Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl: The live shows that made me

Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl looks back at a life lived and loved in venues – from the weird to the ginormous…

Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl: The live shows that made me
Nick Ruskell
Tom Barnes

This is how important playing live is to Dave Grohl: the last time Foo Fighters were here in Gothenburg’s Ullevi Stadium, in 2015, he took a tumble off the stage, earning himself a broken leg. Game over? Bollocks was it. This is Dave Grohl, and he’s in the middle of the serious business of rock’n’roll.

“You have my promise right now that the Foo Fighters, we’re gonna come back and finish this show,” he announced, before literally being taken away by medics because he had broken his leg. And Dave Grohl is not a liar. An hour later, he returned to finish his shift, bloodied but unbowed, and though a couple of other shows on the tour were cancelled as a result, Dave valiantly soldiered on with the aid of a massive throne, a piece of kit so useful that Axl Rose ended up borrowing it when he also did himself a mischief right before going on tour with Guns N’ Roses.

“That sucked!” winces Dave at the memory, as he sits down with Kerrang! ahead of the return to the 75,000-capacity scene of the accident. “But I was like, ‘Can I finish this? Then I have to fucking finish it!’”

The lesson is: nothing stands between Dave Grohl and an audience. And as someone who’s been playing gigs since he was a 12-year-old kid – whether at school Battle Of The Bands, self-promoted DIY punk shows in whatever spaces there were in Washington DC, headlining festivals or playing with his own heroes opening for him – the Foos frontman’s entire life has basically been lived onstage with an instrument in his hand. It’s shaped him, excited him, and made him who he is today.

Dave has invited Kerrang! to Sweden today in order to reflect on the shows that mark the waypoints on his journey – and how he himself has passed that torch on to the folks who have come to see him.

“I met some kid at catering the other day, he was in a band from Finland. He came up and said he started playing guitar because of us, which is the ultimate flattery,” he smiles. “I know who my heroes are, and I’ve showered all of them with praise and blessing, to their faces, because I wouldn’t be the musician that I am if not for them. It’s hard to imagine someone saying the same thing to me, that they’d seen us at their first show and we made them want to play music, but I hope that there’s someone out there I’ve inspired a little bit…”

1My introduction to punk rock

Naked Raygun, The Cubby Bear, Chicago, “Summer 1983”

“The first show I ever saw, and the one that made me want to play in a band, was at a punk rock club in Chicago in 1983. I went to this club with my cousin, Tracy, who we were visiting from Washington DC. Tracy was a few years older than me. One year we went to Chicago, opened up the front door of the house, and Tracy comes down the steps and she’s a punk. I’d only seen punks on television! She had her head shaved and was wearing bondage pants and a dog chain necklace. That night, she was going to see a band at a club called The Cubby Bear. It was this band Naked Raygun, and opening up for them that night was a band called Rights Of The Accused. I’d never seen a live band. I was in this small room with maybe 60 or 70 people, and I think I was probably 13, surrounded by mohawks and leather jackets and people spitting and stage-diving. And Naked Raygun, a band that was incredibly powerful but so simplistic and loud and noisy, yet at the same time clever and arty, just blew my mind.

“I’d been playing guitar for a few years and I was in a neighbourhood band that did cover songs – but I never imagined I could have a real band of my own, where we wrote music, because I just wasn’t that accomplished as a musician. But seeing these punk rock bands I thought, ‘Oh my God – I totally could do this!’ The energy and the vibe and the atmosphere of just total joyous rebellion was what really turned me on. The energy and the experience that I had that night I’ve kind of used as a foundation, or based everything else upon from that night on. If I go to see a giant arena band with a giant production, lasers and fucking video screens and explosions – I still base it on the energy I had that night. It was like losing your virginity. Except it was good!”

2The first show I played with my own band

Various spaces, Washington DC, 1983-4

“It was probably my neighbourhood band, and we would play backyard parties. We played at a nursing home once! I think it was something we did for extra credit at school, because all of the people in the band were my classmates. We were fucking 12 or 13 years old. There’s a lot of jokes you could make about the audience being dead, but for us it was fucking hilarious. We were playing to people that were in their 90s, y’know? And we played Time Is On My Side [by The Rolling Stones] – we didn’t realise the comedy or irony in playing it!

“We also played our high school Battle Of The Bands. In my high school, I was the only kid that listened to punk rock music. Everybody else was preppie, straight, and so I really wanted to make it a point that I was different. I remember playing this Battle Of The Bands in camouflage pants, a flannel shirt – basically the same thing I wear now (laughs)! – with my Ovation electric guitar with an Exploited sticker on it… doing the theme from [‘80s dancing movie] Footloose! It was pretty ridiculous. Did we win? Of course not!”

