Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Twenty Feet From Stardom

These two documentary titles fit together nicely, as you’ll see.

Add to these “Muscle Shoals” and “Sound City”—two more great music industry documentaries—and you get a fascinating look at the pop music recording industry in the pre-digital age.

Two themes dominate: First are the stories about the unsung, so to speak, singers and studio musicians standing in the shadows, twenty feet from stardom, busily going about making artists either famous or even more famous.

And boy, were they busy. According to the documentary credits, the Motown studio musicians informally known as the Funk Brothers played on more hit records than Elvis, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones—combined.

Speaking of the Rolling Stones, they thought enough of an anonymous group of studio musicians and the “magic” of a particular building to travel to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record some of their best-known stuff. So did a constellation of pop music stars. If the first theme is the people, then the second theme is the place.

Thumb your collection of 70s rock and roll albums (you still have your vinyl record collection, don’t you?) and see how many times you see “Recorded in Muscle Shoals” or something like that. Same goes for all the Motown hits—they all came from one place, backed by the same musicians.

If what can be seen in the documentaries is any indication, the physical facilities weren’t scientifically designed spaces with ultimate acoustic perfection. Actually, they looked like dumps. But these studios had a certain something that made for a great sound. The important thing to note about the recording industry in the analogue age is the fact that, dump or not, the recording studio was a place people went to, as a group, to record.

As a cathedral of sound, the Sound City studio in L.A. had its own altar, you might say, that many recording artists almost literally worshipped: the legendary Neve hand-wired analogue mixing console designed by the English electronics engineer Rupert Neve, for high-end recording studios during the 1970s.

Digital tools have eliminated such analogue consoles and have made the presence of all musicians, producers, and recording engineers at the same studio, at the same time, an option rather than a requirement. But to many, that’s not an improvement.

My friend Wayne is an attentive student of this stuff, and he describes the change well: “Another really good documentary is ‘Sound City’ about the Sound City recording studio in California. Among the big groups that recorded there were Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Fleetwood Mac. It’s really a shame that recording studios are dying out. Today, everything’s being done digitally. It used to be a band would get in a studio and play a song live until they got a take they and the engineer were happy with. They might go back and dub additional parts, but for the most part it was the band all in the studio together. Now they might have the guitar player do a track  and then have the vocalist add his part, sometimes two thousand miles away. The other parts are added one at a time without the musicians ever being in the studio together. With Pro Tools they tweak it until every part is perfect, but they take all the soul out of it.”

Neil Young has a lot to say on the subject of soulless music in the digital days, and he says it emphatically in “Muscle Shoals.” Young and many others think the digital recording algorithms are fundamentally flawed and have degraded the recorded quality of music. The surface noise of vinyl records may be gone, but gone with it are the warmth and hard-to-describe sound quality of having the entire waveform (and not just a sampling of it) present on the recording.

With about 2,500 vinyl albums in my own collection, I stand with Mr. Young. And don’t get me started on what we gave up with the demise of the record jacket…