Men. We do like our gadgets, don’t we? Of course we do. And the more things that a gadget has to tinker about with in a knowing fashion (“knowing”, usually meaning “what happens when I do this?” – generally leading to “honest, it was like that before I came in” mumbled excuses), the better it is, because Tinkering has long since replaced Hunter/Gathering in our genetic makeup, much to the annoyance of everyone else.
And now, after some confusing jiggerypokery regarding the way that our much-loved Transatlantic chums do their dates the wrong way round which had me all excited for watching this on the 2nd of January, Dave Grohl’s paean to a particular mixing desk is finally available to view.
Sometime during the first ten minutes of this strangely moving tale, the viewer is absolutely bombarded with a succession of famous faces reeling off famous records by more famous people, shortly after a brief description of the studio itself by people who talk with genuine affection for the place but also with a sense of relief that it had been latterly tidied up a bit since the times when the car park used to flood and send a wave up through the hallway. It’s a really weird assault on the senses, as on the one hand you have all these people telling you what a dump it is, and on the other an honour roll of the great and the good (and notable others) who had platinum albums hanging on the brown shagpile-carpeted (mmm) walls. And I guess that’s the point of this whole story – the realism of the surroundings at one end of the story were just as much a part of the glamour of Sound City as the shiny multimillion-selling discs were at the other, if not more so. Shiny records in frames are all well and lovely, but ultimately it’s the history behind the shiny baubles that is more engrossing and involving than the decoration at the end of them, and it all revolves around this now-archaic but still much-loved piece of kit in the middle of it.
The subject of the tale of Sound City was, for an incredibly long time, its literal heart – a Neve Console (an 8028, to be exact), custom-built with the Kevin Costneresque sole intention of getting people in to make records with it. When finally introduced to the watching masses, it’s shot in tantalising soft-focus with slow camera pans across its beknobbed surface. This is analog gadget-smut at its finest and it will never get any better than this, a sentiment shared by suitable accompanying breathy adulation from the likes of Butch Vig, Neil Young, Josh Homme, John Fogerty and Barry Manilow as the camera cuts away from these talking heads every now and then for another sneaky peek. All of this is soon balanced out by the appearance of Rupert Neve explaining to a rapt Grohl how everything works, sparing neither his interviewer nor audience from the technical details in that lovely eccentric English professorial manner of assuming that everyone he speaks to is also as clever as he is (we’re not, but that doesn’t matter at all).
There’s certainly a lot of history in the studio itself, but it’s all woven around this console. People talk about their past and the work they have achieved (and there are some HUGE names taking part here), but instead of the usual music doc shenanigans involved with talking about themselves (usually involving someone sitting there with an acoustic guitar on their knee, desperate to be asked about how they came up with the intro for some bloody song or other), they talk about what the studio and the Neve Desk did for their sound. This is exemplified by Dave himself in a section devoted to how drum sounds are achieved and perfected by reproducing his work on a particular song from his past, intercut with his younger self performing the original – a genuinely moving moment for a section explaining the technical aspects of sound engineering. Even the narrative arc that follows the film from start to finish in fine cinematic up-down-up-down-up tradition has this analog piece of studio furniture as both victim and hero of the times it inhabited.
For all the technical fripperies and celebrity eulogies for a building and the machine inside it, it’s an incredibly human film that is about the people who have this bizarre symbiotic relationship with this weird table and the building in which it once stood. Its importance may have hitherto been somewhat unknown (a better word might be ignored), but anyone – everyone – who watches this film will instantly dive into their own record collection and find several of their favourites that they now know was made at that desk, listen to each and every one all over again and each and every one of those records will sound warmer and better than before because there’s all this other stuff from all these other people in there that makes the ears that little bit more attuned and that makes the heart beat that little bit faster. the Neve has a new home now, and the lengthy epilogue is fittingly dedicated to it being put to work in Dave’s studio, with many of the disparate players from Sound City’s eclectic past coming together to make a new record that sounds wonderful (a Grohl/Homme/Reznor track entitled Mantra is simply incredible), and ensures that this story is something that is an ongoing process rather than a historical document.
There’s always a danger inherent in letting musicians talk about their craft, as mostly it’s them telling the rest of us how bloody hard it is and how we wouldn’t understand. Not here, as it’s a film designed to strip the mystique away from making records in a way to encourage people to immediately run off and have a go for themselves – going so far as actually saying what it is a producer does, a job description usually only hinted at darkly by people who have ever worked with one. It’s an hour and three quarters absolutely stuffed with enthusiasm, humanity and bloody good music. Highly recommended, please head off over here to find out more, and then go and form a band.