I was born in 1971, which means I lived through the crucial transition of adolescence in the second half of the 80. The story I share here happened in Montevideo, Uruguay. In 1984, I received a radio cassette recorder as a gift. My dream was to be able to record music on the radio. My close friends Marcos and Pablo had their own boomboxes, and together, we amassed a collection of tapes filled with current hits and classic tunes. Pablo’s father was an electronics technician, and with a lot of effort, he built us a mixing board with his hands. That is how we became amateur DJs. Soon enough, we were setting music for house parties, whether for fun or for a few bucks.
We had to rent speakers for the night but had everything else: music tapes, players, and our hallowed mixing board.
A strike of luck provided us an FM transmitter, so we started a radio. We called it Universe FM, a radio station without frontiers (the reach was a little more than 1 kilometer). Alejandro, Pablo’s younger brother, joined the project. We spend hours as DJs and radio hosts, getting a lot of experience out of reach for most kids. Here, we took a big step forward: to get our first turntable and records to go with it. We took this mission very seriously.
A bit later, with a little help from our parents, we had a Technics SL-1200MK2, to this day, considered the best professional turntable of all history, matched with a humble, locally made second turntable. They made an odd couple but managed to work together just fine.
The best turntable: the Technics SL-1200MK2 / Photo courtesy of Creative Commons
We began our pilgrimage through the record stores. In Montevideo, a city of a little more than 1.5 million, there was a single big record store: El Palacio de la Música. You could find anything, but mostly, they had locally pressed discs, and the sound was not the best. At the shopping centers that were all the rage back then, we found smaller, independent stores selling the kind of records we wanted: imported records, vinyl from Europe - usually from England - and the US. The sound was outstanding, and so was the price. We started working very young, and all our earnings went to buy records.
The experience of going into a record shop is like stepping into a library. There is a unique scent to it. Now that I am over 50 years old, I look back fondly to those days when I spent hours looking for a single record to buy. I still keep them. I have more than 150. At some point, they almost pushed me into divorce when my wife had it with my record hoarding. She does not understand that they were my first love. Add up to the tally 50 singles, 45rpm records with a single song on each side.
I can remember as if it were yesterday the purchase of my first record: “Dire Straits," the first record by the eponymous British band, which included the classic “Sultans of Swing.” For record stores to exist, there had to be music fans around. Those who loved the cardboard scent of the sleeve and the weight of the record in our hands. The music you could touch. Why am I telling you all this? Because All Things Must Pass, Colin Hank’s documentary on the rise and fall of Tower Records pushed me down memory lane. And now, turn the record over and get the critical rundown of this documentary, now available at Popflick. ‑Gustavo Beitler
The enjoyment of art can be such a profound and emotional experience that we cannot help but romanticize the process by which we get access to it. The ritual of consumption melds with the thing itself we enjoy. That is why those who grew up with theaters as our principal source of movies fret at the prospect of streaming displacing the big screen for good. A similar thing happens with music, as evidenced by All Things Must Pass.
The 2015 documentary follows the rise and fall of Tower Records through the testimony of founder Russ Solomon and his cadre of colleagues and a healthy dose of star power. Elton John reminiscences about his weekly visits to the Los Angeles store. Bruce Springsteen shares the awe of finding a place where his music finally got to the people's hands. Alas, the real stars here are the veterans who rose through the company ranks, from clerks behind the counter to suits in the executive suite.
Russ Solomon at the inauguration of Tower Records New York Store in 1983, as seen in "All Things Must Pass". / Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.
The camaraderie and warmth come through in the interviews, conveyed in a traditional talking-heads setup, spiced up with vintage photographs and video b-roll. The love is so overwhelming that the movie risks becoming a flashy PR stunt, a deluxe attraction to close down a corporate retreat. Luckily, director Colin Hanks - yes, son of Tom - and writer Steven Leckart frame the history of the corporation as a filter through which to analyze the evolution of music commerce, distribution, and final enjoyment.
Enough historical and technical context gives us some insight into the music business evolution. As the rags-to-riches story careens to its third act, it becomes an unexpected cautionary tale about globalization, debt-happy capitalism, and a blistering indictment of how greed can be at odds with art. As good as the business gets, it is always evident that Solomon and his merry underlings loved their work and taking music to the masses.
At its peak, the company had 200 locales in 15 countries. Even if you did not set foot inside a Tower Records store, you can enjoy the film as a time capsule of music history. Solomon began selling used jukebox 45rpm vinyl at the family drugstore in Sacramento, California. This modest enterprise grew as the distribution methods evolved through vinyl LPs, cassettes, CDs, and MP3. When Napster appears, you get the same chills that an arch-enemy provides in the last act of a thriller. The difference is that you know there is no happy ending in sight.
Top of the world, before the fall: Solomon in "All Things Must Pass" / Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.
Or is there? Spoiler alert, as if it were necessary. The Solomon-led Tower Records closed down in 2006. When Hanks premiered his documentary in 2015, it was a distant memory. The movie played like a piece of nostalgia. The retail brand lives on in Japan and other territories where local business groups bought the assets before the meltdown. In 2020, the Tower Records brand relaunched. There is an online retailer and a location called Tower Labs in Brooklyn, New York, which identifies as a “creative hub for musicians”.
Full disclosure: I got a taste of the bricks-and-mortar Tower Records experience for a couple of years in the late 90 while attending grad school in Boston. Therefore, I can tell you that the movie works well conveying the hang-out culture and the mystique the record store held. Of course, this was not exclusive to Tower Records. It lives on through the network of independent retailers that persist against the odds. Even vinyl LPs are back in vogue. All things must pass, until they come back. ‑Juan Carlos Ampié
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