It’s impossible not to think of Tower Records when referring to the Sunset Strip. It’s even more impossible to accept that the beloved store once located at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Horn Avenue is no longer in business.
I recently had dinner with a friend not too far from the old Tower location. As we were paying our bill, we discussed what we should do next. I joked that we should walk down to Tower Records and browse through rows and rows of LPs and cassettes, then head across the street to Tower Video to rent the latest release (most likely on VHS).
I wish it wasn’t just a fantasy. You see, Tower Records was more then just a record store, It was a musical rite of passage. It’s where kids graduated to die-hard music fans. I spent my very first allowance money on Blondie and Devo records. I’ll never forget the anticipation of rushing home to get them on the turntable! My friends and I would remove the cellophane from new records before we even got to the car. Even the store’s parking lot had its own identity. On weekends, there was so much pandemonium that fistfights broke out over available parking spots. It was the hub of the Strip, located directly across from the original Spago and a few blocks east of the Rainbow Bar and Grill and the Whisky a Go Go. It’s where rock stars mingled with locals and tourists; it wasn’t uncommon to bump into Robert Plant, Stevie Wonder, Robert Stigwood, Ella Fitzgerald, Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, Elvis Costello, Robert Evans, Smokey Robinson or even George Burns in the aisles. I once witnessed Valerie Bertinelli (who had just married guitarist Eddie Van Halen) turn Van Halen’s “JUMP” record around to reveal her hubby’s photo, and I eavesdropped on David Bowie discussing English imports at the info booth that doubled as a DJ station at the center of the store. John Lennon even recorded a voiceover for this Tower Records commercial:
Tower Records was a music business melting pot. But the employees (some of which were in soon-to-be-famous bands themselves) were the main attraction. They knew everyone’s name, what music they liked, and what car they pulled up in. Axl Rose, a Tower Video employee, once shoved a flyer for his new band Guns & Roses, which was playing down the block at Gazzarri’s, into my bag. In 1976 Elton John told Playboy that if he weren’t a rock star, he would have wanted to be a Tower Records alumni.
Some of us teenagers dropped by five times a week since the store couldn’t keep the latest singles in stock. Prince’s “Purple Rain” was consistently sold out, but if you were in with one of the employees, they would hold a copy for you.
Tower Records, which stayed open until 1 a.m. on weekends, was a music venue, too. Hundreds of musicians including Rod Stewart, Randy Newman, and XTC performed live inside the store, and thousands of fans wrapped around the L-shaped parking lot to get in when Aerosmith, Keith Richards, Dolly Parton, James Brown, Duran Duran, and Brian Wilson stopped by to sign records. David Lee Roth shut the Strip down for several hours when he rappelled down a replica of the Matterhorn built on the record store’s roof to deliver his album “Skyscraper.” Alice Cooper drove up in a huge trash truck to deliver “Trash.”
The music mecca shaped my youth and will always be a part of my soul. It’s hard not to get misty-eyed thinking back on it now. (Thankfully, I saved a dozen of my Tower Records red and yellow vinyl bags. Today they are about as desirable as collectible records.) That’s why I am personally relieved and thankful to Colin Hanks for raising enough funds via Kickstarter to make his latest passion project: a feature documentary that will keep Tower Records’ legend alive.
All Things Must Pass examines the iconic company’s rise and fall and profiles its rebellious founder, Russ Solomon. After watching an exclusive cut of the film, I can say it’s the closet thing to a time machine. The images and archival footage are spellbinding. I could almost smell the vinyl through my screen. In addition to bringing the store back to life, the documentary taught me its backstory: Tower Records began in a Sacramento drugstore owned by Russ Solomon’s father, and Solomon opened his second outpost on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco in 1968. Two years later Tower Records opened on the Sunset Strip, taking over the site where “Madman” Muntz had sold the very first car stereos. Solomon eventually opened 189 stores around the world, and the franchise made $1 billion dollars by 1999. Then things took a dramatic turn: In 2006, the company filed for bankruptcy.
People blame the Internet for, among other things, Tower’s demise. iTunes, the illegal downloading of music, and YouTube may have contributed to the chain’s closing, but that’s not the full story. Hanks—who will premier All Things Must Pass at SXSW in Austin, Texas on March 17 before screening the film at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles on March 25—filled me in:
Every time I post photos of Tower Records on my Vintage Los Angeles Facebook page I receive an emotional response. Why do you think that is?
