July 4th, 1995, Foo Fighters released their self-titled debut album through Roswell/Capitol Records. Let’s cast our minds back to when Foo Fighters weren’t the stadium-filling juggernauts they are today. Back to a time when Dave Grohl was just “the drummer in Nirvana.” Back when very few were clamouring for or expected to hear any new music from the surviving members of Nirvana.
In the tornado of publicity, tabloid headlines, grief, bewilderment and pain following the suicide of Kurt Cobain in April 1994, Dave Grohl’s life stood still. A cruel, horrible, bleak full stop on such a promising career that saw him rise through the ranks of the Washington DC Hardcore scene, land the drum position with legendary DC band Scream, and eventually join Nirvana, only to change the course of popular music forever.
Grohl began piecing his life together in the intervening months: “I was heartbroken,” he says. “I didn’t know if I ever wanted to play music again,” He explained. “Sometime later, I woke up and realized he wasn’t coming back, and I was lucky to have another day. I sat and made a cup of coffee. ‘I can have a cup of coffee today. But he can’t.’ I got in my car to take a drive. ‘Beautiful day. Sun’s out. I’m experiencing this. He can’t. It was then I realized no matter how good or bad a day, I wanted to be alive to experience it,” Grohl continued. “That becomes your divining rod. I just want to get to tomorrow. I just want to fucking make it one more day.”
Six months after Kurt’s death, from October 17th to 23rd, 1994. Grohl entered Robert Lang Studios in Seattle, Washington, with engineer Barrett Jones to record songs he had been working on (but kept private) during his days with Nirvana. Grohl said the reasoning for recording was “just for fun,” describing it as a “cathartic experience.” Famously, he played every note, laying down all the drums, guitars, bass and vocals. The only outside contributor was Greg Dulli of The Afghan Whigs, with whom Dave had previously collaborated in recording a selection of Beatles cover songs for the Backbeat soundtrack.
“The first four hours were spent getting sounds,” Dave revealed in the first Foo Fighters press release. “By five o’clock, we were ready to record. We’d start with drums, listen to playback while humming the tune to ensure the arrangement is correct, put down two or three guitar tracks, do a bass track, and move on to the next songs, saving vocals for last. I wanted to see how little time it would take me to track 15 songs, complete with overdubs and everything. I did the basic tracks in two and a half days, meaning I ran from instrument to instrument, using mostly first takes on everything. All vocals and rough mixes were finished on schedule; the album was done in one week.”
Grohl ran off 100 copies of his demo at a cassette copying facility and began distributing them among friends. Instead of presenting this as a Dave Grohl project, he wanted to have the music live or die on its own merits. Using a nickname for an unidentified flying object, Grohl christened the project “Foo Fighters.”
That demo cassette garnered a lot of attention, and eventually, labels began sniffing around, looking to release it. But to start with a clean slate, Grohl formed his label “Roswell” with distribution by major label Capitol Records. Released with minimum fanfare on Independence Day 1995, Foo Fighters sounds like an album channelling Husker Du, Nirvana, Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Motorhead and more into a vital blast of ’90s rock. Grohl, to his credit, was always a connoisseur of great punk, hard rock, metal and pop, with a deep knowledge and respect for what came before. Rather than emulate his influences, Grohl expertly absorbed what made those bands great and siphoned it through his own experience and vision.
It’s worth remembering that in 1995, the world only knew Dave Grohl as a drummer. Although the distorted walls of guitars and cascading feedback may have been familiar, the sight of Dave Grohl stepping out from behind the kit, assuming the frontman role, playing guitar and singing, was an entirely new concept. It showed a whole new side to him, one which he took to, seemingly, with ease.
Previously having only sung backup vocals with Nirvana and lead vocals on the Heart Shaped Box b-side “Marigold,” Dave Grohl’s vocal delivery was a revelation. He transformed his voice at the drop of a hat from a soft, gossamer thin, melodic thing of beauty to a raging, full-bodied hardcore scream. Grohl used every ounce of character he could wring from his vocal chords.
“This Is A Call” opens the album. The song’s conception was a watershed moment for Grohl and set the tone for the rest of the album. Honeymooning in Ireland in the summer of ’94, “totally disconnected from the rest of the world”, Dave realised that he would never outrun his past. Driving down a remote country road in a rural part of the country, the newlyweds passed a teenage hitchhiker wearing a Kurt Cobain T-shirt. It was then the extent of the colossal impact Nirvana had made worldwide truly struck home.
“At that moment, I realized that music was the one thing that would help me out of that place,” Dave conceded. Sitting in a Dublin hotel room, he penned “This Is A Call”, bidding to lay ghosts of the past to rest. With its references to “pretty” fingernails, balloons and Ritalin, the verses of the song were elliptical and bizarre, but the song’s chorus, and specifically the lyric ‘This is a call to all my past resignations’, was unambiguous.
