Dave Grohl in 1995
Photo by Niels van Iperen/Getty Images
He Stuck Around: Foo Fighters' Eponymous Debut Album Turns 25
You could call Dave Grohl rock's greatest survivor, and have an uncomfortable laugh, but that doesn’t make the question go away. Robert Christgau once put it even more darkly by referring to him in passing as "Nirvana’s most successful member." You'd be hard-pressed to find happier post-tragedy endings in the genre, though, than two albums with significant anniversaries this month. One is AC/DC’s now-40 Back in Black, in which their new singer Brian Johnson sang "Forget the hearse, ‘cause I never die" on the title track, which is supposed to be a tribute to the late Bon Scott, and somehow winds up one of the most tasteful things on the record. The other is Grohl’s first time in the spotlight himself, 1995's Foo Fighters, which turns a more robust 25, and was keyed to the early hit "I'll Stick Around," a promise the drummer's made good on since his last singer killed himself and in some ways took a whole generation with him.
Dave Grohl's stuck around so long that the entire guitar-loving world has watched as he became the genre's new benchmark act, the very horizon itself. The Foo Fighters founder's hard and friendly guitar-bass-drum attack redefined radio's idea of rock especially, a hard rock dad's idea of punk and R.E.M. condensed into one easily swallowed pill. You could call them the most streamlined band ever, and you might not be wrong. Oftentimes, the grain of Grohl’s swollen, jangling guitar sound recalls the unstoppably melodic fuzz of Bob Mould, another major alt-rock figure with two careers, one being a similarly legendary band that was never revived. You could even say that Foo Fighters brought Mould's noise-tune synthesis full circle, playing out its every possible combination before letting emo take over as the new standard for commercial rock. Again, Foo Fighters rarely elicit strong opinions from tastemaker types; they're generally accepted as a part of the ecosystem. But their early records are truly great, if you can imagine the band being considered for the first time and not taken for granted as a reliable AOR staple.
Foo Fighters wasn't even a band's work; save for one guitar solo, Grohl sings and plays every instrument on the entire thing, and gets a surprising variety of colors out of it. "Weenie Beenie" and "Wattershed" honored Nirvana's desire to put a killer riff to bed by simply throwing garbled screaming over top. But "Big Me" is a pop jingle far more squeaky-clean and crowd-pleasing than any Nirvana song, more akin to Weezer's "Buddy Holly." And like Weezer, he couldn’t put forth such a sincere piece of craft with a straight face, so he made the video a Mentos commercial like Weezer simulated a "Happy Days" episode.
Grohl exploited the quiet/loud dynamic even more casually and shamelessly than Kurt Cobain, because Cobain's clean verses still utilized chord sequences as jagged and misshapen as the choruses they'd explode into. You could tell they were going somewhere dark and punk. Foo Fighters on the other hand, starts with the innocent strums of "This Is a Call" as a pump-fake before launching into its reaffirmation of grunge's loudness. Its follow-up, 1997’s The Colour and the Shape, was even more Jekyll-and-Hyde, treating "Hey, Johnny Park!" and "Up in Arms" like outright prom themes plunging into waterfalls of expensive distortion, and especially the 90-second "Doll" into the rip-roar of "Monkey Wrench." Even when Grohl is as abrasive as his hardcore inspirations (which is more often than "My Hero" or "Learn to Fly" haters think), he rarely sounds too disturbed or dangerous, which is probably his legacy: mood-stabilizing alternative rock. Foo Fighters sounds like the work of a middle-class, well-balanced individual; its most enraged moment, the famous "I don’t owe you anything" refrain from "I’ll Stick Around," falls well south of, say, Billy Corgan's contemporaneous "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" on the breakdown-o-meter.
More often, Grohl comes off like a soft-spoken riff-painter who digs shoegaze as much as Corgan did, with broad-brush tones on "X-Static" and "Exhausted," the dirge-y latter of which somehow becoming the very first Foos release. But he allows a little cocktail swing into the funny tantrum "For All the Cows," and hop-skip-waltzes through "Floaty," one of the debut’s most underrated tunes. The incinerating drive of "Good Grief" has improved with time; in fact, most of Foo Fighters is comprised of extraordinarily solid tunes. It wouldn't be a Nirvana album in any way, shape, or form if only, say, "Oh, George" or "Alone + Easy Target" asserted themselves. But post-grunge was rarely so graceful and consistent, so enamored with its own textures and dynamic shifts, so confident of its melodic worth while skirting punk's obnoxiousness. It’s rarely mentioned alongside the '90s' most auspicious debuts, and it’s not like Grohl doesn’t have enough to brag about. But in more than half its songs you can hear a second banana transforming into a headliner-god without making a big deal about it, and doing it all by himself in a realization of purpose that recalls Prince's Dirty Mind. That guy was a Foo Fighters fan, too.