“All Things Must Pass” is a documentary directed by actor Colin Hanks that tells the story of beloved giant Tower Records. The saga of charismatic founder Russ Solomon’s meteoric rise can obviously be read in many places online, but what the well-paced “All Things Must Pass” provides is the heart of the story: blunt, heartfelt accounts from the chain’s executive team, most of whom started out as hard-partying clerks in the early days, and became a family.
It also has earnest testimony from Elton John and Bruce Springsteen, both amusingly credited as “Singer Songwriter”, in case we didn’t know. (Dave Grohl is credited as “store clerk” because he worked there.) The film deftly interweaves the talking heads with old photos and footage, as well as plenty of great music.
Sprouting from his father’s idea of selling used records out of the family drugstore in Sacramento, Solomon dreamed up a “supermarket” of records, and Tower locations were the first record stores anywhere near that size. He was a lover of new ideas, and frequently drew on the creativity of his employees for the stores’ aesthetic and atmosphere. The upward mobility of the stores’ clerks was really impressive; “totally nuts” Mark Viducich went from the shipping and receiving department to opening up the first location in Japan, mostly just because he was willing, and became VP of Operations in Japan and CEO of Distribution. (He’s still sporting a ’70s mustache too, apparently.) VP of Tower Books Operations Heidi Cotler started out as the first female clerk to “work out”, facing rampant ’70s sexism including enforced short skirts, and COO Stan Goman claims he personally laid down most of the floor in the Sunset location.
The reasons for Tower’s downfall include over-expansion that led to serious debt, coinciding with the retirement of Solomon’s accounting manager Bud Martin, who had just barely reined in the spending over the years. File-sharing, of course, was the final blow, and it’s interesting to watch the breakdown of events that led to its takeover (which I’ve also read about recently in several articles). A super-short version is that the record labels’ dissolution of CD singles forced people to buy full albums even if they only liked one song, and CDs were so expensive that people flocked to Napster when it arrived.
It’s painful to watch the executive team discuss the bank takeover, which led to the sale of Tower in Japan (but perhaps that was best, because it’s still going strong over there) and the ruthless laying off of the whole family. Nine years have passed and yet several of them become tearful when they speak of it. One of Solomon’s closing comments seems poignant, however: “That’s the past. There’s no way we can change that. Let’s think about what to do in the future”.
Probably because we moved a lot when I was growing up, I never had one major record store to fall in love with the way many people feel about Tower; I recall the Tower Records on Sunset as an intimidating spot where we went to buy concert tickets in high school. But Amoeba has become my go-to record store as an adult, and by the time I finished watching “All Things Must Pass”, I immediately felt the urge to go there. So I laughed to see Colin Hanks’ wish in the press notes that, “At the end of the day, I hope it makes everyone want to go directly to their local record store.” He certainly accomplished that.
Image courtesy of Sunshine Sachs