Jan. 31, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., $4.50-$10, Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006, realartways.org
There's a lot to love about Dave Grohl: his body of work with Nirvana and Foo Fighters, his old-school rock boosterism, his affable pizza delivery-guy persona.
Sound City, a new film about a run-down studio in Van Nuys, Calif. where dozens, if not hundreds, of classic albums were recorded in the '70s, '80s and '90s, gives us yet another. You sense Grohl used every bit of his considerable clout to pull together important, little-heard voices in the record business to round out his first foray into documentary filmmaking, and it works. (Sound City plays at Hartford's Real Art Ways at 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Jan. 31.)
Sound City was a shithole. "I'd say you could piss in the corner and nobody would complain," says producer Joe Barresi. The space turned off a number of artists who were expecting the lush rock-star accoutrements offered by other top-shelf studios; the ones who stayed were galvanized by the studio's urgent vibe. An impressive album-cover montage scrolls through many of them: Pat Benatar, Kansas, Guns 'n' Roses, Nine Inch Nails, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Metallica, REO Speedwagon and many others, as well as some of the weirder records — by Telly Savalas, Vincent Price, Evel Knievel and Charles Manson — committed to tape at Sound City.
"We'd record anything," says Tom Skeeter, Sound City's owner from 1969-1992. "Anybody who could walk in the door and pay the bill."
Joe Gottfried, a pollyanna-ish U.S. Army vocalist, opened Sound City in 1969, which he ran with big band leader Joe Leahy and chief engineer Keith Olsen. Skeeter, a West Virginia Holding Company representative, was tasked with buying businesses for its portfolio. The business survived because Skeeter, who held the note on the property, wouldn't foreclose. He saw it as his ticket into the entertainment business, imagining that one major signing (the Beatles, say) would make them all filthy rich.
Hoping to lure bigger acts, Skeeter made a major investment in equipment. In a sense, the Sound City story is the tale of a soundboard — a Neve console, handmade in the U.K. by Rupert Neve, who appears in the film — that cost Skeeter $76,000 in early '70s money, twice as much as the house he had recently purchased.
The acquisition was the turning point; "Crying in the Night" by Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks (recording as Buckingham Nicks) was the first track recorded with the Neve. Mick Fleetwood, in town scouting studios, met Nicks and Buckingham at Sound City through Keith Olsen, and after hearing the sound produced in the studio decided to hire them; the self-titled Fleetwood Mac was the studio's first major hit.
Fleetwood Mac led to the Grateful Dead (Terrapin Station, 1977), Foreigner (Double Vision, 1978), Cheap Trick (Heaven Tonight, 1978) and other blockbusters. Artists, seeking Sound City's no-nonsense approach, showed up in droves. "No frills, no effects, no place to hide, everything coming right out of an amp, or right out of a speaker, or right out of a microphone approach," says producer/recording engineer Jim Scott. "That was Sound City."
There are extended segments chronicling the recording of Tom Petty's Damn the Torpedos, the studio's activities during the punk rock and hair band eras, and Skeeter's canniest move — grooming the then-unknown Rick Springfield, securing him acting lessons and a place to stay, pouring through his demos to find the right song and bringing in studio players like Neil Gerardo to record parts. Springfield's Working Class Dog was another huge, homegrown hit. Sound City was booked solid in the '80s; you couldn't flip on the radio without hearing one of their productions.
The good times didn't last. Compact Discs gradually old-sold vinyl, and Linn introduced an early drum machine, which competed for table space with samplers, synthesizers, 32- and 64-track boards. Through the haze of overproduction and cannon-shot snares, Skeeter blew tons of money chasing acts that didn't pan out, and by the late '80s Sound City was finished. The film's tone temporarily turns cranky: artists and producers railing against the Machine (groan). (Grohl wisely doesn't linger here for too long.)
Enter Nirvana, who headed to Sound City to record Nevermind with $60,000 on hand. "Smells Like Teen Spirit," of course, went to number one. Rage Against the Machine, Frank Black and the Catholics and others arrived in Nevermind's wake, hungry for a visceral, direct-to-tape recording experience.
When Sound City finally closed up shop in 2011, Grohl purchased the Neve and moved it to his own Studio 606. The film, to balance a lack of musical performances so far, ends with Grohl jamming with a group of all-star musicians, reuniting them with the Neve, "to catch a little of that vibe," producer Butch Vig says. (Grohl is currently promoting the film with performances featuring some of those artists.) Fear's Lee Ving, Springfield, Nicks and Keltner are backed by Grohl and the Foos. A final, near-perfect stroke finds the surviving members of Nirvana combusting spontaneously with Paul McCartney. That alone is worth the price of admission.