Book review: Ian Winwood – Bodies: Life And Death In Music
Kerrang! writer Ian Winwood examines the failures of the music industry with startling candour…
A quarter century ago, when Dave Grohl went from being the ex-drummer in Nirvana to the frontman of his own fledgling band, even his most ardent believers would’ve struggled to conceive the success Foo Fighters have gone on to achieve. Embracing the lessons learned during that first behind-the-kit stint on top of the world, but replacing much of Kurt Cobain’s despondency with his own energy and optimism, failure was never really an option. Even still, the supernova spark of this new sound feels genuinely like that once-in-a-lifetime instance of lightning striking twice.
A large part of the Foos phenomenon has been Dave’s uncanny knack for having like-minds gravitate into his orbit, with sporadically-involved guitarist and Nirvana collaborator Pat Smear, and Nate Mendel having been involved since day one, while drummer Taylor Hawkins dared take on one of the most demanding roles in rock, Me First And The Gimme Gimmes guitarist Chris Shiflett came aboard in 1999 and Wallflowers keyboardist Rami Jaffee has played a part since 2005.
Of even more importance has been the desire to endure. Across nine albums and countless live performances – years of stress and self-doubt, disenchantment and injury – it has been the consistency and reliability of the Foos’ output (and a simple lack of pretentiousness) that has maintained connection with the average fan in the stands even as they have moved into stadia. So, which songs are most emblematic of rock’s greatest everymen? Let's find out…
There was a bitterness and trauma surrounding the suicide of Kurt Cobain and the subsequent break-up of Nirvana that pulsated through so much of Dave’s early work with Foo Fighters. “It’s just a very negative song about feeling you were violated or deprived,” the singer would explain to Rolling Stone of one of the most sour offerings from the era. Cropping up between the comparatively sugary This Is A Call and Big Me on the self-titled debut, I’ll Stick Around sees the simplicity and catchiness of a pop song run through some ragged distortion, while the on-the-nose lyrics – ‘I don't owe you anything / I had no hand / In your ever desperate plan / It returns and when it lands / Words are due’ – pointedly speak for themselves.
There’s a school of thought that says the fifth and final single from There Is Nothing Left To Lose showcases the Foos at their wimpiest. Indeed, Dave himself has since referred to the song as a “piece of shit” and the band have rarely returned to such gently hazy territory in the years since. As a moment in time, however, it endures, nodding heavily to the world-beating Britpop phenomenon that was still in its pomp during recording. Dealing in the universal longing for home and featuring a drum fill that might’ve been nicked straight from Oasis’ Wonderwall, this is Foo Fighters at their most effectively populist: best enjoyed with lager in hand and arms around your best mates’ shoulders.
Although there’s an argument that the subtler woozy build and thrashing payoff of album track Dirty Water is actually the highlight of ninth LP Concrete And Gold, it’s pipped for us by the broader swoop and more manic energy of lead single Run. Marrying Beatles-esque chord progressions, a springy punk attitude and shrieks of chaotic noise rock glee to a surprisingly earnest message about waking up and seizing the moment, Run felt like a wild, leftfield statement from these established stadium-dwellers and went on to win the Best Rock Song GRAMMY in 2018. Its retirement-home-set music video is another superb effort, featuring one of the funniest NSFW moments in recent memory.
Echoing his inspired 2004 Probot collaboration with Dave, the appearance of inimitable Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister as the driver of the eponymous White Limo in the VHS-filtered music video lent the track a sense of unimpeachable cool before it had even truly hit pace. Thankfully, Taylor’s smashing percussion and the three-guitar attack ensure it grows into the sort of desert-rock-on-steroids monster of which the English hellraiser doubtless approved. All screeching verse and fist-in-the-air chorus, this is the kind of unapologetically metallic, heads-down banger many fans wish the band would roll out more often.
Purposefully placed as the final track on Wasting Light, Walk was a song Dave had been sitting on for a few years previously before realising that it fit perfectly with the seventh album’s themes of time, nostalgia, and second chances. Invoking ’90s pop-rock contenders Tal Bachman’s She’s So High and prominently featuring Rami Jaffee on keyboards, there is real warmth and texture in its sepia-toned colour and thematic positivity. That powerful bridge (‘I'm dancing on my grave / I'm running through the fire / Forever, whenever / I never wanna die’) speaks both to the rich history of the band and the hope for many years to come. And while the cracking, Falling Down-inspired music video might feel like an incongruous fit for the song, it remains a hoot regardless.
Perhaps best remembered for the twistedly inspired music-video collaboration with Jack Black (acting opposite Dave as caricature rednecks entering a darkened motel room, modelling on a variety of fetching wigs and lingerie, and proceeding to trash the place), Low also happens to be the band’s heaviest sounding song. Coming on like a turbocharged Deftones number, it manages to walk that finest of lines between seething threat and seductive subversion. The frontman’s lasciviously moaned vocals evoke prime Chino Moreno, while the duelling riffage swirls in glorious stereo like the half-remembered regrets of a hard night on the sauce.
