Foo Fighters

Foo Fighters

 Dave Grohl – circa 2007

 “All my life I’ve been searching for something / Something never comes, never leads to nothing / Nothing satisfies but I’m getting close / Closer to the prize at the end of the rope” – ‘All My Life’ (Foo Fighters)

From 26 April 2006 to 9 May 2006, two Australian gold miners are trapped underground in Beaconsfield, Tasmania.  As efforts are made to free the men, the duo listen to iPods loaded with their favourite music to keep their spirits up.  Todd Russell is a country music fan, but his companion, Brant Webb, favours U.S. rock band The Foo Fighters.  Hearing of their plight, on 5 May Dave Grohl, The Foo Fighters leader, sends them this message: “Dave here, from The Foo Fighters.  Hope you guys are hangin’ in there, and hope that the music is helping you two out.  Though I’m halfway around the world right now, my heart is with you both, and I want you to know that when you come home, there’s two tickets to any Foo’s show, anywhere, and two cold beers waiting for you.  Deal?  Looking forward to sharing them with you…Come home safe and we’ll see you soon.  Dave Grohl.”  Russell and Webb are freed four days later.  Dave Grohl keeps his promise during Foo Fighters Australian tour in October 2006 and even pens a song about them, ‘Ballad Of The Beaconsfield Miners’.  But then, in less dramatic circumstances, the music of Foo Fighters has for years been helping souls in trouble.

Dave Grohl (born 14 January 1969) is originally from Warren, Ohio, but his family relocates when he is 3 to Springfield, Virginia, the place he regards as his home.  Grohl’s parents divorce when he is 6 and he grows up living with his mother.  Aged 12, Dave learns to play guitar and, the next year, discovers punk rock.  At high school he plays guitar in a band called Freak Baby.  After a line-up reshuffle, the teenager switches to drums and Freak Baby changes its name to Mission Impossible.  This nomenclature gives way to Fast before the group disintegrates.  After a stint in ‘hardcore punk band’ Dain Bramage, Dave Grohl moves on to a group called Scream.  It is while he is playing drums in Scream that he is recruited to join the Seattle, Washington, based Nirvana in 1990.

The other members of Nirvana are Kurt Cobain (vocals, guitar) and Krist Novoselic (bass).  Dave Grohl joins in time to make his debut on Nirvana’s landmark second album, ‘Nevermind’ (1991) (US no. 1, UK no. 5, AUS no. 1) and the accompanying single, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1).  He remains with Nirvana for ‘In Utero’ (1993) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 2) and the live recording, ‘MTV Unplugged In New York’ (1994) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1).  Nirvana is Kurt Cobain’s band and, creatively, Dave Grohl is limited to writing a couple of B-sides for singles.  Late in 1993, an extra guitarist, Pat Smear (born Georg Ruthenberg, 5 August 1959), is added for their live shows.  On 5 April 1994, Nirvana’s leader, Kurt Cobain, commits suicide with a gunshot.

After Kurt Cobain’s death, Dave Grohl spends six months doing nothing.  He has no plans at all.  He comes close to joining Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers.  He considers going back to school or getting a job outside the music industry.  Finally, Dave Grohl decides to work on his own music.  As far back as 1990, he thought about making a solo album.  Grohl has worked up somewhere around thirty or forty unreleased compositions.  He decides to book a recording studio and set to work, adding more songs as he goes.  “I was supposed to just join another band and be a drummer the rest of my life,” acknowledges Dave Grohl.  “I thought that I would rather do what no one expected me to do.”

The demo tapes that are recorded are attributed to The Foo Fighters, an appellation Dave Grohl creates simply to protect his anonymity.  The designation is derived from the Second World War when pilots in allied forces dubbed unidentified flying objects they sighted ‘foo fighters’.  As the tapes draw more attention, the identity of the true author becomes known.  Given this situation, Dave Grohl moves to create a real life band to be known as The Foo Fighters.  The obvious choice of Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic is rejected because “it would have been weird” notes Grohl, fearing the inevitable comparisons to Nirvana would mean they “would have been under the microscope.”  Pat Smear’s connection to Nirvana is more tenuous so he is chosen as second guitarist.  Rounding out the line-up is the rhythm section from a recently disbanded Seattle group, Sunny Day Real Estate, Nate Mendel (bass) (born 2 December 1968) and William Goldsmith (drums).

