Behind some nondescript shrub, next to a factory or freeway overpass, musicians sequester themselves in the San Fernando Valley to change the world of pop.
Here, their milieu isn't a glittering concert stage in front of screaming fans. It's the bunker known as the recording studio, where every hiccup or squeal of feedback is captured for posterity--and possible prosperity.
Much more so than in Hollywood or the Westside, where studios like Capitol Records and Ocean Way are local landmarks, Valley studios go largely unnoticed. But the hits recorded in the relative obscurity of North Hollywood, Burbank or Canoga Park just keep on coming.
Chart-topping albums of the 1990s--such as "Cracked Rear View" by Hootie & the Blowfish, "Nevermind" by Nirvana and "The Chronic" by Dr. Dre--have raised the profile of Valley studios, which industry veterans estimate represent more than half the studios in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
Ellis Sorkin has watched the Valley recording industry blossom around him. Since 1980, he has run Studio Referral Service, a musical matchmaking company, in (where else?) Studio City.
"A lot of times, artists will call me up wanting somewhere sort of away from it all," he said. "There are a lot of places like that up here--but we're still close to everything."
The first full-fledged Valley studios opened in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Some, like Valentine Recording Studios in North Hollywood and American Recording Co. in Calabasas, have managed to survive.
The recording business has never been high-profit, but has become even leaner in recent years because of the proliferation of home studios and stagnating album sales.
As the years went by, factors including lower real estate prices in the Valley and the city's discouraging of professional recording in home studios combined to create the current studio spate. Unlike rock concert venues--where visibility is key--it takes some effort to find the locale where your favorite album took shape. Herewith, a highly selective guide, including the claims to fame of some Valley spots (Thomas Guide and magnifying glass not included):
SOUND CITY STUDIOS
If you ever find yourself cruising the Valley in search of A-list rock stars, just close your eyes and follow the smell of mass-produced beer.
Sound City, a two-room Van Nuys operation tucked in an industrial complex near the Budweiser plant, has witnessed the birth of numerous influential albums in its 33 years.
Woodland Hills resident Tom Petty has recorded there almost exclusively since 1975. Fleetwood Mac gathered at Sound City in the late '70s to form their most successful lineup and promptly created their seminal "Rumors" album.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash are among the artists who have been drawn by the studio's vast main room and vintage console, which was built in England in the 1970s. Guitarist Chet Atkins loved it so much, he signed it in ink.
Sound City's most unforgettable session, in the summer of 1991, involved a scraggly trio from Washington state. For six weeks, Nirvana lived in the decidedly un-posh Oakwood Apartments on Sherman Way and crafted the decade-defining "Nevermind." Along with setting pop music on a grungier path and injecting a punk sensibility into the mainstream, that album cemented the studio's reputation in the industry. "We're a 'vibe studio,' " said manager Shivaun O'Brien, a Sherman Oaks resident.
"We haven't redecorated since 1972. We're in a really bad part of Van Nuys. We're in the back of an industrial complex; you can drive by without seeing us. But a lot of the artists really like the lack of distractions. That gets a lot of them over the hill."
Before "Nevermind" went multi-platinum, Sound City was "dying a slow, painful death," O'Brien said.
The synthesized '80s had overshadowed the rock of previous decades. Neil Young recorded the classic "After the Gold Rush" at Sound City as the '70s began; 10 years later, he was too busy noodling with electronic sounds to return.
Although the '90s are becoming increasingly associated with electronica, Sound City is thriving, especially with new punk and ska bands. Between dates with L7 and Redd Kross, though, the studio still hosts more upscale acts, such as Sheryl Crow and Taj Mahal. "We're not really a fruit-platter, ass-kissing kind of place," O'Brien said. "People know what they're going to get."
Accustomed to blissful anonymity, Rumbo staff members were alarmed by what they heard on the radio in 1990.
A Los Angeles station had broadcast Rumbo's address, informing listeners that Guns N' Roses was busy recording their two "Use Your Illusion" albums. Three years earlier, the band had done the hard-rock staple, "Appetite for Destruction," at Rumbo. Fans--many of whom didn't know Canoga Park from Griffith Park--found their way to the studio and lined up to try to catch a glimpse of Axl Rose or Slash courting inspiration.