Everybody has his or her own emotional connection to music. At its height Tower was a place you bonded with friends over music, and people’s fond recollections are the residue of those relationships. It was one of those places that transcended being a normal record store. They accepted everyone. It didn’t’ matter how you looked. It didn’t matter how you dressed. It didn’t matter what you sounded like or what music you liked. Everyone was welcome.
How did the documentary get started?
I had a very similar emotional response [to the store’s demise] since I grew up in Sacramento and Tower originated there. I was having dinner with a family friend in 2006 when the stores were closing and I was living in New York at the time. My friend walked by the Lincoln Center store on the way to meet me and we got on the subject of Tower Records closing. At the end of the conversation she said, “Hard to believe it all started in that tiny little drug store,” and I said, “Excuse me? What are you talking about?” She filled me in on Russ Solomon and how he started selling used 78’s out of his father’s drugstore in the ‘40s and ‘50s and a light bulb went off. The story starts there and ends with him closing all his stores four decades later. That’s a pretty amazing journey for one guy. I’m also a huge music fan and have my own personal recollections of going into Tower and applying to work there and not getting the job. I remember seeing 50 applications in front of mine.
It just seemed like an interesting story for a documentary. I didn’t know who the characters were, I didn’t know what the real story was, but it seemed like a place to start.
Tell us about the process of getting this film off the ground and your seven-year journey making it.
It’s been a long journey, that’s for sure. We started gathering money to shoot stuff in 2008. I went up to Sacramento on a lark to talk with Russ and asked him if he would tell us his story, and I drove by the old Tower Records store at the corner of Watt Avenue and El Camino Avenue. The sign was still up and all the racks were still inside. It was basically still intact, just without the records! I frantically gathered as much money as I could so that we could at least shoot the store and the first round of interviews. Then I spent a great deal of time trying to raise funds to finish the film. We were politely laughed out of rooms—well, not really—but we did have a few pitch meetings with production companies and financiers. Companies like Lehman Brothers and were going under because the recession had just hit, so nobody wanted to make a documentary about a business that declared bankruptcy when pretty much everyone was going bankrupt. So I put the project on hold until Kickstarter came around. That really saved us!
I can’t wait to hear about the stories you documented.
We spoke to so many people—former employees, musicians, artists. What’s a bit unfortunate is a lot of these great anecdotes you hear about Tower Records are personal stories, and you can’t make a movie of just hundreds of those. You have to find the narrative. You have to find your characters. The film is about the family that came together around Russ to help make Tower what it was.
Last year a few friends of mine were on a crusade to turn the Sunset Strip location into a Sunset Strip museum while you were filming.
We were there! We even filmed the City Hall meeting. But we couldn’t work that footage into the movie. I think Gibson [which will be over Tower Records’ old Sunset Strip site] is going to be really great torchbearers for that location. We have been speaking to them quite a bit and they’ve been very helpful. Having them take over that scared space is exciting and makes sense.
How do you think younger generations, who aren’t growing up in record stores, will respond to your film?
I don’t know, because I think this is the moment were the rubber meets the road. I have to embrace the fact that I’m of an older generation now. But there’s always going to be those “cool kids” that collect records and pass them along. Good music always finds its way into the hands of the people that want it. There are some really awesome records stores out there like Amoeba and some smaller boutique ones around town. I think as long as people support record stores, that’s the key.
How does it feel to be premiering your movie at South By Southwest?
SXSW was always where we wanted to premiere the film. They had a popular Tower Records [in Austin], and I’ve always dug the festival. We saw a window of opportunity and knew we needed to finish the film so we could get it there in time. I just can’t wait for the film to finally be seen!
The Grammy Museum screening in Los Angeles is really going to be fun. We have some very cool things planned for that. I want fans of music to be able to see this movie. I hope that everyone who went to Tower and has their own connection with it enjoys it. And I hope that everyone who worked there is reminded of good memories. Hopefully we were able to capture the essence of what Tower was really like.
Alison Martino is a writer, television producer and personality, and L.A. pop culture historian. She founded the Facebook page Vintage Los Angeles in 2010. In addition to CityThink and VLA, Martino muses on L.A’s. past and present on Twitter and Instagram