“Rick Springfield, you have a song that people recognize after three frigging notes. Congratulations, Rick frigging Springfield,” Dave Grohl said on Thursday to his colleague in a new band celebrating the former Van Nuys recording studio Sound City.
Springfield, for his part, looked tickled to be onstage at a sold-out Hollywood Palladium hearing praise from the Foo Fighters frontman seconds into his own 1981 hit “Jessie’s Girl.”
Grohl’s friendly jibe – a mix of jealousy and bonhomie in the dark arts of rock hitmaking - showed the point of his entire Sound City Players project. The show was tied to his new documentary film about the famed, then neglected, then re-famous, then re-neglected studio (it's console now lives in Grohl’s home).
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For the concert, he assembled major artists who recorded there, including members of Fleetwood Mac, John Fogerty, Rage Against the Machine, Fear, Cheap Trick and the survivors of his own Nirvana (Paul McCartney, Tom Petty and Trent Reznor, sadly, only appeared in the film) for a collaborative, song-swapping roundtable, with a new group album recorded on the studio’s famed Neve console coinciding.
The doc and concert posed questions about rock hit-record-making that bands have debated on beer runs and smoke breaks for decades. What does a great studio add to a band? What’s the proper balance between achieving perfection and still sounding like a relatable human? And does expensive in-studio alchemy stand a chance against an era of cutting top 10 hits on your iPad?
Grohl and cohorts made the savvy logistical decision to play the concert minutes after debuting the documentary in the ArcLight’s Cinerama Dome across the street. The film has the same effect that reading Michael Azerrad’s punk biography “Our Band Could Be Your Life” does - you want to go start a band and cut a record the very minute you’re done with it.
Grohl couldn’t have asked for an audience more primed to exalt rock and roll craftsmanship (and given that Grohl has put the Foo Fighters on hiatus, fans knew this might be a last chance to see them play for years).
But they went straight to the L.A. studio-nerd jugular at the start, turning over the first hour of the show to seasoned writers and session pros Alain Johannes (a frequent Queens of the Stone Age collaborator) and Chris Goss (of the band Masters of Reality). Grohl and his bandmates played sidemen here, and though the gesture recognized the behind-scene players of Sound City, the film’s bank of star power took a long time to materialize.
But when it did, the collaborations made for an L.A. rock-dork’s fantasia. There was Fear’s leathery Lee Ving barking the anti-hometown-anthem of “I Love Livin’ in the City,” later followed by the still-beguiling Stevie Nicks, whose decadent band Fleetwood Mac was kind of responsible for punk’s backlash in the first place.
But as Grohl said in the documentary, for all of Nirvana’s punk instincts, “we still wanted to be a good band,” and that’s what Sound City could do – take a good band and make them better, whether you were Fear or Fleetwood Mac.
Grohl and swami-bearded bassist Krist Novoselic had kid-sized grins swapping swamp-soul licks with John Fogerty on “Fortunate Son” and “Proud Mary.” Rick Springfield (the doc’s unlikely emotional centerpiece, as he was the lone hit from the studio’s management division, and had a falling-out with its owners) was perhaps a bit overwhelmed by the occasion, as he forgot whole verses of songs but compensated by delightedly tossing his guitar into the rafters. Springfield proved that Sound City’s magic could yield pop megahits as well as canonical albums - and that both have their virtues in the long arc of making memorable rock and roll.
Appropriately, Nicks closed out the night, as her early work with Fleetwood Mac and Buckingham Nicks made the studio’s reputation. In the “Sound City” film, the sheer volume of hagiography about the good-old-ways of recording could make a younger fan wonder if this project was another bunch of rich old rockers complaining that records sounded better when they were teenagers (the same attitude that first threatened to kill the studio in the digital ‘80s).
But when she and Grohl played “Landslide” as an acoustic duet, the room went church-silent and two fine artists made their case for the studio implicitly. A great room’s only job is to capture great performances, and to judge by that performance, Sound City was clearly a great room.
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