Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Music history in the making

With Foo Fighters back on the radar with new album Sonic Highways and the accompanying series of short documentaries on each of the album's featured cities, it seems an appropriate time to finally get round to reviewing Dave Grohl's first directorial outing.

Sound City is the tale of the studio of that name in LA where Grohl spent 16 days in May and June 1991 that he claims quite literally changed his life. He's not wrong - the period of time in question saw the recording of Nevermind.

The studio itself was an unprepossessing building, clouded in the stink of the nearby Budweiser factory, short on glitz and glamour if not outright down at heel. One interviewee describes it as being the sort of place where you could take a piss in the corner and no one would bat an eyelid. Nevertheless, it became known as somewhere that magic happened.

Sound City had its first heyday thanks to the likes of Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty, before getting taken over by dodgy metal outfits Dio, Ratt and Saxon in the 1980s. Nirvana's decision to use the studio for their major label debut sparked its renaissance, with Rage Against The Machine among the many bands to choose to record there on the strength of the way Nevermind turned out. There probably aren't many studios that could claim to have played host to everyone from Slipknot, Slayer and Metallica to Barry Manilow and Bill Cosby.

The film is in large part a love letter to the studio's kit, a fetishisation of the legendary Neve recording desk, though it is of course also an ode to the people who combined to make it such a special venue. Grohl's chosen interviewees prove to be a fund of entertaining anecdotes; we learn, for instance, that Rick Springfield's dog once threatened to bite Pat Benetar's guitarist Nick Giraldo in the groin if he fucked up a song. The same mutt regularly bit chunks out of the soundproof cladding in Studio A.

The studio's fortunes waxed and waned until it was finally put out of business three years ago by the demand for digital. But that wasn't quite the end of the story - for either the recording desk or the film. When the studio closed its doors for the last time, Grohl stepped in to salvage the enormous Neve, installing it in his own Studio 606. What better way to pay tribute to its former home than to round up some Sound City alumni and put it to productive use recording some new music?

The cast of characters Grohl is able to corral to perform is impressive, and while the second half of the film is somewhat indulgent and the recorded results are decidedly mixed (the collaboration between Grohl and Sound City regulars Josh Homme and Trent Reznor, 'Mantra', was the only song that really grabbed me), it's nevertheless entertaining to watch the creative interplay between different musicians in a studio environment.

And then there's Paul McCartney, who never recorded at Sound City but whom Grohl still manages to rope in. The Grammy-winning 'Cut Me Some Slack' may be pretty execrable (particularly lyrically), but the kid-in-a-sweet-shop enthusiasm and shit-eating grins of Grohl and former Nirvana bandmates Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear, incredulous at playing with their hero, mean that all is forgiven.

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