On a visit to London as a teenager I remember heading into a record store on Piccadilly Circus with distinctive red and yellow signs, Tower Records. In my naivety I assumed this was a one-off store as it didn’t feel like part of a major chain like the HMV and Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street did.
Of course I now know better and, in his Kickstarter funded documentary All Things Must Pass, Colin Hanks recounts the story of Tower Records from its inception in Sacramento in 1960 to its demise in 2006 and beyond.
The man behind Tower was Russ Solomon and here he is the linchpin of the story, as it seems he was of the company, appearing in a series of interviews tracing the company’s history and coming across as a kind of spiritual guru of the record retail business.
Other members of staff who joined the company in this early years as it grew from Sacramento to San Francisco and the Los Angeles are also interviewed building up this image of Solomon. In a lot of cases this kind of reverence for, essentially, a businessman would feel somewhat contrived but here I was left with the sense that actually Solomon was all he comes across as, including some dubious financial decisions during the companies rapid expansion in the 1980s and 90s.
The story that Solomon began is portrayed here as a kind if last hurrah for the American Dream and again this comes across with a refreshing lack of cynicism, giving the feeling that Tower really was the a local music store on an international scale.
A collection of archive photos and videos of the store’s various early locations, particularly its original location in Sacramento and the San Francisco ‘superstore’ at Columbus and Bay (now somewhat depressingly a Wallgreen’s chain pharmacy), really help build this image of ‘classic America’.
These shots of the old stores are a fascinating view back into the heyday of the record store with vinyl stacked floor to ceiling and flying off the shelves.
In its telling the film is relatively run of the mill with a collection of talking heads telling the story with the help of some well-chosen archive footage and some celebrity extras (here including former staff member Dave Grohl, they let him keep his hair style, and the self-proclaimed man who spent more than anyone else at Tower Records, Elton John, who seems genuinely emotional about his memories of buying seemingly every album ever).
What elevates it though is the sense of genuine feeling that comes through, particularly when the companies first 30 years are being discussed by the staff, who tell stories of all night parties and just how the gap between customers and staff was all but non-existent as the stores acted as meeting places and community centres for music lovers in their respective towns and cities.
As the film continues into the 90s Tower Records appears to act as a microcosm of the problems facing the record industry with cultural changes around music listening habits being poorly handled, though it’s refreshing to see many of the original Tower team embracing new ways of listening while the issues these caused and poor handling is levelled at the ‘industry’ not Tower or its guru who, well into his 70s here, seems just as positive and enthusiastic as when the store first opened.
This sense of positivity and enthusiasm pervades the film until the credits role, despite the collapse and closure of Tower Records in 2006, making what could be a nostalgic but ultimately melancholy story become something uplifting and celebratory of what may be a largely lost era but one that still means a lot to many.
And it’s always good to remember the slogan adopted from their expansion in Japan… No Music, No Life.