L.A.’s Greatest Landmarks: The Capitol Records Building

The list of artists who have recorded in the studios in the Capitol Records building reads like a who’s who of popular music of the past half-century or so: Nat King Cole. Brian Wilson. Phil Spector. The first musician to record in studio A was Frank Sinatra. The building’s subterranean echo chambers, designed by guitar wizard Les Paul, are legendary, and arguably made the sound of West Coast popular music starting in the 1960s. (Back in 2008, those very chambers were under threat from a nearby condo development, raising a huge outcry from the local music community – I haven’t found any information on how or if that situation was resolved, so if anyone can fill us in, please do!) The building’s outside wall is covered in a mural that artist Richard Wyatt painted in 1990 commemorating important jazz artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Duke Ellington. The mural has faded significantly in the intervening years, belying the way the music of the artsts pictured continues to resonate in our musical landscape today. The Capitol Records building is, for all intents and purposes, a temple to recorded sound.

Even with all of this historical and musical pedigree, though, it’s tough to say if the Capitol Records Building would be as universally recognized as an LA landmark without its distinctive architechture. The first circular office building in Los Angeles, it’s often been described as resembling a stack of records, although that was noted LA architect Welton Becket (also responsible for the Cinerama Dome, the LAX Theme Building, the Beverly Hilton, and countless other examples of awesome So-Cal midcentury architechture – really, we could do an entire series on landmarks that he’s designed!) had in mind. Personally, though, I am more than content to consider it a (slightly more subtle) example of the kind of mid-century programmatic building design that I am so enamored with.

As we’ve been doing this series, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means for a place to be considered a landmark, and what drives us to visit those places. The Capitol Records Building is an interesting one because, unlike, say, Graumann’s Chinese or Bob’s Big Boy or the Strip or most of the other landmarks we’ve profiled, there’s nothing you can actually DO at the Capitol Record Building: it’s not open to the public, aside from the front lobby. Basically, you can go and stare at it and take a picture. Despite this, it was one of the first places that I visited when I moved to LA: as someone who makes their living as a music historian, I felt like I had to go simply for the sake of going, more as an act of pilgrimage than anything else. And I’ve definitely told many of my out of town colleagues that it’s a must-visit site for any music nerd visiting Los Angeles.

And while we’ve had our own internal debates here at blogging.LA about what makes a place a place landmark or not, for me, what makes a landmark is that weird, ineffable quality that some places develop: a quality that makes us want to go out of our way to go somewhere or see a place or be at a place, either because something interesting or important once happened there or, sometimes, just for the sake of being there. Landmarks that have a storied past are physical markers that can act like time machines, bringing us closer to that past. The Capitol Records building was like that for me: a way to feel closer to musicians who passed through those doors in the past. Standing in front of those doors, it’s easy to imagine what it might have been like inside: as a studio musician or a backup singer working hard under a scary, svengali-like Phil Spector; as a pop star in control of the microphone and in command of the room; as a technician, able to play with the sounds that those rooms can produce. And because it’s still a working studio, it also made me feel like a closer part of the music being made in those walls now.

KPCC recently went inside studio A in the Capitol Records building – you should totally check out their awesome slide show here.

Capitol Records photo courtesy of Nananere.

This post is part of the L.A.’s Greatest Landmarks series – click here for the rest of the series!

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