Sonic Highways by The Foo Fighters

Sonic HighwaysSonic Highways

The Foo Fighters

Every Foo Fighters album is different from the last. There Is Nothing Left to Lose is where the modern incarnation of the band, minus guitarists Chris Shifflet and Pat Smear, sprang into being. One by One found the Foos becoming the richest garage band in the world, literally recording the album in Dave Grohl’s garage. In Your Honor nailed down the Foos signature sound and added an acoustic side to it. Echoes, Patience, Silence, and Grace focused on the songwriting. Wasting Light got back to the garage band roots with a little help from Nirvana’s Krist Novocelic and Husker Du’s Bob Mould.

After each tour, Dave Grohl says the latest album might be their last. After Wasting Light, social media was all abuzz that the Foos had broken up. Grohl was making documentaries. Shifflet, bassist Nate Mendel, and drummer Taylor Hawkins were off doing other projects. Even Pat Smear, whom Grohl had to lure gradually back into the band after he left in 1998, was off doing other things. What the Twitters and the Facey Pages and the Reddits failed to notice that the Foos always said that, then would get together to see if the old magic was still there. If it was, there’d be a new album. If it wasn’t, they would rather leave the body of work they’d build since they were Dave Grohl by himself in the studio.

Obviously, the magic’s still there as the band draws its inspiration from lesser known studios where some of the most groundbreaking music of the last fifty years has been recorded. While there are hints of those early Grohl-only songs on some of the tracks, the Foos are very smooth, playing in different registers and adopting more prominent guitar work than in the past. Before, the Foos tended to play more rhythm-based songs. Some of this is a function of guest appearances by Joe Walsh and Zac Brown.

Some of the original Foo sound comes from “The Feast and the Famine,” which features Grohl’s former bandmates from Scream, Pete Stahl and Skeeter Thompson. (Stahl’s brother Franz was a Foo Fighter for a time in the late nineties.) But Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins have been rather vocal about the Beatles of late, and it shows in “Something from Nothing” and the McCartneyesque medley “What Did I Do/God As My Witness.” No one will mistake either song for McCartney, but no one can miss the influence. The band even dabbles in progressive rock techniques, using odd rhythm and key changes in “Subterranean.”

It’s hard to figure out what the Foos can do next to keep things fresh. Then again, they never know. That’s why they’ve had such a good run so far.

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In Praise Of Grunge

When grunge came out, it was considered the future. Combining punk and hard rock, it broke the back of hair metal, something Metallica and Guns N’ Roses were already trying to do. The mainstream press called it “alternative,” yet by the time Kurt Cobain died, there was nothing alternative about it. It was the mainstream. Yet in the years that followed, the music was freer, looser, more original. Bands did not feel compelled to be Led Zeppelin or David Bowie. Grunge made the 1990’s the WTF Decade in rock.

Nowadays, it’s maligned. One recent British music writer said there was nothing original about grunge and it deserved to die. This was the same idiot who left Dark Side of the Moon and Never Mind the Bollocks off a list of most influential albums of the rock era. Hey, I hate the Sex Pistols, but if you leave out Bollocks, you’re too stupid to live. Leaving out Dark Side warrants breaking all your fingers, smashing your laptop, and forever barring you from calling yourself a rock journalist. Not that I’ve really thought about it.

Yes, grunge did combine hard rock and punk. It was time to strip rock of its excesses. It was time for guitarists to quit trying to be Clapton, Page, and Beck. It was time lead singers stopped trying to be Robert Plant. (Unless you were Chris Cornell. Because Cornell sounds like Robert Plant without trying.) It was time for David Coverdale to go. (And I say that as a life-long Deep Purple fan.)

But grunge was a function of the times. Musicians my age playing to an audience five years younger and tired of the screaming vocals, day-glo Spandex pants, and canned “incendiary” guitar solos. It was time for rockers to shut up and play. Grunge begat post-grunge. It opened the door for Brit pop in America. It held the door for Lillith Fair. It let Green Day go mainstream without selling out. Hell, progressive rock fans now embrace Green Day. That would not have been possible with grunge. So who were the purveyors of grunge?

Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam

Photo by Lugnuts, used under Creative Commons

Probably the godfathers of grunge. Their Ten came out at the tail-end of the hair metal movement. Only lead singer Eddie Vedder didn’t so much sing as growled. Unlike some grunge bands, they thought nothing of having prominent guitar solos. The only difference was that they didn’t seem canned. They seemed drawn from the song itself. “Even Flow” exploded on the scene in 1990, but things got really dark with “Jeremy.”

Soundgarden

Soundgarden in concert

Photo: musicisentropy, used under Creative Commons

“Black Hole Sun” was the scariest damn video I had seen when it appeared in 1992. Those CGI-stretched smiles were creepier than the black hole sucking up everything. Soundgarden mixed harmony with power chords and lyrics about something other than snorting coke off some groupie’s bare ass. Intelligent, meticulous, yet sounding like a bunch of guys jamming in a garage, Soundgarden rejected the metal way of doing rock.

Alice in Chains

Alice in Chains in 2007

Photo: Jenya Campbell, used under Creative Commons

Layne Staley committed slow suicide to make this band sound great. That’s the way he described it. Alice in Chains started out as a metal band along the lines of Guns N’ Roses in their early days. But a funny thing happened on the way to MTV’s Headbangers Ball. Someone noticed they were from Seattle and decided they were grunge. That probably was the best thing to happen to them. They could focus on Staley’s tortured lyrics and his harmonies with Jerry Cantrell. These days, William DuVall fills Staley’s shoes as vocalist and guitar player. Now the band is all about those dark harmonies and even darker lyrics (as if that was possible.)

Stone Temple Pilots

Stone Temple Pilots

Photo by Selena Smith, used under Creative Commons

Wait a minute! A grunge band from San Diego? It had all the ingredients: Guitar more woven into the music, a lead singer who alternately growled and screamed, moving from acoustic to power chords on a dime. And drama. Lots of drama. Lead singer Scott Weiland spent the 1990’s on most people’s celebrity death poll, managed to get fired from STP, and even reminded Velvet Revolver why they all quit on Axl Rose. But oh, they sounded great. “Core,” “Sex Type Thing,” and “Interstate Love Song.”

The Foo Fighters

Foo Fighters

Photo by Christopher Simon, used under Creative Commons

Okay, technically, they’re post-grunge. And through most of the 1990’s, they were the Dave Grohl Band. But Nirvana planned to split up the songwriting between Grohl, Krist Novocelic, and Pat Smear to evolve the sound and take some of the load off Kurt Cobain. But Cobain died, and Grohl had some songs he wanted to do outside Nirvana. One trip to Sound City later, boom. Foo Fighters. They’ve since become the Band of the 2000’s. But grunge did not die. If you listen to the Foos’ output, it becomes clear it just outgrew itself.

Nirvana

Nirvana on MTV's Unplugged

Source: MTV

The mack daddies of grunge. Kurt Cobain’s fuck you attitude with lyrics personal to the point of being unintelligible. Those drums. The bass player bouncing about the stage the way most guitarists do. They didn’t scream. They yelled. They were pure punk rock, but, as Grohl said about 20 years after Nevermind, “We wanted to be The Beatles.” They made a pretty good run at it.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: The Red Hot Chili Peppers – more a funk band, but with the same attitude as their grunge brethren; Hole – Oh, come on. Courtney managed a few jewels between periodic self-destruction; Smashing Pumpkins – Rush fan Billy Corgan rewrites the rules, then breaks them all; Garbage – Shirley Manson is a grunge singer in search of a band. She found them in three producers from Madison, Wisconsin.

Favorite Bands: The Foo Fighters

Foo Fighters

Source: USA Today

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.

Almost.

davegrohlGrohl 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.