The walls of Sound City Studios don’t talk; they sing, with the songs of Johnny Cash, Nirvana, Neil Young, Cheap Trick, Fleetwood Mac, Queens of the Stone Age, and the dozens of other great musicians who have recorded at the famed recording studio over the years. Sound City is the focus and name of a new documentary by South by Southwest keynote speaker Dave Grohl, who also solicited a murderer’s row of talent, including Stevie Nicks and John Fogerty, to join his Sound City Players supergroup, who play SXSW tonight.
Both the film and Sound City: Reel to Reel soundtrack — which you can preview/purchase on iTunes — came out this week, so now’s as good a time as any to take a look back at the studio’s history and highlight some of the great albums that have been recorded there. It’s not every day you can mention Tool and Dr. John in the same post.
Artist: Neil Young
Album: After the Gold Rush (1970)
Sound City opened in 1969, and in its debut year, it was the home of two good-to-great albums: Spirit’s “out there, man” Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (good) and Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush (great). In the Sound City movie, Young recalls arriving at the studio for the first time in a smoke-filled hearse with two police officers in pursuit.
Artist: Dr. John
Album: Dr. John’s Gumbo (1973)
Mac Rebennack’s album-length tribute to New Orleans, made up of covers of artists who made their name in the Big Easy, including James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, Willie Hall, and the great Earl King.
Artist: Elton John
Album: Caribou (1974)
Caribou isn’t as fondly remembered as the four albums that came before it — from Madman Across the Water to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road — but it did continue his and Bernie Taupin’s unprecedented hit-making streak. From 1971 to 1974, when Caribou was released, the duo wrote “Tiny Dancer,” “Levon,” “Rocket Man,” “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” “Daniel,” “Crocodile Rock,” “The Bitch Is Back,” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” Jesus. That’ll buy you a lifetime supply of Donald Duck costumes.
Artist: Fleetwood Mac
Album: Fleetwood Mac (1975)
Before there was Rumours and Tusk, there was Fleetwood Mac, the group’s second self-titled album, but first with happy couple Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. I think those kids are gonna make it.
Artist: Cheap Trick
Album: Heaven Tonight (1978)
Cheap Trick has become a bit of a punchline in recent years, likely due to the omnipresent “I Want You to Want Me,” which will annoy FM radio listeners for decades to come. But the so-called “American Beatles” put out some great power pop records, including Heaven Tonight, easily their finest accomplishment. It was also apparently the first album “ever recorded with a 12-string electric bass.” So, history.
Artist: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Album: Damn the Torpedoes (1979)
Tom Petty is one of Sound City’s biggest fans. He’s recorded six albums there (but you probably knew that from the Songs and Music from She’s the One soundtrack liner notes), beginning with 1979’s pumped up Damn the Torpedoes, with three of Petty’s finest singles, “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” and “Don’t Do Me Like That.”
Artist: Pat Benatar
Album: Precious Time (1981)
Fun fact: Precious Time, which peaked at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart and won Pat Benatar a Grammy (for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance for “Fire and Ice”), features the talents of pianist Alan Pasqua, who co-composed the CBS Evening News theme. Remember that for Pat Benatar Trivia Night tomorrow.
Album: The Record (1982)
John Belushi’s favorite SNL stage-trashing punk band recorded their debut at Sound City. (Frontman Lee Ving is interviewed by Grohl in the documentary.) Do yourself a favor and listen to “Beef Bologna” right now.
Album: Nevermind (1991)
Oh, only arguably the greatest album of the 1990s. Here’s an excerpt from a great writeup of Nirvana’s time at Sound City:
On May 2nd, Nirvana and [producer Butch] Vig entered Sound City’s Studio A for sessions that were originally booked for less than three weeks. The band would typically shamble in at around 1PM and work till midnight. If recording proved stressful or tedious, they would blow off steam by playing covers of old ’70s favorites like Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath and Aerosmith (it is not known if these jams were recorded). After work, the band would carouse with friends on Venice Beach till sunrise. “They were in L.A., they’d just signed a record deal with Geffen, they had a bit of cash, so they’d go out and do a little partying,” says Vig. (Via)
Artist: Rage Against the Machine
Album: Rage Against the Machine (1992)
The best (only?) album to successfully merge rap with heavy metal. Definitely the best album cover showing a burning monk.
Album: Undertow (1993)
Tool and Nirvana being on the same list actually makes a lot of sense — both are groups that while great, and Tool would still be considered great if they had stopped after Undertow, caused many an idiot to pick up a guitar and do their best, sh*tty Kurt Cobain and Adam Jones’s impressions. Eh, still worth it for “Bottom.”
Album: Pinkerton (1996)
I know, I was surprised it wasn’t recorded in the back room of an Asian massage parlor, too. Weezer banged out “Pink Triangle,” “Across the Sea,” and “The Good Life,” among others, at Sound City during Rivers Cuomo’s breaks from Harvard, where he enrolled post-Blue Album.
Artist: Johnny Cash
Album: Unchained (1996)
In 1996, the following artists released albums that were recorded at Sound City: Weezer, Tom Petty, Carl Perkins, Tonic, and Johnny Cash, who, with Rick Rubin, put out the second installment of his American Recordings series. The studio was wonderfully all over the place, not unlike Unchained and its twangy Beck, Soundgarden, Jimmie Rodgers, and Dean Martin covers.
Artist: Queen of the Stone Age
Album: Rated R (2000)
Judas Priest’s Rob Halford can be heard on “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” because, according to Nick Oliveri, “We recorded at Sound City in Van Nuys and we were in studio B and he was in studio A and there is only one lounge between the two so whomever is in studio A and studio B you are going to get to talking to each other. He was drum tracking for his new record and we were in B and our producer, Chris Goss, said, ‘Hey man, would you come in and sing on this?’ and Rob was a really nice guy and said, ‘Yeah,’ came in and did it.”
Cool story, bro. No, really, I mean it.
Album: The Hunter (2011)
You can’t kill the metal, the metal will live on.