Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Standing in the Footprints of Giants: An Afternoon at Sun Studio
The photo above is from the inside cover of U2's "Rattle and Hum" CD, a project that saw the Irish quartet tour the United States in search of the roots of rock and roll. This photo was taken as the band recorded in the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee, considered the birthplace of rock. Sam Phillips' one-room studio gave rise to Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, B.B. King, and so, so many more.
So take one more look at the U2 photo, and then check out the one below:
Look familiar? It should, because I took it yesterday standing inside Sun from about the same perspective. Yes, that is the very same drum kit played by one Larry Mullen Jr. on "When Love Comes to Town," "Angel of Harlem," and "Love Rescue Me." (I apologize for the quality—I took all the photos you'll see in this post via my cellphone.)
Technically, I was in Memphis this weekend working on a story about Elvis' Graceland. Thankfully I wrapped up early enough Monday to swing over to Sun Studio and take the tour. It was, without doubt, one of the best experiences of my pop-cultural life.
This is the exterior of Sun. It's on the corner of a rather rundown section of Memphis, several blocks from Beale Street and the heart of the city. This shot may look familiar if you've seen the Cash biopic "Walk the Line." Unfortunately, the exterior featured in the movie was a replica; no scenes were shot at the actual recording studio.
The guy who gave the tour is a local musician who's served as an engineer at Sun for the past six years. The studio is still active and busy most nights (sessions start at 6:30 p.m.) A room above the studio that used to serve as a boarding house (Cash, Lewis, etc., all would stay there some nights during sessions) has been transformed into a mini-museum, allowing the guide to tell the story of Sun. It's OK, but the real stuff starts when you walk back downstairs into the studio itself.
Here's another shot of the studio, standing right in front of the drums I showed earlier. That's the tour guide on the left. And if you look carefully, there's an "X" on the floor straight ahead. That is the exact spot where Elvis stood when recording one of his songs; the guide said people kiss that piece of floor all the time, including Bob Dylan.
The absolute best part about Sun is that it's still a working studio, and so it gets used all the time. Unlike most historical sites—like Graceland, for instance—there are no velvet ropes separating visitors from the good stuff. They just let you wander around the room, poking at whatever you want (yes, I tapped on the drums). It makes the entire experience feel so real, so genuine. Here's another example:
I'm pretty sure the guide said the microphone in the foreground of this shot is the same one in the picture behind it. Regardless, the mic was definitely used by the King during sessions at Sun, and they just leave it hanging around in the studio for anyone who wants to touch it, lick it, fondle it … "You don't want to know what's been done to that thing," the guide told me, "and we don't clean it."
It was only me and one other guy taking the tour Monday afternoon, so our guide just let us hang out in there for about a half-hour, much longer than we would have been able to otherwise. He told us story after story, some he'd seen personally others he knew by legend. He said he's worked with more "famous" bands than he can remember, people who, like U2, want to record at Sun just for the inspiration. He said it's not uncommon for people to get nervous, queasy, and even vomit as they start their sessions; imagine sidling up to a mic and then glancing over at the photo of Elvis doing the same thing, or looking down at the floor and seeing that "X"—no pressure.
One of the best parts for me occurred when the guide played Cash's "Walk the Line" and U2's "Angel of Harlem," and knowing those cuts were recorded right where I was standing—I'll never listen to those tracks the same way again. I'll certainly never watch "Rattle and Hum" the same way, either. Cue up "Angel of Harlem" on the DVD if you want a better look at the inside of the studio; I came home and watched that scene again tonight, and it gave me another thrill. Yep, there's Larry, pounding away on that very same kit, and there's Bono, standing right on top of Elvis' "X."
There are several other photos donning the walls of Sun Studio, never to be touched. Here's one of Cash exactly where it was some two decades ago when "Rattle and Hum" was filmed; you can see it over The Edge's shoulder during "Angel of Harlem" on the DVD:
And here's one of Bono taken during the Sun session, now hanging over in the corner near the drums:
The whole experience at Sun Studio was just so anti- every other historical tour I've experienced. So refreshing. So unpretentious. So laid back. So … rock and roll.