Music

Foo Fighters: The Colour and the Shape

For anyone who experienced the heyday of Nirvana, it's still surreal that the lanky, string-haired drummer is the guy who'd be on magazine covers and writing #1 rock radio hits 15 years later.


Foo Fighters

The Colour and the Shape

Subtitle: 10th Anniversary Special Edition
Contributors: Dave Grohl, Pat Smear, Nate Mendel, Killing Joke, Prince, Gary Numan, Gerry Rafferty
Label: RCA
First date: 1997-05-20
US Release Date: 2007-07-10
UK Release Date: 2007-07-09
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"The band is in the studio now as this reissue is being put together, making what will surely be our finest record, and when we go out to share the great news with the press this time, I'm sure that some journalist will have the temerity to call the band on its serial self-regard, and there's a good chance that journalist will add that, in their opinion, The Colour and the Shape is the band's best, the bastard."

-- Nate Mendel, from the liner notes to the new, expanded edition of The Colour and the Shape

What Mendel neglects to mention in his appropriately cheeky lament regarding the constant fawning over The Colour and the Shape is that for every hundred words that same journalist eventually writes about his band, there will still be a reference to Nirvana. That was my first. Count along!

In all seriousness, for anyone who experienced the heyday of that seminal band, it's still surreal that the lanky, string-haired drummer is the guy who'd be on magazine covers and writing #1 rock radio hits 15 years later. And yet, here we are, celebrating the tenth anniversary of the album that made that particular alternate universe a reality. The Colour and the Shape may never be considered any sort of artistic achievement -- the critical respect afforded to OK Computer, Urban Hymns, or Either/Or (all also from '97) seems out of reach -- but there's no denying that it's a damn good rock album.

The greatness of The Colour and the Shape starts, as it should, with the singles. Despite the big chorus of "I'll Stick Around", people weren't exactly sure whether the post-Nirvana Grohl knew how to rock out; one of the trademarks of the eponymous debut was Grohl's strikingly non-aggressive (read: bland) vocal style. It was as if he eased into the songs, letting them take his voice where they may. His voice never dictated the action, it was there to be a voice. That all changed with "Monkey Wrench", whose guitar licks, beats, and melodies are just fine, but whose bridge opened up the world of possibilities that the Foos would soon explore. Sixty-five syllables, almost all of them on the same note but each one a little bit more intense than the last, culminating with a piercing, screamed "I'M FREEEEEE!!!!!"... it was enough to shock nearly everyone who saw Grohl's Fighters as an inconsequential little one-off into paying attention again. And pay attention we did. "My Hero" was tremendous at modern rock radio (not to mention an essential piece of Grohl's coming to terms with his past), and the X-Files remake of Colour's "Walking After You" had a moment or two to shine as well.

Still, it is "Everlong" that the Foo faithful remember and continue to love these ten years later. It's one of those entities that's hard to quantify -- I don't think it's the whimsical video, or Grohl's take on hi-hat-happy drumming (impressive as both are), or even the guitar lines that make "Everlong" such a timeless classic, as much as it's the emotion. "And I wonder / When I sing along with you / If everything could ever feel this real forever / If anything could ever be this good again," Grohl sings, invoking the sort of high that comes from perfect, uninterrupted bliss. In a live setting, they're the sort of lyrics that speak toward those nigh-religious experiences that cement bands in their audience's mind. On CD, it speaks to an intimate sort of happiness that everyone can relate to, each in a completely personal, unique way. That those words are set to a killer hook doesn't exactly hurt.

Even beyond "Everlong", it is this same sort of universality that makes the rest of The Colour and the Shape such a repeat-listenable sort of album. It's a relationship album -- Grohl was going through a painful divorce as the band was making the album -- and yet it doesn't come off as lovey, or hokey, or bitter. Each song simply grabs an emotion and holds on for dear life. "My Poor Brain" goes from poppy to screamy in ten seconds flat, perfectly outlining the constant pressure of imminent failure. "Wind Up" and "Enough Space" are tantrums of the highest order, and the utterly gorgeous and patient "February Stars" is simultaneously wistful, sorrowful, and powerful. "Doll" opens the album tentatively, while "New Way Home" is triumphant and upbeat as a closer, the pair of which willfully defy the conventions of "start with a bang, end with a whimper" that defined so many albums of the era.

There was even an air of experimentation in the form of "See You", an upbeat little showtuney thing that Cobain would never have let fly.

So it goes, that even as it's impossible to write about The Colour and the Shape without seeing it through the rose-tinted glasses built by the formidable combination of chart success and fan esteem, it's still surprising just how well the album holds up. The remastering work done for this reissue simply pops without redefining the songs it's been applied to; it's always been an easy album to bounce around to, and that holds true even more now. And there are bonus tracks! As bonus tracks, they're pretty fantastic (even if the collectors will cringe at their precious import singles being rendered useless), even if they don't add much to the album. It may be a bit difficult to resolve the mellow vocal take on Killing Joke's "Requiem" that Grohl provides, but the version of Prince's "Drive Me Wild" that shows up here is an energetic trip, mitigating that other misstep. And really, it's fun to hear the thrashy little ditty that gave "The Colour and the Shape" its name, even as it was left on the cutting room floor.

There is a perfect little treasure to be found amongst the extras: "Dear Lover", once a B-side of "My Hero" and soundtrack reject, turns out to be a perfectly poignant little thing that never gets as melodramatic as, say, "Walking After You". Really, it's the quiet, reflective side of "Everlong" and the aftermath of the events that inspired the album; "Now I know the way true love should be," Grohl sings with a sort of contented sorrow, as the rest of his life opens up and the painful memories start to fade. Granted, the fake ending is probably unnecessary, but it is a B-side after all.

Yet, while those extra tracks might inspire a purchase or three, hearing The Colour and the Shape again isn't about hearing what's different or new, it's about hearing an album that brings the memories rushing back, it's about hearing the true beginning of an artist's self-realization and development. Where once he was defined by his past, The Colour and the Shape ensured that he would, from this point on, be defined by his present. This is where Dave Grohl made himself known to a generation that couldn't have given two flips about Nirvana; this is where Grohl re-endeared himself to a generation that had shut itself off to his musings as they declared them predeterminedly inferior to what had come before. They say everything happens for a reason. Well, I would never wish the pain of divorce on anyone, but it's that very pain (along with all of the other emotions involved in such a tumultuous time) that may well have turned The Colour and the Shape into what it is.

It really is a great album, one that the Foo Fighters continue to wear as a badge and a curse, knowing that in our hearts, they may never live up to it. And that's okay.

9

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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