The Foo Fighters live debut takes place on 23 February 1995 at the Jambalaya Club in Arcata, California.  To most fans, unaware of Dave Grohl’s teenage bands, it is surprising to see the drummer from Nirvana as the vocalist, guitarist and frontman for Foo Fighters.

The first single, released in June 1995, a month before the album, is ‘This Is A Call’ (UK no. 5, AUS no. 9).  Fingernails, Ritalin, medicine and visiting are all described as “pretty” while noting “This is a call / To all my past resignation.”

This track is included on ‘Foo Fighters’ (1995) (US no. 23, UK no. 3, AUS no. 3).  While this is credited to the band of the same name, it should be remembered that, on these recordings, there is no band.  Dave Grohl writes and sings all the songs and plays all the instruments (with the exception of a guitar part on ‘X-Static’ contributed by Greg Dulli of The Afghan Whigs).  Among the album’s highlights is the almost countryish ‘Big Me’ (UK no. 19).

In any discussion of the sound of The Foo Fighters it is difficult to avoid mentioning Nirvana.  They share the same sonically dense neo-punk brashness.  Even the soft / loud contrasting passages is replicated, a tactic Nirvana borrowed from The Pixies, though it can be contended it is an approach that goes back much further than that.  It is too simplistic to view The Foo Fighters simply as a thrash band.  There is an underlying sturdiness to their compositions.  If there is an alternative to their default setting of full-tilt mayhem, it is a woody folk or country feel.  Still, the overriding image is of Dave Grohl with a mop of stringy dark hair almost obscuring his bearded face as he screams into the microphone.  Although his basic singing voice is quite pleasant, Grohl has a capacity to shift up a gear to a level that would shred the vocal chords of lesser mortals.

Most of The Foo Fighters songs carry the songwriting credit ‘Foo Fighters’.  The exceptions are credited to Dave Grohl alone.  It seems likely that, even in what are officially group compositions, Dave Grohl is the main driver.

The Foo Fighters begin work on the second album attributed to the group, though it is the first album on which the band as a whole plays.  Actually, it turns out that not all of the members are on the recording.  Unhappy with the drum sound, Dave Grohl rerecords all those parts with himself behind the drum kit.  William Goldsmith is told he is still wanted to play on the tour promoting the album.  Goldsmith declines and quits the band, feeling betrayed.

In order to find a drummer, Dave Grohl consults Taylor Hawkins (born 17 February 1972), the drummer with Canadian alternative rock star Alanis Morissette’s touring band.  Instead of recommending someone else for the gig (as Grohl expects), Taylor Hawkins offers to take on the job himself.  He duly joins The Foo Fighters in time to promote the second album, though it is Dave Grohl on drums on the recordings for that disc.

Album number two is titled ‘The Colour And The Shape’ (1997) (US no. 10, UK no. 3, AUS no. 5).  The album features the frantic ‘Monkey Wrench’ (UK no. 12, AUS no. 17): “Don’t want to be your monkey wrench / One more indecent accident / I’d rather leave than suffer this.”  The song goes on to pose the question “What do you do when all your enemies are friends? / Now and then I tried to bend / Under pressure, end up snapping in the end.”  As the song winds up, Grohl chants “Fall in, fall out.”  ‘Everlong’ (UK no. 18, AUS no. 45) is a good example of the characteristic switch from soft to loud.  The gentle introduction bids “Hello / I’ve waited here for you / Everlong / I’ve thrown myself in two / Out of the red, out of her head, she sang.”  The song picks up speed with a chattering riff until the chorus pounds like blood throbbing through a vein: “And I wonder / When I sing along with you / If everything could ever feel this real forever / If anything could ever be this good again / The only thing I ever ask of you / Gotta promise not to stop when I say when.”  ‘My Hero’ (UK no. 21) is built around a spiralling guitar chord.  Despite the trying circumstances of its creation, the quality of ‘The Colour And The Shape’ supports Dave Grohl’s vision for The Foo Fighters.

