Remembering Tower Records

Remembering Tower Records

Alison Martino Hollywood

The Legendary Past and Celluloid Future of Tower Records on the Sunset Strip.

Photo: Robert Landau

It’s impossible not to think of Tower Records when referring to the Sunset Strip. It’s even more impossible to accept that the beloved store once located at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Horn Avenue is no longer in business.

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers 💔 signing autographs at Tower Records in Los Angeles, 1976.

I recently had dinner with a friend not too far from the old Tower location. As we were paying our bill, we discussed what we should do next. I joked that we should walk down to Tower Records and browse through rows and rows of LPs and cassettes, then head across the street to Tower Video to rent the latest release (most likely on VHS).
I wish it wasn’t just a fantasy. You see, Tower Records was more then just a record store, It was a musical rite of passage. It’s where kids graduated to die-hard music fans. I spent my very first allowance money on Blondie and Devo records. I’ll never forget the anticipation of rushing home to get them on the turntable! My friends and I would remove the cellophane from new records before we even got to the car. Even the store’s parking lot had its own identity. On weekends, there was so much pandemonium that fistfights broke out over available parking spots. It was the hub of the Strip, located directly across from the original Spago and a few blocks east of the Rainbow Bar and Grill and the Whisky a Go Go. It’s where rock stars mingled with locals and tourists; it wasn’t uncommon to bump into Robert Plant, Stevie Wonder, Robert Stigwood, Ella Fitzgerald, Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, Elvis Costello, Robert Evans, Smokey Robinson or even George Burns in the aisles. I once witnessed Valerie Bertinelli (who had just married guitarist Eddie Van Halen) turn Van Halen’s “JUMP” record around to reveal her hubby’s photo, and I eavesdropped on David Bowie discussing English imports at the info booth that doubled as a DJ station at the center of the store. John Lennon even recorded a voiceover for this Tower Records commercial:

Tower Records Sunset Strip Circa 1980.

Tower Records, Sunset Strip in 1981.
Photo Courtesy of Billy Vera.

Tower Records was a music business melting pot. But the employees (some of which were in soon-to-be-famous bands themselves) were the main attraction. They knew everyone’s name, what music they liked, and what car they pulled up in. Axl Rose, a Tower Video employee, once shoved a flyer for his new band Guns & Roses, which was playing down the block at Gazzarri’s, into my bag. In 1976 Elton John told Playboy that if he weren’t a rock star, he would have wanted to be a Tower Records alumni.

Elton John shopping at Tower Records.

The Sunset Strip, the year Tower Records opened. You can also see Classic Cat Strip Club on the far left which later became University Stereo and then Tower Video. The next Block. Tower Classical would eventually open up next door.

The latest LPs arriving at Tower Records Sunset.

Peter Criss and Paul Stanley of Kiss in 1974 on Sunset Strip.

Some of us teenagers dropped by five times a week since the store couldn’t keep the latest singles in stock. Prince’s “Purple Rain” was consistently sold out, but if you were in with one of the employees, they would hold a copy for you. I also remember waiting in a huge line in the parking lot awaiting U2’s “Joshua Tree” release and then walking across the street to Ticketron (located inside Tower Video) to purchase tickets for their world tour. Next door to Tower Video was the Tower Classical Annex which had some of the greatest classical selections in the country.

Purple Rain display at Tower Records in Westwood.

Tower Records, which stayed open until 1 a.m. on weekends, was a music venue, too. Hundreds of musicians including Rod Stewart, Randy Newman, and XTC performed live inside the store, and thousands of fans wrapped around the L-shaped parking lot to get in when Aerosmith, Keith Richards, Dolly Parton, James Brown, Duran Duran, and Brian Wilson stopped by to sign records. David Lee Roth shut the Strip down for several hours when he rappelled down a replica of the Matterhorn built on the record store’s roof to deliver his album “Skyscraper.” Alice Cooper drove up in a huge trash truck to deliver “Trash.”

David Lee Roth delivers his album “Skyscraper” by repelling down a replica of the Matterhorn on the roof of Tower Records.

