This is the band that never should have happened. It started as a demo EP by Dave Grohl, drummer for Nirvana, and was intended more to work on songs outside of that band. Only on the way to the next Nirvana album, Kurt Cobain died, orphaning the other three members. Just think how guitarist Pat Smear felt. He hadn’t even made it into the studio with the band yet, and already, they were done.
So Grohl had this EP and no place to go. He got a record deal for it and proceeded to put together a full-blown album, calling the act “The Foo Fighters” instead of “Dave Grohl” because of the old joke about the drummer going “Hey, man, I got some songs I wrote, too.”
Recruiting Smear and members of the punk band Sunny Day Real Estate, Grohl went out on tour in support of his new album. I remember when they first debuted that I thought it sounded “like Nirvana on Prozac.” The songs, with the exception of “I’ll Stick Around” were poppier, breezier. There’s “Big Me,” with the infamous Mentos video (parodied hilariously by the band and Weird Al Yankovick on an episode of AlTV), “This Is a Call” (almost childlike in its lyrics), and “For All the Cows.” The last is lightweight and soft until you really listen to the words. Kurt Cobain could have written that song, and it’s quite likely Grohl intended it for Nirvana.
But the video and tour demonstrated that this was, indeed, a band. By 1997, they were back in the studio recording The Color and the Shape. The album nearly destroyed the band. Grohl admits he still wanted to be the drummer and did not like where the beats fell. So he rerecorded all the drum parts and told drummer William Goldsmith that it was just something that bugged him. Goldsmith was not happy and quit. Not long afterward, Pat Smear, already having started in the hot mess that was The Germs and dealing with the drama surrounding Nirvana, decided he didn’t want to be in the Foo Fighters if that was going to be the norm. So he tendered his resignation, leaving Grohl and bassist Nate Mendel the only original Foos. Grohl hired drummer and vocalist Taylor Hawkins (who could easily trade places with Grohl and did so during a fantastic rendition of Led Zep’s “Rock and Roll” with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones sitting in) to drum. To replace Smear, Grohl turned to his old friend Franz Stahl from his days in the band Scream. Smear left the band live on MTV, playing one song, announcing his departure, and introducing Stahl. Probably the classiest exit in all of rock and roll, but then I’ve always liked Pat Smear for some reason.
The new line-up did not do so well. Grohl meshed with Hawkins quite nicely – I’d characterize that as a full-on bromance, and was very comfortable writing with Mendel, who already was steeped in how the Foos did things. Stahl, on the other hand, wrote all of Scream’s music. This did not translate well into the Foo Fighters, where Grohl had realized collaboration was crucial to the band’s survival. So Stahl was invited to pursue other opportunities. Eventually, they brought in Chris Shiflett to replace him. And that, my friends, is how the Foo Fighters as they exist today came to be.
Grohl is definitely THE Foo Fighter, but his attitude has been “Once a Foo, always a Foo.” If Stahl or Goldsmith were to show up backstage, they would likely be out there for two or three songs. Even Nirvana bassist Krist Novocelic is considered an honorary Foo Fighter, even though he and Grohl passed on the idea originally to avoid being seen as just a rehash of Nirvana. It’s this attitude that had Pat Smear slowly drawn back into the fold first as a guest, then as an official member, careful to reassure Chris Shiflett that his job was safe.
The Foos are remarkably unpretentious as a band. Dave Grohl seems oblivious to his own fame most of the time. The band did not even realize their status until they sold out two shows at Wembley Stadium in weeks rather than months. The music is born of punk, but it has a much wider appeal. Instead of four or five guys banging the hell out of their instruments, they’re very careful about arrangements and recording. Their latest CD, Wasting Light, was recorded in Grohl’s garage using tape instead of digital because they wanted to put the music together a certain way. Tape would force the band to play better since, unlike digital, you can’t go in and change a sour note or fix a sloppy tempo. It has to be right on the take or there is no take.
While the Foos are definitely a band – Why else would Grohl work so long and hard to bring Smear back into the fold? – there are really two essential Foos without whom the band does not exist. First, obviously, is Grohl. He is the focal point, the literal personality of the band, and the brains behind its existence. One might as well ask the Stones to tour without Jaggar or Richards. Second is Taylor Hawkins. Though not the original drummer, Hawkins is yang to Grohl’s yin. His is the opinion Grohl seems to value most when things are not right in Foo Land, and he’s the one Grohl wants in the audience when he plays for Them Crooked Vultures, Queens of the Stone Age, or even Nirvana (Oh, chill! Nirvana was a band. Even Roger Waters gets this concept now.) He is like Ringo or Ronnie Wood or Steve Howe, that essential band member that doesn’t come in until later in a group’s history.
For me, the Foos are In Your Honor, the two-disk set Grohl defines as their “Physical Graffiti.” During the trip to and from the 2005 Bouchercon in Chicago, I played the hell out of that album both ways. Just really unpretentious rock and roll that never seems to get stale.
Which is hard to do the way record companies and radio stations flog even the best music to death these days.