Sound City is the name of the new music documentary directed by Dave Grohl. The film premiered recently at the Sundance Film Festival, before moving on to a three-night showing at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
It’s an astounding documentary, centered on a dumpy, unassuming old recording studio that was originally a Vox amplifier factory. The studio was located in a commercial area of Van Nuys, in the valley area of Los Angeles, an area usually reviled by most any self-respecting pop star from Hollywood. The building had the accidental good fortune to have a good acoustic balance. The studio also benefited from the foresight of its owners to install a Neve soundboard that was state-of-the-art for a recording console at the time of its purchase.
The film goes on to interview some of the biggest rock artists from 1975 until the dawn of the 21st century who recorded there, and why they found the studio to be such a unique place to create their music. The film ends with the demise of the studio and the purchase of the idolized Neve soundboard by Grohl.
In the process of making the documentary, he decided to invite many of the biggest stars who recorded there to collaborate in making new music on the old Neve board. The result was a who’s who of American rock stars joining together to make new music. The soundtrack will be released as an album titled Real to Reel.
The culmination of the recording sessions was a new song in the vein of “Helter Skelter” by Paul McCartney, and a reunion of Grohl and Krist Novoselic, of Nirvana, along with Pat Smear from Foo Fighters, all acting as the legendary Beatles’ backing band.
They played their masterful new song live for the first time in December, as the finale of the massive 12-12-12 Hurricane Sandy relief concert in Madison Square Garden. It was heralded by many music critics as the most spectacular moment of the evening crammed full of legendary rock superstars.
It was in this same spirit that Grohl decided to organize a concert at Sundance to help promote the film. Some of the biggest personas in the movie agreed to sign on, and the three-hour concert boasted such diverse rock stars as Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty and all of the Foo Fighters. The show was such a success that all the major players agreed to repeat it at the Hollywood Palladium last Thursday night.
The few thousand lucky fans arrived early at the standing-room-only venue, and by the time the first musicians appeared about 9:30 p.m., the sold out crowd was packed tightly around the stage.
The Palladium is an old ballroom that looks pretty much the same as it did when it was completed in 1940. The round room, with a giant dance floor, looks like a large concrete bunker from the outside. A narrow upper balcony level surrounds the ground floor, offering a single line standing space for the VIPs above.
Far from glamorous, the gritty downtown venue has been the site of some of the most interesting rock shows in Hollywood history. Just to name a few standouts from memory, Grace Jones descended from the ceiling on a swing one midnight in the 1990s. The Sex Pistols performed their reunion tour there, and Big Audio Dynamite played on their first tour in the ‘80s at the dusty old ballroom. The rich musical history of the venue made it the logical setting for such a special evening of music.
The 3½-hour show began with a set by most of the Foo Fighters, joined by Alain Johannes, who is probably most well known for his collaboration with Queens of the Stone Age. But as a collaborator and live performer with one of the most interesting rock super groups ever assembled, Them Crooked Vultures, the bond with Grohl (drummer for Them Crooked Vultures) was most apparent. Johannes led the group through a four-song set, beginning with “A Trick With No Sleeve,” which Josh Homme wrote and recorded in the film.
Between sets, a movie screen would come down from the ceiling and show clips from the film, relating to each upcoming performance. Drummer Brad Wilk chatted in the next clip about recording Rage Against the Machine’s first album at Sound City. Asked why he recorded there, he responded. “They recorded Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ there.” It was a no-brainer. Then the screen went up and he appeared as the drummer, for the next set.
Johannes switched from guitar to bass, as Chris Goss from Masters of Reality took over the lead guitar and vocal duties. Grohl was the only constant performer during the entire marathon concert, seamlessly moving from guitar to drums to bass several times over the course of the evening.
Longtime Foo Fighters collaborator, keyboardist Rami Jaffee, also played on nearly ever song. Another Foo Fighters collaborator, violinist Jessy Greene, also frequently appeared onstage. Goss, who has produced many of the bands to come out of the Palm Desert scene, including Queens of the Stone Age, opened with the band’s (Master of Reality) only top 10 hit, “She Got Me When She Got Her Dress On.”
Goss was the only constant in the band’s long history, with the legendary Ginger Baker (Cream) taking up the drums for the 1992 album Sunrise on the Sufferbus, which spawned their hit song. With Grohl on drums and Johannes on bass, Goss lead the band in a screaming, ear-piercing four-song set that shook the concrete walls.
The next set was dominated by lead singer and bassist Robert Levon Been and lead guitarist Peter Hayes, both from the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. While Grohl played thundering drums, the two led the band in a three-song jam, drenched with the heavy feedback-infused melodies that have been the San Francisco group’s trademark sound since 1998.
