All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records

At the Movies Blog
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I probably have 100 great memories going to Tower Records. Seeing an instore performance of the Dresden Dolls; driving up to the Sunset Strip location to meet the legendary Lou Reed; going to the Sports Arena location to interview Queens of the Stone Age when they did a meet-and-greet, and dealing with a bomb threat.

There were also all the albums and CDs I bought. I couldn’t find a Ute Lemper anywhere but there. It’s where I bought my Gilbert & Sullivan box set. You see, the local Duffy’s Records and Tapes in Mira Mesa was fine for my classic rock records, which filled most of my library; but it was Tower Records that had all the other stuff.

And the other people that have told me their great Tower Records stories. One woman saw a stoned Jimmy Page against the wall at the L.A. location, while Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same” was screening nearby.

So heading to the ArcLight in UTC to see a documentary Tom Hanks son Colin directed on the record store…that went from a few used 45s sold in a drug store…to becoming the music mecca that attracted every musician that ever walked the Strip. Hell, who knew Elton John was their biggest customer (after watching him tell the story and seeing him shop there, you won’t doubt it).

I was more impressed seeing Bruce Springsteen, though. His two-cents in the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom was welcome, and he perfectly conveyed what it must be like for rockers to see fans (or future fans) swarming the record bins.

The chain was started by Russ Solomon, who may have gotten a little help from his dad, but he basically did it on his own. He hired cousins and friends, and a lot of people that probably weren’t the best equipped for handling the huge success. These weren’t educated businessmen, but people that liked to do drugs and listen to their records (both on and off the clock).

It’s unfortunate that the 90 minute story started to feel repetitive with the constant staff members as talking heads. I would’ve liked to have heard from more of the musicians. Listening to Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, Nirvana) speak glowingly…and finding out he was an employee…is something special.

The founders always seemed to be in the right place at the right time (no Dr. John refereance intended). That’s amazing considering it started in Sacramento. One employee astutely  points out how all the cities think their location was the first.

They had success opening in the hip San Francisco area, and being right in the hub of music in L.A. during the ‘60s. Customers were moving from hit single 45s, to buying long play albums. FM radio was changing, bands were changing, and even if music genres changed (the rise of punk, disco, grunge), those things all seemed to help the chain. Even MTV and CDs seemed to improve things, not hurt.

Yet Hanks makes this too much of a glowing tribute and doesn’t ask the probing questions. For example, I see Solomon with Ferraris and other cars that he “buys each year.” We also hear about the various women he hires and sleeps with. Hmmmm. I don’t know, maybe we live in a different time now — where we’re disgusted by people like Bill Cosby — so using your fame and fortune to seduce women is more of a turn-off to me.

Listening to the female employee that was able to rise through the ranks…also made you realize just how sexist things were at the company. They’re lucky the women all loved their jobs and never decided to sue, but again…some topics were just glossed over for a fun nostalgia trip.

Why wasn’t more time given to why VP Bud Martin, probably the smartest of the staff (and the one who often said “no” to Solomon) who was forced out?

It was interesting hearing about Napster and how downloading hurt record stores, and also realizing why expansion doesn’t always equal success in the business world.

I didn’t think enough time was spent dealing with the marketing side of things, especially since they were often told they could do what they want. And every music lover remembers going in and being so impressed with the elaborate displays they had (Grohl tells a story about the Nirvana album and a real dollar bill dangling in front of the baby).

This is only playing locally at the ArcLight in La Jolla, and if you were a music lover that enjoyed those trips to Tower — head out and see it before it’s gone.

It could’ve been better, but any film that plays T. Rex and the great George Harrison title track — deserves to be seen by the rock fans.

3 stars out of 5.

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