In the wake of the album, Pat Smear decides to leave, citing exhaustion and burnout.  He stays on for four months until his replacement, Franz Stahl, is announced in September 1997.  A former member of Scream, the outfit from which Dave Grohl departed to join Nirvana, Stahl does not work out for The Foo Fighters.  He plays on a couple of songs passed off to movie soundtracks by the group, but when it comes to working on the third Foo Fighters album, Franz Stahl doesn’t seem to fit in with the group’s songwriting direction, so he is fired.

Working in Dave Grohl’s home studio in Virginia, The Foo Fighters complete ‘There Is Nothing Left To Lose’ (1999) (US no. 10, UK no. 8, AUS no. 5).  Taylor Hawkins makes his album debut as the band’s drummer but without either Pat Smear of Franz Stahl, Dave Grohl overdubs all the guitar parts himself.  ‘Learn To Fly’ (US no. 19, UK no. 21, AUS no. 36) find Dave “Looking to the sky to save me / Looking for a sign of life.”  If that song is a little more mellow and accessible, the spinning ‘Breakout’ (UK no. 29) defends the band’s hard rock credentials.

Chris Shiflett (born 6 May 1971) is chosen as the group’s new guitarist, restoring them to a quartet in time for the fourth album.  It nearly doesn’t happen.  The first attempt at recording this set is almost entirely scrapped and the whole thing redone in a blistering ten day marathon.  The result is ‘One By One’ (2002) (US no. 3, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1).  The album’s title is taken from a line in ‘All My Life’ (US no. 43, UK no. 5, AUS no. 20): “One by one hidden up my sleeve.”  In this song, over pulsing chords, Dave Grohl whispers “All night long I dream of the day / When it comes around and it’s taken away / Leaves me with the feeling that I feel the most / Feel it come to life when I see your ghost.”  With a splash of drums, Dave erupts into full-throated cry, “Hey, don’t let it go to waste / I love it but I hate the taste / Weight keeping me down.”  Finally the song is dismissed with “Done, done / And I’m on to the next one.”  It’s a masterful, bracing performance.  ‘Low’ (UK no. 21, AUS no. 40) is bruising and somehow unsettling.  ‘Times Like These’ (US no. 65, UK no. 12, AUS no. 22) verges on being profound while maintaining an insistent intensity.  The cumulative effect makes ‘One By One’ the best of The Foo Fighters’ albums.  It probably helps that the band is now stable and all four members are meshing.

‘In Your Honor’ (2005) (US no. 2, UK no. 2, AUS no. 1) is a double album divided into a rock disc and an acoustic disc.  “I got another confession to make,” Dave Grohl announces by way of introduction for the album’s highest peak, ‘The Best Of You’ (US no. 18, UK no. 4, AUS no. 5).  “Is someone getting the best of you?” seems to mean ‘Is someone other than me enjoying the finest moments with you?’  This is supported by the line “Are you gone and on to someone new?”  The heartening ‘Resolve’ (UK no. 32) also belongs to this set.

The Foo Fighters more fully explore their acoustic side in a subsequent tour.  Contrarily, they put more musicians on stage so they can produce a quieter sound.  For these shows, the acoustic Foo Fighters double in size to become an eight-piece crew.  The four additional musicians are: Pat Smear (guitar), Rami Jaffee [of The Wallflowers] (piano, keyboards), Petra Haden (violin, dobro, backing vocals) and Drew Hester (percussion).  The shows are captured on the live disc ‘Skin And Bones’ (2006) (US no. 21, UK no. 35, AUS no. 1), which, of course, features the gently taunting song ‘Skin And Bones’.

The next Foo Fighters single is their best.  “Keep you in the dark, you know / They all pretend,” is the ghostly, quavering introduction – that shatters under Taylor Hawkins’ drumsticks.  Slipping into full aggression, ‘The Pretender’ (US no. 37, UK no. 8, AUS no. 10) showcases one of Dave Grohl’s best screaming choruses: “What if I say I’m not like the others? / What if I say I’m not just another / One of your plays? / You’re the pretender / What if I say / I will never surrender?”  The song builds with the cry “Who are you? / Yeah, who are you?” until it collapses back into a restatement of the opening whisper – followed by a redoubled charge.  It’s exhausting!  ‘The Pretender’ is the first taste of ‘Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace’ (2007) (US no. 3, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1).  The other well-known piece from the album is the poppy ‘Long Road To Ruin’ (US no. 89, UK no. 35, AUS no. 38) that finds the narrator “Running through hell / Heaven can wait.”

