Photos, Videos: The History Of Tower Records On The Sunset Strip
The recent repainting of the memorable yellow and red Tower Records sign on the Sunset Strip has left many of us feeling nostalgic about the days of browsing the aisles of the once-legendary and massive music shop.
While we're looking forward to the upcoming documentary about the former music retail empire, All Things Must Pass, it's hard not to wish that you could still pop in to the iconic location to shop for some musical gems. Whether searching for a record, 8-track, cassette tape or CD, the Tower Records that sat at Sunset Boulevard and Horn Avenue was a major destination and music hub for the community for decades. It was also a place for music lovers and musicians alike to hang out, see bands perform and for fans to get autographs from their idols. While the squat, rectangular building may sit empty now, memories of the store undoubtedly remain vibrant for many.
The Tower Records in West Hollywood that opened up shop at in 1971 was the first Southern California location of the Sacramento-based chain, and probably safe to say, the most famous. Before Tower was built, the corner had been home to a drive-in restaurant in the '40s, a diner in the '50s, and in 1964, it was where Earl "Madman" Muntz sold car stereo systems.
The 8,660-square-foot building soon became Tower's flagship store for the West Coast—located in the heart of the growing L.A. music industry. The store was even listed in 1974 as the “largest record store in the world" by the Guinness Book Of World Records, according to WEHOville.
Right from the start, the store's lengthy aisles with rows and rows of music were crowded with those searching for the next great find. Tower Records also stayed open until midnight—and 1 a.m. on the weekends—so you could shop late. And not only could you find new releases, but Tower also offered an extensive inventory of older and hard-to-find and obscure albums. Domenic Priore, historian and author of Riot On The Sunset Strip—who also fought to preserve the record shop—told L.A. Magazine:
For those who were into advanced searches of records, who wanted to find more music, we were finding it there. The Tower Records on Sunset gave us access to sealed copies of recordings that weren't available anymore [in stores].
Here's what it looked like to browse the aisles of Tower in 1971, complete with a Sly & The Family Stone and Janis Joplin soundtrack:
The employees at Tower—many of whom were musicians themselves—were also a big part of the charm of the Sunset Tower Records. While they may not all have been charm school grads, they generally had a deep knowledge of music and could point you in the right direction. The store also famously had no dress code, which helped maintain the local record store-vibe even for a corporate chain. Dave Grohl was even an employee there for two whole months in 1990—one of the only places that would hire him with his haircut he says—just before joining Nirvana.
Located just down the road from the Strip's venerable music venues like the Whisky A Go-Go and the Rainbow Bar and Grill, Tower was not only a place for fans to pick up an album before a show, it was also where the big name musicians went to shop. Alison Martino, who runs Vintage Los Angeles, explains in L.A. Magazine: "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."
Here's a tipsy-sounding John Lennon in 1973 plugging the store—along with his latest album, Mind Games:
Pop rock singer Andy Kim even shot a weird music video inside the store:
And Elton John—who was known for stocking up at the store when he was in town—can be seen here shopping circa 1975:
The highly-visible location on the Sunset Strip also made for an ideal spot for promoting musicians. Over the decades, countless musicians—from Rod Stewart to Prince—performed inside the store to launch new albums. Or in some cases, they performed outside in the parking lot as Duran Duran did in 1993 for a reunion recording. And then there was, um, Pete Yorn:
Pete Yorn performs in the parking lot of Tower Records on Sunset (Photo via Getty Images)
Even more musicians drew crowds of fans to sign autographs, including Aerosmith, James Brown, Dolly Parton, Mariah Carey, KISS and more. The building was also used for elaborate stunts like David Lee Roth rappelling down the side of a fake mountain on the roof to promote his 1988 album Matterhorn, according to L.A. Magazine.
The outside walls of the building were also continually plastered with reproductions of album covers to promote records like Pink Floyd, Madonna, Guns N' Roses and The Smashing Pumpkins. The huge displays were a common sight over the years driving down the Sunset Strip. (We pretty sure we weren't alone in our silent cheer when the store recently made a cameo in Straight Outta Compton, where we saw Dr. Dre's The Chronic album cover across the storefront.) And, of course, Michael Jackson was up there pretty regularly:
Tower Records and Tower Video on Sunset in 1988 (Photo by Alan Light via the Creative Commons on Flickr)
For decades, Tower Records continued to stand as a beacon for music on Sunset, the yellow sign and red lettering guiding music fans of all stripes. But that all came to a dramatic coda when Tower Records went bankrupt in 2006 and the Sunset Boulevard location was closed. In 2008, a developer planned to demolish the building to build an office building with retail stores and a health club. At the time preservationists attempted to have the site declared a historic resource and turn it into a music museum, but neither the demolition or the historical status were achieved. Another effort in 2013 to establish the building as a local cultural resource didn't succeed either.
In the year following Tower's closure, the building of the former was used for a variety of promotional purposes, including when The White Stripes plastered the exterior to promote an album and even performed inside the old store for a select group of fans.
The red and yellow still fly in 2007 after Tower closes (Photo by Alan Light via the Creative Commons on Flickr)
Last year, the guitar and gear-maker Gibson signed a 15-year lease for the building. In addition to selling their products, they've said they intend to maintain the once "crazy vibe" of Tower Records and offer a space where musicians can gather and develop their music. We haven't seen much progress on that front. In the meantime, we'll have to rely on our memories, photos and videos—as well as Colin Hanks' documentary about the music outlet—to keep the memory of Tower Records alive.