3Joining Scream and having to step up

Amnesty International Benefit, Washington DC, “Summer 1987”

“For any band growing up in DC, Bad Brains were important. Most of the local bands were inspired by them. Scream was one of those bands that saw Bad Brains in the late-‘70s or early-‘80s, and it changed their lives. So, when Scream would get up onstage before I was in the band, as a kid in the audience I was blown away. They would play a breakneck, fast-paced hardcore song, and then bust into some reggae jam, and then do, like, Chantilly Lace, an old rock’n’roll classic [by The Big Bopper]. They were all over the place, and I thought that was really cool, that their range was more than just hardcore shit.

“When I heard that they needed a drummer I was like, ‘Well, that’s the band I want to be in.’ When I joined them, we had real shows, we had actual tours. I had never left home, really, and that was when I was 18. The first show I played with Scream was an Amnesty International benefit, and afterward we all marched up to the South African embassy. The whole audience marched up there. This was during apartheid. I was scared shitless, because I’d grown up watching this band fucking destroy every night. They were all 10 years older than me, I was a kid, and I had to replace their amazing drummer. I was terrified. But, (shouts) I fucking brought it, dude!”

4My first Nirvana show

North Shore Surf Club, Olympia, Washington, October 1990

“I had just joined the band, like, fucking three weeks before that, and we had rehearsed, I dunno, five or six times. We wanted to have one show before this short tour of England that we had committed to do. There was this small club that held maybe 600 or 700 people down the street from where Kurt [Cobain] and I were living, and it was very last minute. I think they announced the show a week before it happened. We went in and soundchecked, I left to get something to eat, I came back and there was a line around the block! I had never seen that at any gig that I had ever played. There were hundreds of people, and it fucking blew my mind. I remember calling my mother and saying, ‘Mom, there are at least 300 people in line right now!’ Which is more than I think ever came to a Scream show, and it was fucking magical. We started with Love Buzz, and I’ll never forget it, the audience just exploded. We were tight, and it was chaotic, and it felt just right and it sounded great. Afterwards, I was on cloud nine. The band I’d been in before Scream was also a three-piece, and there’s something about the energy of a three-piece. There’s also something about the fragility of a three-piece. If something falls apart, it really fucking falls apart – there’s not a lot of middle ground. It’s a house of cards. I remember afterwards thinking, ‘Oh, this is good, I like this.’ It was great!”

5Headlining Reading

Nirvana, Reading Festival, August 1992

“Reading changed me. I grew up with it, so headlining was unbelievable. When I first joined Nirvana, like the day I fucking moved up [to Seattle], Krist [Novoselic, bass] was having a barbecue in his back yard, and Dan Peters, the drummer from Mudhoney was there. He was talking about just getting back from England, and I said to him, ‘What’s the biggest audience you’ve ever played to?’ He said, ‘About 35,000 people,’ and I said, ‘Where the fuck was that!?’ He told me there’s this festival in England called Reading, and it’s huge. Then I saw it on our itinerary in ‘91, that we’d be halfway up the bill with Sonic Youth and Iggy Pop, and from the day I saw that on there, to the minute I walked out onstage, I would wake up every fucking morning in a panic attack that I had to go and play in front of that many people.

“A lot happened after that. In the 12 months between Reading ’91 and Reading ’92 when we headlined, the band had exploded… and imploded. We went from being a three-piece band in a splitter van with a tour manager and a monitor guy, to selling millions of records, and a lot changed. It was a pretty chaotic 12 months. Kurt got strung out and wound up having to go to rehab. I remember we finished that tour in early ’92, and we had toured America, we had toured Europe, we’d been to Australia and Japan, and we ended in Hawaii. By the time we got there we thought, ‘Okay, we need to fucking chill out, because the world has gone crazy – not just ours but everybody else’s.’ So, we took a break, and in that time Kurt had a kid, and had his ups and downs. It was chaos.

“I remember showing up to Reading ’92 and there being so many rumours that we weren’t going to play, that we had cancelled. I walked backstage and some of my best friends in bands that were opening would see me and say, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I’d go, ‘We’re fucking headlining!’ And they’d be like, ‘You’re actually going to play?!’ I didn’t realise there was any question that we were going to play. I knew within myself I was questioning if we could play, but I knew we were going to try.

“The show was a really reassuring, genuinely magical moment of everything coming together at the right time. I think we had practised once, the day before, and I just didn’t know if we could pull it off. That happened a bunch of times in Nirvana, where you’d think, ‘God, this is going to be a fucking disaster,’ and then it would turn out to be something beautiful. So yeah, it went great, but it’s sad that that’s the last time we ever played England, because it could have been better. We just didn’t play England enough, I don’t think. The memory is somewhat triumphant but melancholy, because we never came back.”

6My chaotic first show at Reading with Foo Fighters

Reading Festival, August 1995

“That was a riot – it wasn’t our idea! We’d played a show at King’s College in London, then came back to do Reading festival, which was kind of our first proper gig in England. They had us headlining the side stage, and I felt weird about that. I felt like, ‘Nobody’s even fucking seen us!’ I think the record [Foo Fighters, 1995] had been out for maybe a month or something, not long. But I didn’t feel deserving of headlining the tent, because we were a new band. I really thought of us as a new band; I didn’t think of it as some fucking sideshow shit, we were a band and I wanted to do it right. Our first tours we did in America we got the van and the trailer and we did it the way you should do it.

