Tuesday, 4 March 2014

A Man And A Mixing Desk

Dave Grohl's documentary Sound City finally made it to the top of my viewing pile this week. I always like to see men waxing romantic about music and geeky things like mixing desks (one of my favourite bits of TV ever is Sir Terence Conran crying about Concorde being decommissioned), and Sound City has that in spades.

The first hour is a comprehensive history of the studio and all the classic work that was done there, but it's shot through with curiously muddled invective against modern recording technology and practice. Is it specifically Pro Tools Grohl and co. hate? Because you can make instant edits on screen and don't need an experienced engineer to scrub a 2" tape back and forth? (The film eats that cake too by focusing on how "Slow Tools" used to take an hour to render an edit in 1991). Because it tempts you into not committing to any ideas or performances and saving it all for the mix? (I agree with that one). Or is it the solo way of working that it engenders? (Wasn't the first Foo Fighters album an almost entirely one-man operation? That didn't turn out too bad.)

What totally wrongfooted me was the reveal half-way through the film that Grohl had bought the studio and saved it from closure the one moveable thing of serious monetary value from the studio and taken it away. The people who worked there, the family feel, the kind, visionary management, all are praised throughout the movie, but ultimately it feels like the film is telling us that those aren't the most important things after all. After the beloved Neve 8028 is moved out we never revisit the old studio, we never even discover it's ultimate fate. The film is essentially a love story between a man and a mixing desk and nothing is going to get in its way.

Several times Grohl and others point out how working with restricted technology, older tape machines and so forth, gave their work an immediacy, a focus. But they're missing the most obvious restrictions that enable creativity to flourish; time and money. In moving that desk into his own place, Grohl essentially has all the free studio time he wants. And most of the music in the second half of the film proves that that's not always a good thing. None of the tracks are awful by any means, just... unmemorable. I couldn't hum one of the tunes now 48 hours after watching the film, except perhaps Lee Ving's Your Wife is Calling, the tightest, least improvised number. As the joyous footage of boys (and Stevie Nicks) with toys shows, all the noodling around is great fun, but that feeling doesn't always translate into great records. Even McCartney's number is forgettable—I love the man, and his commitment to musical experimentation, but he's a bit embarrassing here. Sorry Macca.

All in all a miss I think. And it's a shame because Grohl is obviously a great guy and passionate about what he does. But the film seems more interested in nuts and bolts than rock and roll, and that's an impression which does its creator a disservice.

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