Time Capsule: Foo Fighters, Foo Fighters

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Time Capsule: Foo Fighters, Foo Fighters

Every Saturday, Paste will be revisiting albums that came out before the magazine was founded in July 2002 and assessing its current cultural relevance. This week, we’re looking at the birth of the Foo Fighters, Dave Grohl’s solo project formed through his search for purpose and clarity after Kurt Cobain’s passing—which arrived on Independence Day in 1995 and became a pivotal, post-grunge turning point for alt-rock in perpetuity.

It is difficult to speak about the first Foo Fighters record without mentioning its origins: Dave Grohl recorded the LP in October 1994 as a means of finding catharsis in the wake of his Nirvana bandmate Kurt Cobain’s suicide months prior. It’s a tale that gets passed around often, how the beginnings of one of the best still-going rock bands started after such a consequential tragedy. But in 2024, the Foo Fighters are as integral to the legacy and continued relevance of rock ‘n’ roll as Nirvana was 30 years ago. Grohl, ever the anchor behind the drum kit, has worn many hats in his day—and he tries all of them on for size across the 44-minute runtime of his debut “solo” record, Foo Fighters.

Like Paul McCartney, Phil Collins, Prince, Nine Inch Nails and Todd Rundgren before him, Grohl recorded every instrument on Foo Fighters except for the guitar miscellany provided by Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli on “X-Static.” With that in mind, the album truly is one man’s search for clarity after the death of his dear friend. Labeled “post-grunge” because of its emergence from the ashes of the now-defunct Nirvana’s dissolution, Foo Fighters is a pastiche of the rock canon—lionizing punk, hardcore and chart-sensible alternative across 12 songs. Grohl wrote and recorded much of the LP concurrently, save for songs like “Exhausted” and “Alone + Easy Target”—both of which he’s dropped hints about having shown to Cobain in the years prior to Foo Fighters. Grohl often wrote while on tour with Nirvana and would book studio time to make demos and record covers. This is how his album Pocketwatch—recorded under the pseudonym Late!—came to exist. Grohl’s work doesn’t sound rushed or forced, as if his songwriting prowess was merely waiting to bubble into its own fully-realized playground.

Foo Fighters is a debut worth its weight in whatever you’re willing to invest into it. By all means, it is not Grohl at his sharpest, but you can make the argument that it’s him at his most compelling. There’s a universal understanding that when we grieve we are susceptible to making cathartic art, and Grohl’s history is no exception. The first Foo Fighters album and the most recent Foo Fighters album—both written in the aftermath of profound loss, the latter composed after Grohl’s longtime bandmate Taylor Hawkins passed away suddenly in 2022—each present themselves as documents of passages of time during wall-to-wall, unshakable grief. While But Here We Are was a collective, band-centric attempt at moving forward without their beloved and longtime moorer, Foo Fighters was an individualistic, contained fracas of displeasurable melancholy and level-one wit.

And Foo Fighters is a rather opaque record by choice, with Grohl writing feverishly in an attempt to fall back in love with music after the depressive, downward spiral he plummeted into pretty soon after Cobain’s death. Sure, we learn practically nothing about Grohl as a person by the time it’s over—but the merit of Foo Fighters is contingent on what the making of it was meant to serve rather than whom. The soft-loud-soft and soft-soft-loud arrangements didn’t reinvent the wheel nor did they had any new flavors to it, but Grohl’s understanding of cross-genre aesthetics and attitudes lends itself well to the, as Robert Christgau aptly put it, “poetic moments of dudespeak” on the record.

Grohl himself has acknowledged that Foo Fighters was “not meant to be an album, it was an experiment and for fun.” “I was just fucking around,” he said in 2011. “Some of the lyrics weren’t even real words.” Be that as it may, Foo Fighters is still charming from end to end. In the studio with Pocketwatch producer Barrett Jones, Grohl recorded each song in about 45 minutes, in one take (except for “I’ll Stick Around,” which clocked in at two takes because Grohl wasn’t keen on his singing) and in the order they all appear on the final tracklist. The idea to adopt the “Foo Fighters” was Grohl’s attempt to sustain anonymity (and he pulled the idea from a ufology book he was reading). Foo Fighters was meant to be a one-off release, with 100 vinyls pressed and 100 cassettes manufactured—the latter of which Grohl passed out to friends and strangers he’d encountered. After Eddie Vedder played a demo of “Exhausted” on his Self-Pollution radio show, labels had interest in signing the Foo Fighters. Capitol Records signed Grohl, and mixing sessions promptly started at Robert Lang Studios, only for the finished product to quickly get scrapped in favor of the mixes made at Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock’s Arcata studio “The Shop.” Schnapf reportedly mixed “Big Me” in 20 minutes.

