Music

This is a Call: The Life and Times of Dave Grohl

Paul Brannigan

This definitive biography tells the epic story of a singular career that includes Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age, and Them Crooked Vultures.


This Is a Call: The Life and Times of Dave Grohl

Publisher: Da Capo
Price: $26.99
Author: Paul Brannigan
Length: 416 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2011-11
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Excerpted from Chapter 1: Learn to Fly from This is a Call: The Life and Times of Dave Grohl by Paul Brannigan. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Da Capo Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

Learn to Fly

A big rock ’n’ roll moment for me was going to see AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock movie. That was the first time I heard music that made me want to break shit. That was maybe the first moment where I really felt like a fucking punk, like I just wanted to tear that movie theatre to shreds watching this rock ’n’ roll band.

-- Dave Grohl

In 1980, in a song named after their Los Angeles hometown, the punk band X sang of a female acquaintance who had lost her way, lost her innocence and lost her patience with the City of Angels, a friend desperate to flee the squalid, druggy Hollywood scene and unforgiving streets where ‘days change at night, change in an instant’. But even as Farrah Fawcett Minor was dying to get out, get out, one young punk on the East Coast was dreaming of heading in the opposite direction.

As a child, Dave Grohl had a recurring dream, one that stole into his head in the hours of darkness ‘a thousand fucking times’. In this dream, he was riding a tiny bike from his home in Springfield, Virginia to Los Angeles, cruising slowly along the side of the highway as cars whizzed past with horns blaring and tail pipes smoking. Generations of bored, restless suburban kids have harboured similar fantasies of escaping suffocating small-town life for the glister of Hollywood. Deep in the national psyche LA remains synonymous with freedom, opportunity and boundless glamour, and the city’s entertainment industries, both legal and less legal, have grown fat feasting upon the wide-eyed ingénues who spill daily from incoming Greyhound coaches and Amtrak trains, but young Grohl’s imagination was fired less by the shimmering promises of the Golden State than by the excitement of whatever swerves and undulations might have to be negotiated on his westward odyssey.

In September 2009 I had lunch with Foo Fighters’ frontman at West Hollywood’s chic Sunset Marquis hotel. As he picked at a Caesar salad, Grohl, modern rock’s most convincing renaissance man, described the early days of his life’s journey as being informed by a ‘sense of adventure’, of ‘not knowing what lay ahead’.

‘In that dream I had so far to go,’ he said, ‘and I was going so slow, but I was moving.’

Los Angeles is a city which holds memories both good and bad for Grohl. A decade ago he would tell anyone who’d listen that he hated this town, hated the Hollywood lifestyle, and hated pretty much everyone he met here:

‘It’s kinda funny for a while,’ he conceded, ‘then annoying, then depressing, finally it gets terrifying because you start wondering if these people are rubbing off on you. It’s like one giant frenzy of aspiration and lies.’

But now Los Angeles, or more specifically Encino, 15 miles northwest of Sunset Boulevard’s celebrity haunts, and a neighbourhood Grohl once defined as a place where ‘porn stars become grocery clerks and rock stars come to die’, is his home. Here, overlooking the San Fernando Valley, Dave Grohl literally has Los Angeles at his feet.

Grohl bought his house, a tasteful four-bedroom 1950s villa set on almost 4,000 square feet of prime Californian real estate, for $2.2 million in April 2003; four months later, surrounded by friends and family, he married MTV producer Jordyn Blum on the tennis court at the rear of the property. And it was here that Grohl elected to record Foo Fighters’ seventh studio album Wasting Light in autumn 2010, eschewing digital studio technology in favour of tracking to analogue tape, a process largely viewed as antiquated within the modern recording industry.

From the outset, it seemed like a curious move, verging on the perverse: Grohl has his very own state-of-the-art recording complex, Studio 606, in Northridge, California, not ten minutes’ drive from his home, and though his house in Encino also contains a compact home studio built around a 24-track mixing desk, the set-up is very much that of a family home, not some rock star bolthole. In contrast to houses in Los Angeles’ more fashionable zip codes, there are no high fences surrounding the Grohl residence, no signs warning of armed security guards patrolling the perimeters: a plaque on the left-hand side of the driveway simply reads The Grohls. When you step inside the front door there are no gold or platinum discs on the hallway walls, no framed magazine covers, no posed portraits with celebrity friends, nothing to signpost the road Dave Grohl has travelled to get here: instead there are family snapshots and brightly coloured crayon-drawn abstract artwork tacked to the walls, the work of artists-in-residence Violet Maye Grohl and Harper Willow Grohl, Dave and Jordyn’s young daughters.

In November 2010 I was invited to the Grohl family home to interview Foo Fighters about their work-in-progress. I arrived to find the man of the house in his garage, holding up scuffed album sleeves and fingerprint-smudged CD cases from his personal record collection to a webcam delivering images for a 24/7 live stream on Foo Fighters’ website. Among them were Bad Brains’ Rock for Light, Metallica’s Master of Puppets, AC/DC’s Back in Black, Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, Ted Nugent’s Cat Scratch Fever, Pixies’ Trompe Le Monde and Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, each album a strand of Grohl’s musical DNA, each one a part of the soundtrack of his life. Behind him, producer Butch Vig stood splicing two-inch analogue tape on a 24-track Studer A800 reel-to-reel tape machine. In the room next door, eighteen of Grohl’s guitars stood erect in flight cases, tuned and ready for use. In the adjoining garage, usually reserved for Grohl’s Harley Davidson motorcycles, Taylor Hawkins’s drum kit sat encircled by mic stands.

‘It gets fucking loud in there,’ said Grohl, closing the door with a smile.

Upstairs in the studio control room, band members Pat Smear, Chris Shiftlet, Nate Mendel and Hawkins sat sharing cartons of takeaway food. Around them Grohl strode animated, enthusing about his belief that Wasting Light would be Foo Fighters’ definitive work. And as he spoke, his decision to record here began to make sense, indeed began to look inspired.

‘It only seemed like a good idea to do it here,’ Grohl insisted. ‘I wasn’t nervous about it at all. What we’re doing here is in some ways making sense of everything we’ve done for the last fifteen years.

‘It all came together as one big idea. Let’s work with Butch, but let’s not use computers, let’s only use tape. Let’s not do it at 606, let’s do it in my garage. And let’s make a movie that tells the history of the band as we’re making the new album, so that somehow it all makes sense together in the grand scheme of things. I feel like you can actually hear the whole process in the album.’

For Grohl, the notion of time, its passing, its deathless march and the value and importance of seizing precious moments, is central to Wasting Light. But later that night, as I played back the cassette recording of the day’s conversations, it struck me that the process unfolding in Encino was perhaps more personal than Dave Grohl would care to acknowledge explicitly: as he spoke of garage demos and life-changing albums, of collaborations with heroes and friends, of teenage desires and adult responsibilities, it seemed that in making Foo Fighters’ seventh album Dave Grohl was seeking not merely to define his band’s career, but also to make sense of his own life to date. And who could blame him? For his has been a journey more dramatic than that adolescent dreamer back in Virginia could ever have imagined.

Photo (partial) by Hiroko Kato

Paul Brannigan, former editor of Kerrang! magazine, is a respected authority on the punk scene in Washington, D.C., where Dave Grohl cut his teeth. He has written about Grohl for Mojo magazine, and lives in London.


© Paul Brannigan

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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