Photo: Debbie Roszkowski

The music mecca shaped my youth and will always be a part of my soul. It’s hard not to get misty-eyed thinking back on it now. (Thankfully, I saved a dozen of my Tower Records red and yellow vinyl bags. Today they are about as desirable as collectible records.)

Even God had the ‘uncontrollable Urge” to shop at Tower Records. (George Burns).

Warner Bros./Reprise chairman Mo Ostin checks out his label’s best sellers at Tower Records on the Sunset Strip. (photo: Esquire Oct. 1972).

Joey Ramone stands outside a massive painting of the cover of the boy’s debut album in the window of the famous Tower Records store on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Ticketron located at Tower Video across from Tower Records on Sunset Strip. Love seeing the old circular driveway to the right.

That’s why I am personally relieved and thankful to Colin Hanks for making a feature documentary that will always help keep the Tower Records’ legend alive. His film, All Things Must Pass examines the iconic company’s rise and fall and profiles its rebellious founder, Russ Solomon. After watching an exclusive cut of the film in 2015, I can say it’s the closet thing to a Tower Records time machine. The images and archival footage are spellbinding. I could almost smell the vinyl through my screen. In addition to bringing the store back to life, the documentary taught me its backstory: Tower Records began in a Sacramento drugstore owned by Russ Solomon’s father, and Solomon opened his second outpost on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco in 1968. Two years later Tower Records opened on the Sunset Strip, taking over the site where “Madman” Muntz had sold the very first car stereos. Solomon eventually opened 189 stores around the world, and the franchise made $1 billion dollars by 1999. Then things took a dramatic turn: In 2006, the company filed for bankruptcy. Some blame the internet, among other things, for Tower’s demise. Itunes, the Illegal downloading of music, and Youtube most likely also contributed to the record store chain’s closing. I do understand that times and technology change, but to those of us who grew up in the prior century, Tower was more than just a “record store”. It was part of our lives. I personally LOVED opening an album. The cover art and liner notes back then were just as important as the music. Downloading today just seems very impersonal. The day Tower closed a piece of my soul went with it.

Tower Records founder Russ Solomon at the Tower Records store opening in New York in 1983.
Photo courtesy “All Things Must Pass.”

BELOW IS AN ARCHIVE OF MY INTERVIEW ACTOR AND FILM MAKER, COLLIN HANKS IN 2015

Colin Hanks and Alison Martino at the Grammy Museum during a screening of, “All Things Must Pass”.

Every time I post photos of Tower Records on my Vintage Los Angeles Facebook page I receive an emotional response. Why do you think that is?

Everybody has his or her own emotional connection to music. At its height Tower was a place you bonded with friends over music, and people’s fond recollections are the residue of those relationships. It was one of those places that transcended being a normal record store. They accepted everyone. It didn’t’ matter how you looked. It didn’t matter how you dressed. It didn’t matter what you sounded like or what music you liked. Everyone was welcome.

How did the documentary get started?

I had a very similar emotional response [to the store’s demise] since I grew up in Sacramento and Tower originated there. I was having dinner with a family friend in 2006 when the stores were closing and I was living in New York at the time. My friend walked by the Lincoln Center store on the way to meet me and we got on the subject of Tower Records closing. At the end of the conversation she said, “Hard to believe it all started in that tiny little drug store,” and I said, “Excuse me? What are you talking about?” She filled me in on Russ Solomon and how he started selling used 78’s out of his father’s drugstore in the ‘40s and ‘50s and a light bulb went off. The story starts there and ends with him closing all his stores four decades later. That’s a pretty amazing journey for one guy. I’m also a huge music fan and have my own personal recollections of going into Tower and applying to work there and not getting the job. I remember seeing 50 applications in front of mine.

It just seemed like an interesting story for a documentary. I didn’t know who the characters were, I didn’t know what the real story was, but it seemed like a place to start.

Russ Solomon sold his first record out of his father’s drugstore on the ground floor of the Tower Theatre complex, pictured here in 1965.

Photo courtesy of Sean Stuart

Tell us about the process of getting this film off the ground and your seven-year journey making it.

