Sell the kids for food

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Watching a world through a windshield, there’s no looking back. We’d left everything behind. … We had no idea that the next 16 days were going to change our world forever. But I remember pulling into the parking lot and thinking, ‘Really? This is Sound City?!’

With the release of the new Foo Fighters album, Sonic Highways, just round the corner,* I finally got round recently to watching Sound City, Dave Grohl’s 2013 documentary about the famed California recording studio.

Sound City is dear to Grohl’s heart: it’s where Nirvana recorded Nevermind back in May 1991, and the quote above is spoken by Grohl over the beginning of the documentary, as the camera shows a van replicating Nirvana’s road trip from Seattle down the west coast to Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley. The recording studio did indeed look like a dump; from the unprepossessing parking lot to the brown shag carpet on the walls, the place already looked so trashed that anything went. But nestled incongruously in the down-at-heel shabbiness, the hallway was plastered with platinum records by the likes of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, Rick Springfield,** Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, Slayer, Johnny Cash, and, err, Ratt.*** The list of famous artists who recorded there goes on: Dio, Kyuss, Rage Against the Machine, Vincent Price, Telly Savalas… (as the last of these two may suggest, the studio had cash flow problems in its early days and the novelty record scene was not one to be sniffed at).

After the Goldrush, Neil Young’s masterpiece, was the first major album recorded there, but (relative) financial security for Sound City owners Tom Skeeter (who sadly died earlier this month aged 82) and Joe Gottfried came with the introduction of Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham, Sound City veterans, to the rump of Fleetwood Mac, on the lookout for a fresh direction and a change of sound. The end result was Rumours, the ur-rock album of the 1970s.****

Grohl identifies two features that made Sound City a prince among recording studios: the Neve console, and the drum sound. English scientist Rupert Neve constructed only four consoles, one of which was custom ordered in the early 1970s by Keith Olsen, Sound City’s chief engineer, for the grand cost of $76,000 (twice the cost of Skeeter’s house). The ‘Neve sound’ is highly regarded, delivering a crisp and solid eq. Theoretically, the Sound City drum room – a Vox factory in the 1960s – shouldn’t be a great drum room: it’s too big and square. But by ‘luck and magic’, in Rick Rubin’s words, the room is great for recording drums, the heartbeat of any rock song.

The Neve console. From the Open University in the 1970s and from http://soundcitystudios.net/.

The Neve console. From the Open University in the 1970s and from http://soundcitystudios.net/.

By the time Nirvana rocked up in the spring of 1991 with producer Butch Vig, Sound City was on its uppers. The 1980s digital revolution in music had not been kind to an old-fashioned, analogue recording studio, as synthesisers arrived, drum machines proliferated and artists chased a brash, overproduced sound. Radically, some new studios also tried to provide a clean, modern, hi-tech appearance.

Grohl and Krist Novoselic can’t remember how the band came to choose Sound City, but $600 paid for 16 days there, so cost was very likely to have been a major factor. Grohl, Novoselic and Vig all recall stories from the session, from asking Grohl to use a click-track on ‘Lithium’, to Vig recording Cobain playing ‘Something in the Way’, gently strumming an acoustic on a couch in the recording room; in order to add further tracks to the latter, Vig had to use an early version of Pro-tools to avoid making edits to the recording.

The guitar sound isn't quite right in the mix.

The guitar sound isn’t quite right in the mix.

The combination of Sound City and Nirvana was fortuitous, to say the least: the recording studio captured the band’s integrity in a way many other studios would not have achieved: ‘actual people doing this thing that inspires millions of other bands to do the same thing’. And at the heart of this was the use of analogue technology. Digital recording techniques allow musicians and producers to cover up mistakes and shortcomings more effectively. With analogue, there are no hiding places: musicians have to be able to play their music to a high standard, and this enables a producer to capture the feel of the band, to portray more of the band’s essence to the listener than digital recording processes can effect.

In return for Sound City’s facilitating role, Nirvana gave the studio a new lease of life. As Nevermind went stratospheric, many artists wanted to emulate Seattle’s (joint-) finest and use Sound City to find their truest self-expression: Rage Against the Machine, Frank Black and the Catholics, Masters of Reality, The Black Crowes, Johnny Cash, Queens of the Stone Age.*****

Petty, Cash and Rubin. Photo by Kevin Estrada. From http://soundcitystudios.net/.

Tom Petty, Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin. Photo by Kevin Estrada. From http://soundcitystudios.net/.

Unfortunately, it proved to be a temporary reprieve; the studio simply couldn’t survive indefinitely in the Pro-tools age. So when it finally closed in 2011, Grohl took the Neve console – a piece of rock history – and, by installing it in his own studio, gave the old board a new lease of life. Grohl recorded an album with various Sound City alumni (and others, including up-and-coming Liverpudlian Paul McCartney), and in so doing reminded us all of essential truths at the heart of making good music: that feel is essential; that musicians should use technology as an instrument, not as a crutch;****** and that for music to have meaning, it must retain the human element. It’s a great legacy for the studio to have, and it’s apt that a former member of Nirvana should be the one to burnish it so brightly.

Nirvana at Sound City. Wallpaper provided by redundant muppets.

Nirvana at Sound City. Wallpaper provided by redundant muppets.

[5 October 2014: In a recent speech at the Yellow Phone Music Conference in Milwaukee, Vig mentioned that Nirvana practised ten hours a day in the six months prior to recording Nevermind. This tightened up the band’s sound hugely, but the main reason was to keep warm: their apartment was freezing but their rehearsal space had a heater!]

* I have a mildly scandalous confession to make. Ok, it’s not really scandalous. Heretical perhaps. I love the Foos’ first four albums, especially 1999’s There is Nothing Left to Lose, a stripped-down, introspective affair; wistful at times even. Since then, though, their albums just haven’t done it for me. I think their records have become – whisper it – a bit bland. Gasps of shock will doubtless reverberate around the internet at this shocking news. But there you go. I’m sure the band won’t excommunicate me from the Church of Foo.

** Rick Springfield is one of those American musicians who was massive Stateside but achieved diddly-squat over here in the UK. It was only after watching this documentary that I could either have named one of his songs (which I’ve now forgotten again, but Pat Benatar’s guitarist played on it) or picked him out of an identity parade (which I may just about still be able to do). ‘Jessie’s Girl’ – saw the name when adding a hyperlink to his website.

*** Ludicrous as the whole scene was, I quite liked a bit of 80s glam metal back in the day (what’s wrong with being sexy?), but Ratt were beyond me. Maybe it was the silly name. Or that they were pants. One of the two. You choose.

**** Bill Clinton used ‘Don’t Stop’ from Rumours as the theme song for his successful 1992 presidential election campaign, tapping in to the song’s innate optimism. Five years later, in an attempt to prove Karl Marx’s famed dictum about history, Blair and New Labour used D:Ream’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, and the UK has never looked back since.

***** A full list of recording artists at Sound City can be found here. Green Jelly must have broken in at night to record.

****** Or, quite possibly in Ratt’s case, as a crotch.

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About Mark Anstee

guitarist, Radio Seattle View all posts by Mark Anstee

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