“I don’t owe you anything” screams Dave Grohl over and over in “I’ll Stick Around,” and it sounds at once like a desperate chant against evil thoughts, a bitter testimonial to history and the needed disposal of some traumatic baggage. “I want out / I’m alone and I’m an easy target,” he worries two songs later.
The spotlight is hardly an ideal hiding place, but maybe the onetime Nirvana drummer (whose career began in Washington DC, in Dischord punk band Scream and such lesser outfits as Dain Bramage) is just facing his fears. Stepping out from behind the relative safety of his monstrously battered kit, Grohl writes, plays guitar and sings in the Foo Fighters, an ambitious return to active duty following Nirvana’s sudden death in 1994.
Recorded before he formed a band, Foo Fighters is entirely Grohl’s doing (save for a bit of guitar playing by Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli. The quartet’s final lineup, pictured but not named on the record, includes guitarist Pat Smear, originally of Los Angeles’ legendary Germs, a solo artist and, then a touring member of Nirvana, plus the former rhythm section of Seattle’s Sunny Day Real Estate: bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith.) On record and in concert, Grohl emerges as a potent frontpunk with a limited vocal range, good songs, ample enthusiasm and too much imagination to simply replicate the signature sound of the band that made him famous.
Roaring with guitar distortion like a fission furnace threatening imminent disaster and underpinned by a seismically massive bottom, Foo Fighters clearly takes some of its stylistic cues from Nirvana. The lunging bass, oblong chord progression, abrupt time shift and vocal style of “Alone+Easy Target” are unmistakable; “This Is a Call” and “I’ll Stick Around,” both written in the wake of Cobain’s suicide, manifest his influence on Grohl’s music. But other songs — the quiet, harmony-tinged “Big Me,” the lightly sung verses of “Good Grief,” the distorto-pop reverie of “Floaty,” the overload frenzy of “Weenie Beenie,” the swinging bop of “For All the Cows,” the metallic riff rip of “Wattershed” — push the album beyond Grohl’s past, outlining a more diverse approach Foo Fighters have yet to fully realize. The rock-solid delivery of the simple tunes, which have sketchily significant lyrics and catchy hooks, makes them seem like more than they are, and that won’t wash twice. Having made a successful lift-off, Foo Fighters still has to find and reach an ultimate target.
After some drama sent Goldsmith back to Sunny Day Real Estate, Grohl played drums on all but three tracks of The Colour and the Shape. Opening with the quiet “Doll,” the record runs a rollercoaster course in the wake of Grohl’s divorce, from the rocking, harsh “Monkey Wrench” and “My Hero,” taken by many to be an encomium to Cobain, to the expansive pop-rock (until it explodes into a Nirvana-like screamfest) of “New Way Home.” The record takes a soft detour towards the end with the gorgeous “Everlong” and “Walking After You,” which was later re-recorded for the X-Files album. Without losing its Nirvana chromosomes, Foo Fighters was on the way to establishing an identity of its own.
Former Alanis Morrissette drummer Taylor Hawkins joined and guitarist Pat Smear left. Former Scream / Wool guitarist Franz Stahl had a cup of coffee in the band, but finally Chris Shiflett, formerly of No Use for a Name, arrived after There Is Nothing Left to Lose was finished. The recording process (at Grohl’s home studio in Virginia) was obviously stressful, but there’s no evidence of that in the music. Calmer than its predecessor, the album features swooning songs like “Next Year” and light pop like the hit “Learn to Fly.” The hard edge is there as well, in the ripping “Live-In Skin,” “Breakout” and “Stacked Actors,” purportedly about Courtney Love.
In 2002, after Taylor Hawkins’ London hospitalization in 2001 and Grohl’s gigs in Tenacious D and Queens of the Stone Age (on Songs for the Deaf), Foo Fighters produced One by One. While it begins with the thunderous “All My Life,” the record is a colossal disappointment. Other than the “Everlong”-like “Times Like These,” the drum-less “Tired of You” (with guest guitarist Brian May of Queen) and the standard rocker “Have It All,” the band is on autopilot.
