Tower Records was once the place where many gathered to hear great new music, tell their friends about a record they just heard and, most importantly, to purchase it. Tower Records was the place where Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl worked the register while Elton John perused the racks, buying everything in triplicate — one for each house. Here, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll was a reality. No art was created in these aisles, but it was sold. In a Tower Records, the American Dream became reality, not in blood, sweat and tears, but in dollars and cents.
This intersection of community and commerce provides the basis for All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, a loving documentary from Colin Hanks about the life and death of Tower Records. Hanks — known as an actor, but here proves to be an engaging interviewer — has crafted a lament for the retail outlet. The box store didn’t just excel in the business practice of “stack ’em deep and sell ’em cheap,” but it proved to be a sacred space for music lovers to congregate. As Bruce Springsteen puts it: “Everybody in a record store is a little bit of your friend, for 20 minutes or so.”
Tower Records started in Sacramento in 1960 when Russ Solomon broke from his father’s drug store to sell LPs. The rise of rock ‘n’ roll made Tower profitable, but what made it mythical was the love that Solomon and his staff brought. That adoration for the music kept Tower going, and kept Tower expanding — from the West Coast, to Japan, to the East Coast, on to England and then South America. Like many retailers, Tower grew faster than it could support, and while those with a love for the product operated the initial stores, the same could not be said for those that came later. And like all these stories always seem to go, the suits and the banks came in and spoiled the party.
Of course, it took more than the suits and bankers to bring down Tower Records, and Hanks spends a fair amount of All Things’ run time trying to understand how Tower could have a billion dollars in sales in 1999 and file for bankruptcy in 2006. The answers are typical: online streaming, bad business practices, too much too soon, etc. But as the talking heads interviews reveal, the music business and the retail business seemed to make every wrong turn in the process. These decisions not only sank Tower, they crippled the record industry.
The fall of Tower Records is sadly familiar, but what gives All Things Must Pass its teeth is Hanks’ doggedness to understand the confluence of events necessary to sink an empire. The record stores are gone, as are most of the video stores, and the bookstores are sure to follow as more consumers move online, but what exactly is lost in the process? It wasn’t just a store that was lost, but a little bit of the American way of life.