An unexpectedly proggy swerve that arrived as the lead single for seventh album Wasting Light (the first of the band’s post-Greatest Hits era), Rope felt like a direct riposte to those claiming that we’d already seen everything Foo Fighters had to offer. Layering-up a collection of rhythms and riffs that seem to barely hang together, breathy verses (‘These premonitions got me crying up a storm / Leave your condition, this position does no harm’) and a sporadic ‘YOW!’ that sounds like Dave channelling soul legend James Brown through a distortion pedal, we’re paid off with a chorus line – ‘Give me some rope I'm coming loose, I'm hanging on you’ – that’s pure stadium-rock gold.
Those detractors who dismiss the Foos as meat-and-potatoes pop-rock for the masses should go right back to their debut LP for a better understanding of their complex genesis. First released as a rare 12” promo on January 8, 1995 through Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder’s Self-Pollution Radio, Exhausted was a sludgy, six-minute statement smothered in fuzz and charged with the same loud loneliness Dave had helped benchmark with Nirvana’s In Utero less than two years earlier. With retrospect, the song was more about purging that darkness of the recent past at their outset than signposting the way forward for the Foos, but it remains every bit as powerful as when it first dropped.
Even if the jangly, mid-tempo, almost post-punk sound of the second single from One By One felt like a step down from the barn-burning high impact of All My Life (and the heaviness strewn throughout much of the rest of that LP), its message of keeping on keeping on even in the face of self-doubt and adversity remains one of the Foos’ most powerfully affirmative. ‘Do I stay or run away / And leave it all behind?’ Dave asks as the guitars cascade, intertwine and drift off with a sense of psychedelic possibility that’s matched by the kaleidoscopic music video. ‘It's times like these you learn to live again / It's times like these you give and give again / It's times like these you learn to love again.’ Quite.
Arguably the Foo Fighters’ most melodic, easygoing, radio-friendly single – arriving as the first from There Is Nothing Left To Lose – emerged from a place of uncertainty from the band who were in the process of trying to replace guitarist Franz Stahl while also trying out drummer Taylor Hawkins on record for the first time. Although Dave has said that the song is actually one of his least favourite on the LP, its inspirational depiction of a band ‘looking for a sign of life’ and that hilarious, hallucinogen-laced music video (featuring an early cameo from Tenacious D) saw Learn To Fly carry Foo Fighters to delirious new heights.
Having relocated to Los Angeles about a year before recording on Foos’ third album started, the lead track of that release sees the frontman raging against the countless fakes and phonies of Hollywood. Possessed of a strident swagger and more scathing sense of humour than what had come before, lines like, ‘I'm impressed, what a beautiful chest / I never meant to make a big scene’ and, ‘Yeah, but what do you do when you’re just another ageing drag queen?’ (a line Courtney Love seemed convinced was about here) bristle with provocative wit. The chorus – ‘Stack dead actors / Stacked to the rafters / Line up the bastards / All I want is the truth’ – reaffirms the band’s place as unlikely everymen amongst the ultimately bourgeois American celebrity elite.
Foo Fighters’ first single proper is also arguably the ultimate distillation of what they’re about. Marrying power pop melody to a barroom beat and some downright grungy six-strings, This Is A Call set the template for virtually everything that would follow. The lyrics about Ritalin, balloons, pretty fingernails and bartering cysts and mollusks are full of much of the same subverted childish wonder as Nirvana classics like Polly, but when Dave declares ‘This is a call to all my past resignations’, it lands with more propulsive hope than pained introversion. A quarter-century on, it remains a potent call to arms for the Foos’ ever-enduring fanbase.
One of the Foos most beautiful compositions is also one of their most underrated. A soft-focus ode to the Northern city of Seattle – and the wonders it bestowed on Dave after he moved West – Aurora was never an official single, but it has become a fan-favourite over the years. “It is definitely one of my favourite songs that we've ever come up with,” Dave has noted. “Lyrically, it's just kind of a big question mark, but the words sound good and it's a nostalgic look back at Seattle and the life I once had. That song actually questions the meaning of life, probably. It's probably the heaviest thing I've ever written.” Stick it next to Everlong on your Foos playlist for a surprisingly favourable comparison.
“My heroes were ordinary people, and the people that I have a lot of respect for are just solid everyday people,” Dave has commented on the inspiration behind the third single from The Colour And The Shape. “People you can rely on.” With the band struggling due to the departure of drummer William Goldsmith during recording of the album and Dave himself being forced to step back behind the kit, there was plenty to read into in terms of the value of loyalty and reliability at the time. As the years have passed, that build of drums, bass and showered-on guitar in My Hero has become representative of rock’s most dependable bands: light on drama but heavy hitters in the feels.
