These days, Foo Fighters are one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Their new sure-to-be-mega seventh album Wasting Light is due in a little under two months from now, and founding Foo Dave Grohl is the recent recipient of NME’s Godlike Genius Award. Back in 1995 though, they were an unknown yet promising quantity, the latter due to the weighty legacy intrinsically tied to them. While the fact that the Foo Fighters were created by a member of Nirvana—ubiquitously regarded as the most important rock band of the last 20 years—is never far from public consciousness even now, in the early days of the group’s existence it was of interest to people precisely because the Foo Fighters was Dave Grohl, Former Nirvana Drummer, who started the low-key recording project as a sort of musical therapy in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s April 1994 suicide.
But even from the get-go, it was clear to me that Foo Fighters were capable of crafting tunes that rank up there with the best Nirvana compositions. In fact, I was a Foo Fighters fan before I even heard Nirvana’s Nevermind all the way through, and I was unaware for an embarrassingly long time that the two alt-rock combos shared a key member (in my defense, goateed late ‘90s Grohl looked a bit different from the long-haired, clean-shaven beat master behind the kit in the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video). To this day, I consider their first two albums—Foo Fighters (1995) and The Colour and the Shape (1997)—the best material they ever produced. Boasting a hearty serving of fantastic radio hits and ace album cuts, these two records should be the first stop for anyone aiming to delve into the Foo Fighters back catalog.
Grohl’s long-hidden songwriting talent was revealed to the public courtesy of the nigh-perfect first Foo Fighters single, “This Is a Call”. Well, okay, “Exhausted” was released as a promotional single not long beforehand, but as far as most everyone is concerned, “This Is a Call” was the first proper blast of Foo. It has everything you’d expect coming from an author who spent four years keeping time in one of grunge’s flagship bands: dynamic contrasts between the verses and chorus, sing-along Beatlesque melodies, speaker-rattling drum hits that were more explosions than mere percussion, and a cathartic, throat-shredding chorus. But it’s no Cobain rip-off, unlike the sort spewing from some other Bush-league post-grungers swarming contemporary modern rock radio one could name. There are bands that would kill to have song’s introduction alone, an instantly memorable section marked by honey-sweet double-tracked vocals backed by jangly guitar-picking. Before long, the gentle calm of the initial bars gives way to a torrential rush of roaring guitars and gigantic drums. For the rest of the song, Grohl throws hook after hook at the listener, never once relenting in his efforts. Hell, the resolute chorus of “This is a call to all my past resignation / This is a call to all” isn’t even the coolest part of the song—it’s the bit right after second chorus, where the bass drops out and Grohl busts out yet another instant-classic guitar riff that’s punctuated by unrelenting snare hits.
The rest of Foo Fighters is of a consistent caliber. Check out the defiant “I’ll Stick Around” (“I don’t owe you anything!”), the pummeling-yet-breezy “Good Grief”, and the buoyant “Floaty”, just to name my favorites from the record. Bearing in mind that the album was essentially a lo-fi demo wherein Grohl laid down all instrumentation himself piece-by-piece (save a guitar solo from the Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli), it’s an amazingly cohesive record. The embarrassing number of killer guitar riffs in “This Is a Call” alone is a testament to how many ideas must have been bursting forth from a man who had previously been too intimidated by Cobain’s talent to share his self-penned works with anyone but close friends.
If Foo Fighters was a surprisingly masterful full-length debut, The Colour and the Shape was the refinement of all that the Foos had to offer. In between records, Grohl turned the project into a full-fledged band, taking on board Germs guitarist Pat Smear (who had also filled out the onstage lineup of Nirvana during its final tour) as well as the Sunny Day Real Estate rhythm section of bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith. Although Goldsmith departed during the making of the album (Grohl wound up taking up the sticks again for the majority of the finished tracks), The Colour and the Shape shows no musical disharmony. Here, Grohl downplayed the overwhelming influence of Nirvana, Hüsker Dü, and the Beatles that hung over the first album in order to devise a unique sonic identity for the band. In contrast to the omnipresent buzz of rhythm guitars on the previous release, on The Colour and the Shape weighty drop-D riffs are topped with percussive single-note lead lines that complement each other in a fashion that’s equal parts delightfully kooky and moshpit-friendly. Meanwhile the tossed-off (by Grohl’s admission) lyrics of the previous release have been replaced by probing personal topics largely inspired by the dissolution of the author’s marriage. The quantum leap in quality between the two LPs is clear: with Grohl’s songwriting voice coming into its own, “Monkey Wrench”, “Hey, Johnny Park!”, “My Hero”, and especially the immortal “Everlong” (unequivocally one of my top ten alternative rock songs of all time) are bigger, bolder, and more indelible than anything found on the first album.
I must admit that although the band’s first two records always warrant repeat listens from me, I haven’t been all that excited by the Foos’ output over the last decade. To me, the best Foo Fighters songs are balls of infectious energy that you can’t avoid smiling at whilst listening to—Grohl may be screaming his lungs out at some unnamed force that’s done him wrong, but there’s a palpable sense of fun still evident (a quality accentuated by the band’s hysterical music videos). In comparison, the newer Foo Fighters singles feel too clenched, too humorless in their approach. Whenever I hear the group pound away in “The Pretender” or “Best of You”, I wonder why a band fronted by a guy often labeled “The Nicest Man in Rock” seems so intensely serious about its rocking out. Has the long, gradual ascension to stadium-level rock godhood robbed the Foos’ music of its early irreverent charm, even as the members themselves remain some of the most hilarious interviewees in the business? Perhaps so. Like the post-American Idiot Green Day, the Foo Fighters’s music comes off as overly conscious of the fact that its authors are now considered a weighty standard-bearing band with their own legacy of expectation around them.
Which is a shame, since a key component of those first two records’ appeal is the unassuming lightness of the music, a clear break from the darkness that had consumed Nirvana. And although they’ve had bigger hits over the years, so far nothing has convinced me that Foo Fighters have ever topped “Everlong”, the one song above all others that is conclusive proof that Dave Grohl is indeed a godlike genius. If only more late ‘90s post-grunge was as good as what the Foos unleashed in their formative days.