During the mixing process, Tom Petty invited Grohl to play drums in the Heartbreakers on their Saturday Night Live appearance. After that performance, Petty offered a full-time invitation to Grohl but rescinded it once he caught wind about the Foo Fighters—urging him to focus on that rather than hit the road with the Florida unit. And that’s exactly what Grohl did, welcoming Sunny Day Real Estate’s William Goldsmith, bassist Nate Mendel and former Germs co-founder and Nirvana touring guitarist Pat Smear into the band. While none of those guys actually play on Foo Fighters, their membership gave Grohl a viable direction to follow after he proved he could make a record full of blistered choruses and self-conscious, self-aware back-and-forths between anger and euphoria without so much as another bandmate in the room. In a landscape still grieving Cobain being gone, such a metamorphosis proved vital for Grohl’s hellacious little spitfuck of a post-Nirvana re-entry.

Foo Fighters kicks off with a bang via “This Is a Call,” an all-over-the-place romp that namedrops ritalin and the economy shared between cysts and mollusks. The “fingernails are pretty, fingernails are good” couplet sounds like something Cobain might have written during Nirvana’s Nevermind days, while the arrangement rises and falls like a diaphragm compressing and expanding. The chorus is rock-solid, as Grohl wails that “this is a call to all my past resignations, it’s been too long.” It’s a heavy, torrential introduction that establishes one still-resounding truth about Dave Grohl: the guy knows how to string together a no-frills, kiss-off rock song. Things mellow out somewhat on “I’ll Stick Around” before kicking up dust again, exploding into a kick that’s sour and spiteful like the hair of the dog that bit you. “I don’t owe you anything!” Grohl howls, pulling tempos from his time in the D.C. hardcore band Scream nearly 10 years prior. But “I’ll Stick Around” isn’t just noise, as Grohl injects every speck of it with melodic splendor. It’s tight and features some of the same prescient snare smacks that were ballasts on many Nirvana tracks.

“Big Me” is the album’s heavy-hitter—which is ironic, considering that it’s the softest entry on the entire tracklist. With flashes to Grohl’s In Utero-era song “Marigold,” “Big Me” is an easy-going, “out-and-out love,” alt-pop hit for the ages written for his then-wife Jennifer Youngblood—though many fans have argued that it could be about Cobain, too (to be clear, it’s not). But where In Utero was cynical and uncertain, “Big Me” echoes simplicity, especially in how bubbly guitars and minimalistic lyrics can be just as powerful as staggering, depressive songwriting and stadium-sized riffs. The world into which “Big Me” was released was still coping with Cobain’s death, which makes the “but it’s you I fell into” line supremely bittersweet. It’s one of Grohl’s best-remembered deliveries, and one of his saddest.

Closing out the rest of side one, “Alone + Easy Target” and “Good Grief” are both head-spinning rock cuts, though the latter’s drum elements often obtusely stick out past the really good guitar riff. But when Grohl sings “Always the blues and a delicate smile, missed all of the sideways,” he ruptures into some serious angst. The “hate it” chorus has sharpened teeth that give way to a scathing solo from Grohl that flexes his six-string work, a trade he’s continued to hone in his nearly 30 years at the helm of Foo Fighters. The “Alone + Easy Target” lyrics are nonsensical yet stimulating. “Crazy TV dreams might be true, not what it seems,” Grohl sings. “Food and cavities, chewing words tear at the seams.” You can see that stream-of-consciousness, farm-to-table method of madness firing on all cylinders, and the “get out” bridge mirrors that “hate it” chorus that succeeds it one song later.

