studio.  The connection to the dive of a building is one thing, but the outpouring of love for the staff over the years from the vast army of talking heads from all the brands you know and love is genuinely heartwarming. It’s not sugar-sweet and vomit-inducing or wheeled out for the sake of the tape, it’s a clear indicator for why so many bands recorded multiple titles there and how many bands felt inspired to go there. The documentary follows the life of the studio and the recording industry trends as a whole as it progresses ending with the console being moved out to Dave’s 606 studio and the recording of the album that was made alongside it. 

Fleetwood Mac at the studio in 1977

The anecdotes that come through from the staff and artists are the true highlights. Impromptu jams in the early hours with John Foggarty, Carl Perkins, and Tom Petty? It happened there. Rage Against The Machine recording their eponymous album in one room? It happened there. Mick Fleetwood hearing Buckingham and Nicks and adding them to Fleetwood Mac line up that would become one of the biggest selling bands of the 70s? It happened here. There are also smaller stories like Corey Taylor being splattered with candle wax and having pot plants thrown at him as he recorded with Slipknot. Rick Springfield’s dog sitting in on a guitar session with his teeth primed to bite the guitarist as he played. The interview between Dave Grohl and Rupert Neve the designer of the console that started it all is a classic farce and sums up the warmth and silliness that runs throughout.

Nirvana during a recoridng session in 1991

It’s at times inevitable, but never anything other than compelling. The sad notes as inevitably of the studio being a pace out of time and missing the computer generation are there but they add the balance needed and stop it becoming schmaltzy and trite.

The album that comes along with it is available on Spotify and all other good streaming services. It is well worth a listen. It’s clear there’s a real melting pot of personalities that blend together to make the tracks. Dave writes most if not all of the songs but the performing artists have a say in the recording and Paul McCartney, Stevie Nicks, Rick Springfield all bring the house down on their efforts. Corey Taylor’s is brilliant and might be the best thing he’s recorded out of a mask. It’s not a lip service low rent greatest hits to milk the documentary, it’s a bona fide album in its own right and I defy you not to love some of the songs on there.

Corey Taylor recording vocals in 2001

In conclusion, take an evening off, watch the documentary, listen to the album, commemorate the passing of a studio that gave the industry a lot of joy over the years. Then smile and remember that it lives on in all the staff, producers, and artists that are still recording, even the console that started it all is still working hard.

Article by Jim Clinch

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