There’s an infectious, jingle-alike simplicity about self-titled album stand-out Big Me that the Foos themselves acknowledged with that beloved, VMA-winning, Mentos-commercial-riffing music video before anyone else had the chance to take the piss. Reportedly penned while Dave was still playing drums for Nirvana, Kurt Cobain’s influence is clear on one of the frontman’s most ingeniously easy melodies and repetitively abstract (largely nonsensical) lyrics that somehow only reinforce the pop-rock brilliance. Where Kurt’s lyrics were so often spiked with venom, though, Dave was really striking out on his own here with a sense of feel-good whimsy capable of winning over even the least hardened ears.
Opening with a melancholic passage openly indebted to The Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps and closing with that furious demand of ‘Who are you?’ nodding to The Who’s infamous smasher titled the same, The Pretender feels like Foo Fighters staking their claim to rock’n’roll immortality. Produced by the legendary Gil Norton and possessed of a singular smashing energy, it won over the few dissenting voices in our community claiming that this band didn’t have what it took to be true Monsters Of Rock. Ironically, Dave himself has noted that the track was inspired subconsciously by the Sesame Street sing-along One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other. We’d love to see Kermit The Frog jumping in the pit for this!
Over-earnestness and syrupy sentimentality have never particularly burdened Foo Fighters’ music, but when they do let loose some chest-beating emotion, few outfits do it better. Inspired by time on the campaign trail with 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (who ultimately lost out to George W. Bush’s second term), 2005’s double-album In Your Honour still found the band overflowing with belief. Lead single Best Of You was initially lost in the inspirational shuffle, but on the insistence of their manager, the track was dug up, rounded out and went on to become a worldwide hit, even covered by Prince during his Super Bowl XLI halftime show. If only the rest of In Your Honor had such well-focused emotional power.
Looking back, it feels bewildering that the lead single from The Colour And The Shape could’ve been anything other than the epic, definitive Everlong. Where that masterpiece showcased the depth of thought and feeling in Foo Fighters’ sound, however, it was the sense of immediate, smash-mouth momentum and fist-in-the-air catharsis of Monkey Wrench that would, shorter term, propel them towards rock’s big leagues. Interestingly, like Everlong, Dave told Mojo that the song was inspired by his failing marriage at the time. “It's about living with someone and feeling like you're living in a fucking cell,” he reckoned. “And then I wound up getting a divorce.” That incredible one-breath bridge (‘One last thing before I quit! / I never wanted any more than I could fit into my head! / I still remember every single word you said / And all the shit that somehow came along with it! / Still, there's one thing that comforts me / Since I was always caged and now I'm free!’) remains their most brilliantly bristling moment.
Although the Nirvana-related heat had been there since their inception, and the three preceding albums (each of which picked up K!’s respective album of the year award) were all-time greats, it was One By One which properly rocket-boosted the Foos’ final ascent to megastardom. ’90s grunginess was left behind, replaced by a heavy, polished hard rock that would soon catapult them to festival headlines and into stadia. ‘Closer to the prize at the end of the rope,’ as Dave reckons on the album’s throbbing lead single. There’s a breathless frustration that burns through All My Life’s verses and over that scratched riff that isn’t quite resolved by the anthemic chorus. With retrospect, that disconnect feels intentional, as the band grapple with that frustrating period before they properly bubbled over into the mainstream: ‘When it comes around / When it’s taken away.’ It feels all the sweeter when screamed back at the stage nowadays: an acknowledgement of the hard graft in getting to the top and a gunpowder celebration now that they’re there.
It might be a predictable choice, but with Foo Fighters there really can only be one number one. Penned over one of the lowest periods in Dave Grohl’s life – Christmas 1996, when he had just divorced photographer Jennifer Youngblood, was crashing on a friend’s couch and faced an uncertain future with the Foos – Everlong is an irresistible, reminiscent testament to the power of love (even when just remembered) in lighting the darkness. Accompanied initially by an excellent Evil Dead-aping music video, the track has grown into a massive live favourite over the years, whether performed with the full band or by Dave solo. Legendary Late Show host David Letterman considered it his favourite song, and had the band on to perform it at several pivotal moments towards the end of his career. Even better, the mighty Bob Dylan once complimented Dave on its brilliance, suggesting that he might even learn Everlong himself. Praise doesn’t come much higher than that.
Kerrang! writer Ian Winwood examines the failures of the music industry with startling candour…
As Billie Eilish paid tribute to Taylor Hawkins during her performance at last night’s GRAMMYs, the Foo Fighters also won all three awards they were nominated for: Best Rock Performance, Best Rock Song and Best Rock Album.
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Paul McCartney has shared a beautiful written tribute to the late Taylor Hawkins, calling him a “great drummer” with a “big and shiny” personality.
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