Many of the best music documentaries start with great performances, filmed and edited to explode on the screen. Dave Grohl, the first-time director of Sound City, has done something backwards, obvious and miraculous. He has turned his movie – a two-hour love song to the essential magic of musicians playing together in one room, framed by the story of a once-successful, now-fabled and shuttered recording studio in Van Nuys, California – into a real-life big-rock show, featuring a motley posse of stars who made some of their most important and successful records there.
For the New York stop by his Sound City Players, at Hammerstein Ballroom on February 13th, Grohl – the ex-Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters boss – emphasized the classic rock deep in his bones, stacking the top end of the three-hour concert with mini-sets featuring Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, John Fogerty, Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen and Eighties heartthrob Rick Springfield, all backed by the Foos' industrial-guitar roar. Sound City's part in the Nineties' alternative-rock revolt was duly noted in guest shots by singer-guitarist Alain Johannes – a Grohl confederate in Them Crooked Vultures – and singer-guitarist Chris Goss of the lysergic-metal band Masters of Reality and a producer-player on Sound City records by Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age.
Absent and presumably unavailable: Neil Young, who made his 1970 album, After the Gold Rush, at Sound City and makes some of the most pungent comments about technology and studio communion in Grohl's movie; and Tom Petty, whose 100-plus takes of "Refugee" at Sound City for 1979's Damn the Torpedoes are obsessive legend. Grohl's own first visit to Sound City – in 1991 to make Nevermind with Nirvana – was marked by an opening clip from the film, about the band's long van ride to the studio from Seattle and the gangly exuberance of bassist Krist Novoselic, who handled low-end duties during the Cheap Trick segment.
Hardcore Fun and Stiff Competition
Grunge was still something you scraped off your shoe when the Los Angeles hardcore band Fear cut its signature album, The Record (Slash), at Sound City in late 1981. Singer Lee Ving actually opened his segment at Hammerstein blowing lonesome-train harmonica – the intro to "Your Wife Is Calling," his featured track on the soundtrack album, Sound City: Real to Reel (Roswell/RCA). Ving, who is older than he looks and acts, started as a musician in electric-blues bands in Philadelphia in the late Sixties; he played that harp lick with plaintive, piercing authenticity.
Then the blink-and-you-missed-it fun kicked in, with the Foos' Pat Smear, once of Fear labelmates the Germs, topping the blitz with nostalgic staccato guitar. Ving counted off every song twice as fast as the Foos played it, but the rush was impressive and consistent. "I Love Livin' in the City," "Beef Bologna" and "Foreign Policy," all from the Record, were short and furious, sung by Ving in a pinched, corrosive bleat that sounded undiminished and appropriate for an unrepentant punk of 62.
Rick Nielsen has a couple of years on Ving but still plays and carries on like he's not a day over 1978's Heaven Tonight, which Cheap Trick recorded at Sound City. The Foos rocked tight and hard behind every one of the Sound City Players, but their combination of pop tang and metal surge was especially right for Cheap Trick's original nervy blend of the two in "Stiff Competition" and "Surrender," right down to Grohl's spell in the back, as Bun E. Carlos, and Foos drummer Taylor Hawkins' turn up front, playing Nielsen's usual vocal foil, Robin Zander. Hawkins had the right shredded bawl for "Hello" and the blond hair. The shirtless look and baggy technicolor shorts were closer to Iggy Pop-goes-surfing, but Hawkins' obvious delight – "Is this fantasy camp shit or what?" he declared, laughing before "I Want You to Want Me" – easily trumped his dress code.
Power Pop, Swamp Metal and a Beautiful "Landslide"
It says something about Grohl's gift for collaboration that the best song in Springfield's set was the first, "The Man That Never Was" from the Sound City soundtrack. It was hardly the biggest: Springfield played his MTV-era hits – including "Love Is Alright Tonite," "Jessie's Girl" and "I've Done Everything for You" (the last, weirdly, written by Sammy Hagar) – with cheerful exaggeration, punctuating the Foos' hard-boy bluster with Pete Townshend-style guitar antics. But Springfield sang "The Man That Never Was," a fast, dark jolt that could have come off the last Foos album or a late-period Hüsker Dü platter, like a guy interested in more serious resurrection, with a band of believers at his back.
Fogerty appears in the Sound City film, but every one of the Creedence Clearwater Revival classics he played with Grohl and the Foos was originally recorded elsewhere. Still, if Fogerty's connection to this troupe was tenuous, his pleasure at ramping up the metallic treble lurking in his swamp rock was plain. Fogerty jubilantly traded verses and guitar breaks with Grohl on "Travellin' Band" and "Born on the Bayou" and often jumped into the air when Hawkins hit one of his gun-shot snare accents, as if a joy grenade had gone off under Fogerty's boots. He mentioned, before "Fortunate Son," that he has recorded a new version of the song with the Foos (it appears on Fogerty's imminent set of collaborations, Wrote a Song for Everyone), so this could be a friendship with legs.
The most remarkable thing about Stevie Nicks' closing set was the sudden silence around her during the Fleetwood Mac delicacy "Landslide." Most of the song was just Nicks and Grohl on 12-string acoustic guitar, a late shock in a night otherwise dense with fuzz and flayed-harmony choruses. Grohl is, by nature and charm, a rock dude, but his film gives the right time to the quieter, reflective pop Nicks and others made at Sound City, including her 1973 rarity, Buckingham Nicks, and 1976's Fleetwood Mac. There could have been more of it in this show.
And Nicks' husky alto deserved a greater boost in the PA during the harder stuff, especially her Sound City album feature "You Can't Fix This." But Nicks' inner Janis Joplin-in-sorceress'-lace came out strong, undenied, in the evening's finale, a "Gold Dust Woman" soaked in crying feedback at the start, with Nicks driven by the Foos to a howling, shouted anguish at the end.
"It's not the technology," Fogerty said, of making music and records, in one of the excerpts from Sound City shown during the night. "It's the people." See the film – it is good stories and great fun about a vanished prime. But Grohl did not take his movie on the road. He just brought the players. They did the rest.