‘Sound City’ Reviewed: Much More Than A Film About A Mixing Board

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Dave Grohl and John Fogerty (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Dave Grohl and John Fogerty (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

“This Neve board, this… is not my world. Engineers who spend hours on the kick drum (sound)? Please! I would rather have a blood transfusion!”

This is part of a rather unlikely conversation between Barry Manilow — perennially the least-hip singer — and head Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, who can seemingly get any rock legend on the phone. And, in his documentary directorial debut, Sound City, he’s able to get them on camera also. Everyone from teen-idol Rick Springfield to punk legend Lee Ving (of the L.A. band Fear) sat down with Grohl for the film.

Ostensibly a documentary about an analog mixing console used at a legendary studio, will have many non-audiophile fans taking Manilow’s side in the debate over how interesting studio gear is. But the film is actually Grohl’s love letter to music. And, one suspects, it gave him an excuse to sit down with some rock legends (Neil Young, Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks), allowing him to pick their brains about music.

There are several story-lines in the film, from the purchase of the mixing board to the history of Sound City Studios (and the staff members), to the stories of the albums that were recorded there. Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush put the studio on the map, Rick Springfield made studio owner Joe Gottfried a player in the music industry (for a while, anyway) and after a bit of a lull, Nirvana’s Nevermind made the studio a hot place to record.

Grohl says in the film, “That (mixing) board is the reason I’m here right now.” You might argue that that is a bit of an overstatement: Nirvana seemed destined to be the voice of a generation; the same result could have happened if they recorded, say, at Electric Lady studios in New York. Still, it’s moving to hear Grohl speak about a piece of equipment and the effect he feels it had on his career.

But there is at least one band’s history that is absolutely linked to the board: Fleetwood Mac. Sound City engineer (and producer) Keith Olson custom ordered the board, and the first session he recorded was by a group called Buckingham/Nicks. He later played that recording for Fleetwood Mac’s leader and drummer Mick Fleetwood to demonstrate how good the studio sounded. Fleetwood soon came back and asked if he could meet the male singer from the duo; Fleetwood Mac needed a new frontman. Both Buckingham and Nicks joined the band, and the rest, of course, is history.

Grohl purchased the Neve mixing board, and mentions towards the end of the story that he didn’t buy it just to put it in bubble wrap. He wanted to use it. “A lot.” He says. The film ends with extended segments on various sessions that he did with some of the the musicians he interviewed in the film. It’s worth mentioning that many of the songs sound like the artists rediscovered a fire in themselves.  Stevie Nicks seems to be channeling her “Gold Dust Woman” persona on “You Can’t Fix This” (indeed, she wrote the lyrics about the death of her 18-year old godson… and felt more comfortable performing it with Grohl and the Foo Fighters than with Fleetwood Mac or even on her solo records). “Mantra,” featuring Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Grohl’s sometime bandmate Josh Homme of Queens Of The Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures, sounds like it may be the genesis of Grohl’s next side project.  And his collaboration with Paul McCartney – “Cut Me Some Slack” – is Sir Paul’s heaviest moment since “Helter Skelter.”

Late in the film, Fleetwood and Grohl are talking about technology, and the elder drummer says, “I think the downside these days is thinking, ‘I can do this all on my own.’ Yes, you can do it all on your own. But you’ll be a much happier human being to do it with other human beings. I can guarantee you that.” That – more than the extraordinary mixing board – is really what the film is about.

Which isn’t to take away from the magic of the Neve. Because even Barry Manilow admitted after his initial caveat about taking tech, “I do remember there was something different about the sound of this board.”

Brian Ives, Radio.com

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