It’s been a long journey, that’s for sure. We started gathering money to shoot stuff in 2008. I went up to Sacramento on a lark to talk with Russ and asked him if he would tell us his story, and I drove by the old Tower Records store at the corner of Watt Avenue and El Camino Avenue. The sign was still up and all the racks were still inside. It was basically still intact, just without the records! I frantically gathered as much money as I could so that we could at least shoot the store and the first round of interviews. Then I spent a great deal of time trying to raise funds to finish the film. We were politely laughed out of rooms—well, not really—but we did have a few pitch meetings with production companies and financiers. Companies like Lehman Brothers and were going under because the recession had just hit, so nobody wanted to make a documentary about a business that declared bankruptcy when pretty much everyone was going bankrupt. So I put the project on hold until Kickstarter came around. That really saved us!

I can’t wait to hear about the stories you documented.

We spoke to so many people—former employees, musicians, artists. What’s a bit unfortunate is a lot of these great anecdotes you hear about Tower Records are personal stories, and you can’t make a movie of just hundreds of those. You have to find the narrative. You have to find your characters. The film is about the family that came together around Russ to help make Tower what it was.

Last year a few friends of mine were on a crusade to turn the Sunset Strip location into a Sunset Strip museum while you were filming.

We were there! We even filmed the City Hall meeting. But we couldn’t work that footage into the movie. I think Gibson [which will be over Tower Records’ old Sunset Strip site] is going to be really great torchbearers for that location. We have been speaking to them quite a bit and they’ve been very helpful. Having them take over that scared space is exciting and makes sense.

How do you think younger generations, who aren’t growing up in record stores, will respond to your film?

I don’t know, because I think this is the moment were the rubber meets the road. I have to embrace the fact that I’m of an older generation now. But there’s always going to be those “cool kids” that collect records and pass them along. Good music always finds its way into the hands of the people that want it. There are some really awesome records stores out there like Amoeba and some smaller boutique ones around town. I think as long as people support record stores, that’s the key.

How does it feel to be premiering your movie at South By Southwest?

SXSW was always where we wanted to premiere the film. They had a popular Tower Records [in Austin], and I’ve always dug the festival. We saw a window of opportunity and knew we needed to finish the film so we could get it there in time. I just can’t wait for the film to finally be seen!
The Grammy Museum screening in Los Angeles is really going to be fun. We have some very cool things planned for that. I want fans of music to be able to see this movie. I hope that everyone who went to Tower and has their own connection with it enjoys it. And I hope that everyone who worked there is reminded of good memories. Hopefully we were able to capture the essence of what Tower was really like.

Micky Dolenz and Alison Martino

Tower Records Gallery

Tower in Sacramento, late 1960s.

Tower records 1960s to 1990s, In North Beach on Columbus St., San Francisco, CA. Today this structure is a Walgreens.

Tower Records Sunset Strip during the early 70s.

A view of Tower Record from the Hippocampus circa 1972.

The Tacoma Tower Records Store on 38th Street wasn’t just a store, it was a scene. Complete with cutting edge finds, knowledgeable staff, colorful displays, and intriguing people, music-hungry teens combed the aisles in search of new treasures.

Tower Records and the La Reina movie theatre on Ventura Blvd in Sherman Oaks. This was before Tower’s expansion into the Factory next door.

Sunset Strip, 1970s.

Westwood location

Russ Soloman at the Fresno location in 1972.

Tower Records La Mesa 1980.

Tower Records Mountain View

Panorama City, CA, 1980

Tower Records Manhattan 1983

Tower Ahaheim

Tower Records at the West Covina Fashion Plaza. One of the last locations to close to 2006.

Tower Records closes on Sunset Strip in 2006.
END OF AN ERA.

I never EVER thought I would be back shopping for records at the Sunset Strip location again, but it happened again for one night only at the after party of ALL THINGS MUST PASS. It was indeed the closest thing to a time machine.

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Portions of this article were originally published in Los Angeles Magazine

Alison Martino is a writer, television producer, and pop culture historian. She founded the Facebook page Vintage Los Angeles in 2010. Alison muses on L.A’s. past and present on Twitter and Instagram.