Butch Vig, the producer of Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’, begins working with The Foo Fighters.  Two songs from these sessions, ‘Wheels’ (US no. 72, UK no. 22, AUS no. 21) and ‘Word Forward’, are added to the ‘Greatest Hits’ (2009)(US no. 11, UK no. 4, AUS no. 1) compilation.

‘Wasting Light’ (2011) (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1) also has Butch Vig as producer.  In addition, this album sees Pat Smear rejoin the band, bringing them up to a quintet with a three-guitar attack (Grohl, Shiflett, Smear).  ‘Rope’ (US no. 68, UK no. 22, AUS no. 55) is the abrasive single.  ‘Wasting Light’ is entirely recorded on old-fashioned analog equipment with the intent of giving the recording a warmer, richer sound.

A documentary on the history of The Foo Fighters, ‘Back And Forth’ (2011), has a short run in cinemas before being released on DVD.

‘Sonic Highways’ (2014) (US no. 2, UK no. 2, AUS no. 1) is recorded in various U.S. cities with The Foo Fighters working with various local recording artists (e.g. Bad Brains, Joe Walsh, etc.).  Producer Butch Vig oversees the whole project.

With the possible exception of New Order arising from the ashes of Joy Division, The Foo Fighters birth from the wreckage of Nirvana was the most successful instance of reinvention in rock history.  It was a welcome salvage of something that would otherwise have been lost and tainted by tragedy.  There is an argument that being frontman of Foo Fighters was wasting Grohl’s talents as a drummer.  However he still got behind the kit as a guest with other bands (e.g. Queens Of The Stone Age in 2002) and for side projects (e.g. Them Crooked Vultures in 2009).  Also, Taylor Hawkins was a fine percussionist in his own right and this should have stemmed any disappointment.  ‘The members of Foo Fighters melded melodic elements with heavier ones.’  Foo Fighters were capable of both ‘hard rocking arena shows’ and ‘an acoustic set.’

Sources:

  1. lyrics007.com as at 13 February 2013
  2. wikinews.org (9 May 2006)
  3. ‘The Age’ (Melbourne, Australia, newspaper) (theage.com.au, 1 September 2006)
  4. wikipedia.org as at 28 January 2013, 1 January 2015
  5. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 173, 185, 188
  6. lyricsfreak.com as at 13 February 2013
  7. ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia newspaper) – ‘Foos in their Comfort Zone’ – review of ‘Sonice Highways’ by Cameron Adams (13 November 2014) p. 48

Song lyrics copyright M.J. – Twelve Music (EMI) with the exceptions of ‘All My Life’ (M.J.- Twelve Music (BMI), Flying Earform Music administered by EMI Virgin Songs, Inc. (BMI), Living Under A Rock Music administered by Songs of Universal, Inc. (BMI); ‘Monkey Wrench’ (M.J. –Twelve Music (BMI), Flying Earform Music administered by EMI Virgin Songs, Inc. (BMI) and Ruthensmear Music administered by Bug Music (BMI)); ‘Learn To Fly’ (M.J. – Twelve Music (BMI), Flying Earform Music administered by EMI Virgin Songs, Inc. (BMI) and Living Under A Rock administered by Universal Music Corp. (ASCAP); ‘Best Of You’ (M.J. – Twelve Music and I Love The Punk Rock Music both administered by Songs of Universal Inc. (BMI), Living Under A Rock Music administered by Universal Music Corp. (ASCAP) and Flying Earform Music administered by Bug Music (BMI); and ‘The Pretender’ (M.J. – Twelve Music and I Love The Punk Rock Music both administered by Songs of Universal, Inc. (BMI), Living Under A Rock Music administered by Universal Music Corp. (ASCAP) and Flying Earform Music administered by Bug Music (BMI)).

Last revised 2 January 2015

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