“I’ll Stick Around” follows. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Grohl explained that “I’ll Stick Around” was inspired by his experiences in the music industry, particularly his time in Nirvana. Saying, “After Nirvana, I was treated so poorly by some of these people trying to mould me and make me into something I wasn’t. They wanted me to be the new Kurt Cobain or whatever.” The song’s lyrics express this frustration, with lines like “How could it be that you’re not the boss of me?” and “One more word and I defy you.”
“Big Me” is the happy, jangly, tongue-in-cheek single no one expected. Showing a far more playful side to Grohl’s musicality. Its catchy positivity made it a surprise crossover hit on pop radio. “Alone + Easy Target” is a massive slice of infectious guitar riffs. Its chorus states, “Head is on/I want out/I’m all alone, and I’m an easy target.” “Good Grief” wears its Bob Mould/Husker Du influences proudly on its sleeve. It rips hurriedly, buoyed by a beautiful, melodic guitar hook and vocal delivery, similar to the approach Bob Mould perfected throughout Husker Du’s impeccable run of albums.
“Floaty” opens with acoustic guitar before exploding into a widescreen epic in 3/4 time. “Weenie Beanie” is a balls-out banger, its stop/start verses featuring Dave Grohl’s guttural, fuzz-drenched screams. It has no chorus per se, instead moving between chaos and tight, chromatic riff dynamics. The verses of “For All The Cows” share the same feel as “Big Me” with a slightly jazzier vibe, while the chorus flicks the switches on a high octane, stomping riff backed with pummelling drums, only to return to its jazzy stupor.
The album ends on a high note with three great songs. “X Static” is a heavy, dreamy earworm, full of tribal drumming and Grohl’s blissed-out vocal delivery. The song also features the only contribution on the album by a musician other than Grohl. The Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli visited the studio during recording and was coaxed into adding guitar to the track.
“Wattershed” is one of the great Foo Fighter deep cuts. Its riff is direct and powerful. Packed with a contagious energy reminiscent of Motorhead in their prime, with Grohl channelling Lemmy’s strident vocal attack. The album closes with “Exhausted,” a mid-paced behemoth and one of Grohl’s favourites.
“I loved the song ‘Exhausted’,” he explained. “That one came later than a lot of the other ones. The guitar sound, which is so crazy and blown out, was done with this amp that Barrett Jones had bought in London, a petrol can amp. It was this red plastic petrol can that you would use if your car ran out of gas, with this little speaker…” Vocally, Grohl is back to his blissed-out delivery as the song cinematically sweeps along, breaking down into a waterfall of feedback and a simple tapping ride cymbal before the drums return, full pelt, to drive the album home.
“I remember there were people that resented me for having the audacity or gall to fucking keep playing music after Nirvana,” Grohl told Kerrang Magazine in 2009. “It was the most ridiculous thing. I was fucking, what, 25 years old? I was a kid. I’m sure that the thing I was supposed to do was become this brooding, reclusive drop out of society, and that’s it. Nirvana’s done, I’m done, that’s the end of my life. Fuck that. It was a blast. I miss Nirvana with all my heart. I miss Kurt; I dream about him all the time, great dreams and sad, heart-wrenching, fucked-up dreams. I miss it all a lot. But if you’re dealt a fucking hand, you deal with it. And I’m not about to drop out and stop living. When Nirvana ended, I wasn’t finished. I’m still not fucking finished.”
Foo Fighters debut may be the purest document of Dave Grohl’s considerable talents. It was born out of an extremely tragic time. Despite all Grohl had been through, all he had seen, and the heights he’d already scaled in the rock n roll world. The album feels wide-eyed and innocent. It’s the sound of him shedding his grief and starting afresh.
In 2020, Grohl revealed who he would dedicate Foo Fighters’ debut album to if he were re-writing its liner notes today. “I would dedicate it to Krist [Novoselic, Nirvana bassist] and Kurt [Cobain],” he said. “I have children, so I can’t say it’s the most important event in my entire life, but it’s safe to say that we wouldn’t be here right now talking about this if it weren’t for my time in Nirvana…”
The path Dave Grohl would take after the Foo Fighters debut album is as storied and immense as any in rock history, guiding Foo Fighters to ever-dizzying heights for almost 30 years, forming side projects like Probot and Them Crooked Vultures, joining Queens Of The Stone Age for their magnum opus Songs For The Deaf, his list of achievements are too many to list. Yet the sober sense of catharsis that permeates the debut Foo Fighters album is as memorable as anything that came after.