“Floaty,” “Weenie Beenie” and “Oh, George” are interchangeable, as they are different shades of the same punk rock strain Grohl has embedded in his DNA. “Weenie Beenie” is the outlier of the bunch, though, as it brandishes a lot of hardcore textures—including some mutated, mangled, indecipherable singing from Grohl. It’s legitimately a menacing track, especially when juxtaposed with the more melodic, simmering “Oh, George.” “Wattershed,” written as a reference to Mike Watt and Grohl’s “love of hardcore and old school punk rock” is the sibling to “Weenie Beenie” without all the blood-curdling grumbles. “Floaty” is one of the most dynamic cuts on Foo Fighters, beginning with lush acoustic strums before swelling quickly into a lethargic garage sound that flirts with distorted, poppy ups and downs. “That’s not as big as what’s flown ‘round here,” Grohl sings. You don’t know what he’s talking about, but it sounds really good when you hum it with him.

The final four songs on Foo Fighters showcase Grohl’s versatility in spades. “For all the Cows” is light and playful (“it’s funny how money allows all to browse and be endowed”), exercising a particular swinging melody that morphs into an uptick of frenzied grunge. The diversity in tempos that Nirvana made their trademark is quaking at full volume on “For all the Cows,” and Grohl inserts his own cellular mockup of hardcore and pop within its framework. “My kind has all run out, as if kinds could blend,” he sings. “Some time, if time allows. Everything worn in, everything worn in like it’s a friend.”

“X-Static” ratchets the album back up to an 11, beginning with a two-part guitar intro from Grohl and Dulli. The thumping drums sound like a puddle of muggy rainwater, and Grohl’s voice sounds particularly solemn here. “Leaving all my senses numb is heaven,” he sings, and you can hear the edges of his grief beginning to fray. The Big Black-style “Wattershed” splits itself in two, and Grohl embraces that absurdist songwriting style once more—wailing about a child trapping a spider while he and his crew watch Melrose Place, or something. “Skinny as a spit pan, dealing with the shit plan,” Grohl howls through a thousand cuts. “Playing with my band hand, just another rock band.” It’s a pretty fun crockpot of nonsense; even when you pay close attention, the lid still cracks.

“Exhausted,” Grohl’s final lap through the colorful, remorseful, surreal collage of grief, leaves its mark by being utterly mystifying. From his airy, wispy vocals to the iron-hot riffage that stretches out like a background singer, “Exhausted” helps Foo Fighters land on two feet. It’s the song that you can look back at and see just how it telegraphed the next 10, 15 years of Grohl’s songwriting arc. When he sings “it’s taught and lost,” the weather shifts and the fault lines become unburied. “What if the day had stayed in bed?” Grohl asks not just us the listeners, but himself. By the end of Foo Fighters, it’s obvious that the bliss is only just beginning for Grohl and his new rock enterprise.

Grohl would go on to make The Colour and the Shape, one of the best alt-rock records of the ‘90s, just two years later and certify the Foo Fighters as hallmarks of a genre whose authority would be challenged at the turn of the millennium by nu-metal and the aughts’ garage revival. Foo Fighters was the necessary first stone cast, and tracks like “Big Me,” “Exhausted” and “I’ll Stick Around” remain staples in the band’s catalog. It’s an imperfect record and even Grohl believes that to be true. But, just as New Order emerged from the necessary disbandment of Joy Division after Ian Curtis’s passing, the Foo Fighters grabbed Nirvana’s torch and carried it into the 21st century.

And even then, the band continued to embrace pop nuances and adapt to the ever-changing sonics of rock ‘n’ roll without shedding their blistering hardcore and punk roots. It’s the epitome of reclamation, as Grohl’s sorrows became the birthright of a new wave of alternative bands cropping up during grunge’s transition from the mainstream to “post” status—even if that wasn’t Grohl’s initial vision or design. Sometimes, life shakes out that way, and you can hear the love Grohl holds for Cobain across every second of Foo Fighters. It’s an energy that would emerge again nearly 30 years later on But Here We Are, which vibrates with the percussive soul of Taylor Hawkins. Grief and loss can be cyclical and conflicting like that. Despite Grohl’s best efforts to create without any real expectations other than fall back in love with the craft of songwriting, the requiems on Foo Fighters remain some of the most purposeful music he’s ever made.

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

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