“I remember Björk was headlining the main stage, and maybe 45 minutes to an hour before we went on you could see the tent starting to fill up, and it was a hot day. The tent was getting more and more crowded, and the crowd around the tent was getting bigger and bigger. As we were setting up the gear I was thinking, ‘Oh God, this is going to be fucking chaos.’ I just knew it – but at that point it’s do or die, you’ve got to go for it. More people started crushing into the tent, and I remember at one point the promoter coming up to me and saying we can’t play on the side stage. He said, ‘You have to go on the main stage, after Björk.’ I said, ‘No fucking way are we going to go headline the main stage at the first legitimate show we have in the UK! I mean, I get it, I don’t want anyone to get hurt, but that’s a bit presumptuous, don’t you think?!’

“When you see the security guards starting to pass out, that’s a problem. There were people climbing up the poles and hanging from the fucking rafters, and as far as you could see it was this tight, packed wave of sweaty fucking lunatics with us just trying to get through every song. Maybe after three or four songs the promoter was on the side of the stage going, ‘You guys have to stop. Just stop!’ I turned to the audience and said, ‘I’m sorry, this guy’s telling us we have to stop,’ and there was this roar of ‘Noooo!’ And he looks at me and says (urgently) ‘Keep playing! Keep playing!’”

7That time my heroes Motörhead supported me

Foo Fighters, Hyde Park, London, June 2006

“The great thing about that day was we got to pick the bill. So, we called all our friends – Queens [Of The Stone Age], Motörhead, Juliette Lewis was there, Angels & Airwaves. To me, it was like a party. It was like inviting a bunch of people to a barbecue, where I was literally barbecuing for everybody backstage before the show. When I went out to do that gig I smelled like a fucking cheeseburger. I’d been cooking all day. ‘Dave, you’re on in 20 minutes’ – ‘Okay, okay, I’m still flipping burgers!’

“At that point, the size of an audience was not as important as the atmosphere, or the energy in the audience. At this point in my life I don’t care how many people are out there; that doesn’t bother me. It’s what we do together. If it’s a club with 120 people, or if it’s a field with 120,000 people, none of that bothers me. It’s how we interact and what happens in the next two and a half hours. Something like Hyde Park, when you do a gig like that, we basically put that show on ourselves – all of the staging, all of the vendors, not unlike when I was a kid when I was putting on little community centre shows. This was a much larger version of that. There’s a sense of responsibility, but then there’s also this sense of pride that you can do something like that, and bring that sort of pleasure to that many people. I was proud that I could call Lemmy and say, ‘Hey, do you want to play Hyde Park together?’ Then there’s Motörhead onstage, playing Overkill to 50,000 people or whatever. I’m proud of things like that, y’know? It’s cool to be able to get your friends involved to come and play. Like, ‘We can get Motörhead? Why wouldn’t we have them, then?!’ It’s just like a travelling circus. And the circus came to town.”

8Two nights at Wembley

Foo Fighters, Wembley Stadium, London, June 2008

“The first time we played Wembley Stadium, it was for Live Earth in 2007. It was Metallica, Madonna, the Beastie Boys, Genesis, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the fucking Pussycat Dolls… It was all these really gigantic bands – and then us. So I just assumed that the line-up would be in order of popularity, meaning we’d be down here, and Madonna would be up here. So I get there and look at the schedule, and we’re on at like fucking nine o’clock at night or something, right before Madonna, I think, and after Metallica and the Chili Peppers, and Genesis, and the Beastie Boys. I’m like, ‘What the fuck – this is crazy! What do we do with this? We can’t go on after Metallica. That’s fucking insane! That’s the stupidest idea ever!’ It went over so well that I jokingly said, ‘Well, we’ll be back next summer doing two nights in this place on our own.’ I was fucking kidding, and then after six or seven months we got the call saying, ‘Hey, do you really want to do Wembley?’ It was such an incredible full circle moment for the band, because none of us ever imagined that we would be there. We’ve had that moment more than a few times: the first time we headlined Reading; the first time we did a Wembley; the Glastonbury show. There have been those moments where you’ve been like, ‘This started with a fucking demo tape.‘ I’m looking at my mother on the side of the stage knowing that tonight my band is getting paid more than she ever got paid in her 35 years of being a public school teacher, where she worked 70 hours a week. She’s a fucking saint, she’s a fucking soldier, and I’m looking at her at the side of the stage thinking, ‘Oh my God, all I have to do is scream into my microphone for a fucking hour and 45 minutes.’ It’s that kind of shit where I’m like, ‘This is just insane. This doesn’t make any fucking sense to me at all.’ I’ll take it, I’m not complaining, but really there have been these moments where I just cannot believe it. I know I sold my soul to the Devil, I hope just he waits a while before he takes it!”

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