When I walked into my very first Tower Records, I could hear the echoes of my footsteps. The bright fluorescent lights were so harsh, I had to squint to case the joint; only empty shelves and bare walls stared back at me. It was like the mall the day after Christmas, but worse. Needless to say, my first trip to Tower would be my last. The company was bankrupt.
While Tower Records started in the back room of a small town pharmacy, it eventually grew to be a retail powerhouse with 200 stores in 30 countries across 5 continents. But it wasn’t your standard big box, Best Buy bullshit: Tower was for audiophiles. It was a meeting place for the counterculture, a store that struck a chord at the time and stood for something. In “All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records,” director Colin Hanks tells its story from its meager beginning, to its exponential rise to fame and eventual destruction of a legacy.
Founded in Sacramento, Calif., it was owner, Russ Solomon, and his hippie, loose management style that made Tower Records so special. With help from many of his former employees, Solomon recaps the story of Tower Records, which is a combo tale of wide successes and devastating failure. The store employed a special breed of slackers, music fans and family members who all had their ears to the ground, quickly helping the brand earn its renowned credibility. Riding the wave of 60’s culture, alongside major releases like The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Tower Records was able to transform this street cred into dollar signs, rapidly growing its success throughout the state, and not much later, the nation and world.
Also notably important was the 60’s party culture and zeitgeist. Tower created a vibe and social experience that rang loudly throughout the areas it served, while also becoming an ally to the music industry. Not only did Solomon allow each store’s employees to select its inventory, giving them a sense of control, ownership and accountability in the business, but a consistent work hard-play harder spirit was ingrained throughout the brand, in all of its stores. Some employees even expensed “hand truck fuel” (jargon for cocaine) to help get them through overnight inventory checks and wild post-shift parties. The culture established at Tower was unlike anything we’ll ever see again. It was the right place at the right time; a time when music was greatly affecting the direction of society and a time when many music fans were seeking community. Tower Records was that community.
There are even love letter style-interviews from celebrity musicians including former Tower employee Dave Grohl and former Tower enthusiast Sir Elton John, both of whom were just as smitten with the retailer as its executives and staff were.
“Tuesday mornings, I would be at Tower Records,” John says in the film. “And it was a ritual, and it was a ritual I loved. I mean, Tower Records had everything. Those people knew their stuff. They were really on their ball. I mean, they just weren’t employees that happened to work at a music store. They were devotees of music.”
It’s this devotion that makes the company’s eventual bankruptcy such a heartbreaking event, which in turn adds to the film’s powerfully (and surprisingly) emotional ending. Its a story that makes viewers yearn for a similar experience and strive for happiness in life, in a career, in music and beyond. Hearing these people eulogize these brick and mortar establishments makes you grieve for a simpler time, one where people congregated at places, rather than behind screens; a time when people dedicated attention to full albums, while sharing discourse about how music was fueling society’s various revolutions. “All Things Must Pass” captures this special stretch of time and presents its story justly and beautifully.