Three years later, after jumping on the John Kerry bandwagon, the band came back with an ambitious two-CD set, In Your Honor. With one disc of hard, loud songs and one of quiet acoustic songs, the Foos were definitely trying something new. From the blistering title track, the rock disc goes from the hardest extremes of the band’s sound (“DOA” and “Free Me”) to the quieter aspect of the band’s intensity (“Best of You” and “The Deepest Blues Are Black”). The band’s heaviest album to date showed its power to great effect. The second disc is nothing special. While “Another Round” and “Miracle” glow with a sheen not seen since Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, “Cold Day in the Sun” and “Over and Out” just don’t do anything. The highlight is “Virginia Moon,” an unlikely duet with Norah Jones which revels in the interplay between their voices and orchestration by former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.
After touring extensively behind In Your Honor, the band did a 2006 acoustic tour which is documented on Skin and Bones, recorded live in Los Angeles. A noble experiment that doesn’t pay off finds the band augmented by Smear, a percussionist, violinist Petra Haden (ex-that dog.) and Wallflowers keyboardist Rami Jaffe. Ultimately, while expanding on “Big Me,” “Next Year” and “Times Like These,” the record isn’t very good. In addition to one new song (“Skin and Bones”), the nugget here is the first Foo Fighters recording of “Marigold,” a Grohl-sung Nirvana B-side circa In Utero.
With an immediate return to form in “The Pretender,” Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace is the Foos at their hardest-rocking. The album balances loud and soft, from “Long Road to Ruin,” “Erase/Replace” and “Let It Die” (with a Smear solo) to “Stranger Things Have Happened,” “Come Alive” and “Summer’s End.” The instrumental “Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners” showcases Grohl’s acoustic guitar chops, while the piano-driven “Home” provides a lovely ending to an excellent album.
The band then took an extended break, broken only by two new songs produced by Butch Vig for the Greatest Hits record; neither the ballad “Wheels” nor the rueful “Word Forward” is top-tier stuff. Grohl played in Them Crooked Vultures with Josh Homme and John Paul Jones while the others began solo careers.
Foo Fighters re-emerged in 2011 with Pat Smear back on board full-time. Wasting Light, produced by Vig, contains some of the hardest-hitting stuff the band has ever recorded. “Rope” and “White Limo” have a swing and intensity that is rare on Foos records. “Bridge Burning,” “Dear Rosemary” and “Arlandria” are more middle of the road; while it’s all loud, the band proves capable of taking it down a notch and still making it work. “I Should Have Known” reads like a goodbye note to Cobain, a wistful ode to what could have been. The nothing-special “Walk” became one of the band’s biggest hits. Definitely one of the band’s best albums.
Medium Rare, released on Record Store Day, is a collection of the band’s B-side covers.
Grohl, whose energy and creative ambition seem boundless, then decided to make a documentary about the music scenes in different cities around the country and interview all his friends. Somehow, that plan resulted in an album. Sonic Highways is easily the worst Foos record: eight songs, each with a different guest star, including Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie), Gary Clark Jr., Zac Brown and even Joe Walsh of the Eagles. “The Feast and the Famine” features Grohl’s old Scream bandmates Pete Stahl and Skeeter Thompson. The best of a weak bunch of songs are “Outside,” “Something From Nothing,” “In the Clear” and “What Did I Do?/God as My Witness.” The documentary is fine, but the record that came of it is disjointed and lacks overall power. During the following tour, Grohl fell off a stage in Sweden and had to continue the tour perched in a custom-made throne.
After releasing a stopgap EP in a similar vein, the band took another break to pursue different projects. They finally reconvened with, of all people, chart-pop producer Greg Kurstin (Adele, Lily Allen, Kelly Clarkson) and released the star-studded Concrete and Gold. Using such guest stars as Justin Timberlake, Paul McCartney, Shawn Stockman of Boyz II Men and Inara George more judiciously, the record is a welcome rebound. “Run” and “La Dee Da” burst right through the speakers and show the band to be back with a vengeance. “The Sky Is a Neighborhood” is one of the Foos’ best songs in a long time and the video, featuring Grohl’s daughters, is a winner.