Lee Ving, the godfather of American punk, was up next, bringing the sound of Fear to life, with the Foo Fighters acting as the best backup band the performer has ever had. The stoic and good-natured Ving has kept the Fear band alive in one form or another since 1977, and has enlisted an army of backing musicians over the years. But it is his trademark guttural screaming voice that was captured in Penelope Spheeris’ definitive 1981 American punk music documentary The Decline of Western Civilization that has kept Fear alive all these years.
The elderly statesmen of punk led the band in a lightning-speed six-song set, beginning with the song he recorded with Grohl for the movie, “Your Wife Is Calling.”
The next set was led by one of the most disparate and unlikely match-ups of the evening. Rick Nielsen, the iconic guitar player of Cheap Trick, was joined by metal maven Corey Taylor, the lead singer of Slipknot, and the reclusive bassist of Nirvana, Krist Novoselic.
With Grohl on drums and Pat Smear of Foo Fighters also on board, the group tore through a five-song set, including Cheap Trick classics, and the song that the musicians recorded for the movie From Can to Can’t.
Soap opera star and Australian pop rocker Rick Springfield played the next set. An integral part of the Sound City film, Springfield was one of the biggest success stories of the studio, netting the struggling owners a cool first royalty check for $1 million, from Springfield’s 1981 album Working Class Dog. Springfield won a Grammy for his mega-hit song on the album Jessie’s Girl, which has become a timeless, iconic classic.
In the film, Springfield jokes that the producer of the song didn’t think he could play guitar very well, and they enlisted Pat Benatar’s longtime collaborator guitarist, Neil Gerardo, to play the now-famous riff. Springfield must have been practicing because he can certainly play a mean guitar now, as evidenced in his Sound City performance.
His new and improved capabilities were especially evident in the first of five songs he played in the set, “The Man That Never Was,” which he recorded with Grohl for the movie. The set ended with Grohl joking that Springfield didn’t have anymore songs to play. “Oh, wait”, he said, there is on more. “Rick Springfield, you have a song that people recognize after three f—-ing notes. Congratulations, Rick f—-ing Springfield.”
Then they proceeded to play the pop anthem, “Jessies Girl,” heard in countless discos across the country nearly every weekend. At times Springfield seemed to forget some of the lyrics, asking the audience to fill in with a sing-along, but it didn’t matter to the ecstatic crowd, seemingly suffering no ill effects from sensory overload at the musical smorgasbord.
The evening took a turn toward classic rock with the next set led by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Fogerty, the voice of Creedence Clearwater Revival. The singer and guitar wizard organized a classic jam session, trading licks with Grohl and Smear in a triple-guitar threat, reminiscent of an original Lynyrd Skynyrd jam. Fogerty played seven of his most famous songs, dating as far back as 1969, in the longest set of the night. He even switched to a guitar made from a baseball bat during the latter part of his performance.
The evening ended fittingly with superstar Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac fame. Nicks played a prominent role in the film, beginning with her early days hanging out at the studio with then-boyfriend Lindsey Buckingham. The duo hooked up with the original Fleetwood Mac in a chance encounter, and formed the new version of the band. The group went on to record the studio’s first hit album in 1975, Fleetwood Mac. The album went on to sell 5 million copies, put the recording studio on the map, and made the band’s members superstars.
All of the Foo Fighters joined Nicks in a five-song set that included some of her biggest hits and a song that she recorded with Grohl for the movie. It was a poignant moment in the concert when Nicks introduced the new song, “You Can’t Fix This.” The singer solemnly explained the inspiration for the tune — her teenage Godson, who overdosed last year.
The evening ended more than three hours after it started, with the band playing one of Fleetwood Mac’s most seminal jam songs, “Gold Dust Woman.” It was a fitting end to one of the most remarkable evenings in rock music history. Since the Foo Fighters have announced a long hiatus for their own band, it was also a bittersweet and all the more relevant moment for fans of this stellar jam band as well.
A Trick With No sleeve
She Got Me
Time Slowing Down
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Heaven and All
Red Eyes and Tears
Whatever Happened to My Rock ‘n’ Roll
Your Wife Is Calling
I Love Livin’ in the City
Gimme Some Action
I Don’t Care About You
Rick Nielsen and Corey Taylor
From Can to Can’t
Isn’t That a Shame
The Man That Never Was
I’ve Done Everything for You
Love Is Alright Tonite
Born on the Bayou
Keep on Chooglin’
Bad Moon Rising
Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around
You Can’t Fix This
Gold Dust Woman
— L. Paul Mann is a Noozhawk contributing writer. The opinions expressed are his own.