Dick Goes to the Movies: “Sound City”

Posted in Culture of Lickspittle, Rock 'n' Roll at 4:46 pm by George Smith

“Sound City,” the Dave Grohl produced history of the studio in Van Nuys that defined the sound of hit classic rock, was a story waiting to be told. That Grohl rose to enable it is a big credit.

However, once Grohl’s intro is past in the first fifteen minutes, the real meat of the documentary takes flight. (Look, someone has to tell you. Dave Grohl is a bore. He’s very sincere but his real role is — cheerleader. Not historian.)

“Sound City” is an oral history, one demonstrating the success of insider network effects as amplifiers of business and the actually pretty small world of very white super hit classic rock in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties.

Producer Keith Olsen tells a lot of the story. Don’t know who he is? If you have a good record collection from 1970-1989, check the backs of the albums. You’ll see that name.

Olsen custom-ordered the much talked about/glorified Neve console used at Sound City for $75,000 in 1972. And he also produced the Buckingham Nicks (that’s Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks) record there, an insubstantial LP that, coincidentally, hooked Mick Fleetwood. (Another hook was the studio’s “big room,” which rendered a perfect drum sound.)

The multi-platinum success of the “Fleetwood Mac” album featuring the duo made Sound City. A surviving owner opines that seven out of every ten records you heard on rock radio during the period were cut at his studio. The place’s other founder even managed and developed Rick Springfield.

Springfield, a subject of a similar documentary (“An Affair of the Heart”), is on camera a lot, telling how Keith Olsen had Neil Geraldo, fresh from Pat Benatar’s “Crimes of Passion” (yes, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” one of the defining hard rock tunes on radio of the era, if you don’t think so, flunk, I’m the pro on these things), do the guitar playing on his smash first album as well as the solo on “Jessie’s Girl.”

RCA sent a check to Sound City for 1 million dollars as a result of it, “Working Class Dog,” and its hit single. And Springfield met his wife, a front office girl, there.

When you really want to get right down to it, Rick Springfield was white suburban/exurban/rural middle class girl America’s sweetheart during his run. Well, multi-platinum’s worth of them, that’s millions, anyway. Sound City did that.

But by the mid-to-late Eighties Sound City was almost out of business. Digital recording was what kids and the industry wanted. The big contract band bookings, after some hair metal in the early-Eighties, dried up. Olsen built his own digital recording studio next door, left and told the studio’s new manager, Shivaun, the old place was doomed.

Then lightning struck for a second time. Nirvana booked the place for their major label debut, “Nevermind.” Recorded in 16 days at Sound City, it went straight to number one and a second wave of success breathed new life into the corpse.

The movie tries to cast the idea that it was the super-special meticulously over-engineered and hand-crafted Neve console and devotion to analog, analog, analog tape that made everything unique and the best. There’s some truth to that.

But it’s not the entire story. It was not just the circuits and accidental architecture of the building. Not just hardware, but people. Networking effects among the connected and some cosmically astounding luck (literally, Mick Fleetwood is shopping at a hippie grocer in Laurel Canyon when someone from the studio is in line with him) with hitmakers had a bunch to do with it.

The ending comes more quickly after the second fade-out. The digital world destroys Sound City for the last time. Grohl phones in to try and save something, buying the Neve for his studio.

Here “Sound City” goes off the rails.

Everyone attests that some tunes by Stevie Nicks, Rick Springfield and few others, newly recorded with the Foo Fighters and Grohl, have preserved the memory of Sound City. Nope, the music is spirited but crappy. Stop, Stevie, that song, whatever it was, sucks, you yell at the screen. They even manage to make Paul McCartney, screaming and playing a cigarbox guitar on some lousy hard rock tune called “Dear Mama,” unbearable. It wasn’t just the equipment. The magic that made Sound City is gone.


Four out of five stars if you edit out the last fifteen minutes where the Neve is with the Foo-fighters and company. Three stars if you watch the whole thing.

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