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Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters’ Accidental Rise to Rock Royalty

The unlikely journey from disenchanted drummer to his generation's torchbearer for rock

Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters' Accidental Rise to Rock Royalty
Foo Fighters, photo by Danny Clinch
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    It wasn’t supposed to go like this.

    Foo Fighters were never supposed to end up as one of the biggest rock bands to ever exist, the type that’s on that Rolling Stones/Paul McCartney/Springsteen/U2/Metallica level where the stadium is the most appropriate venue for an act of your magnitude. Dave Grohl, the band’s founder/frontman/driving force, was never supposed to end up the alpha rock star of his era, arguably the most widely recognizable and well-liked figure in the “rock” genre.

    That was never really the plan, but that’s the reality. So, to cop a phrase from David Byrne, how did we get here? Just as importantly, what does it all mean?

    To answer both, let’s turn back the clock about 30 years or so. Dave Grohl wasn’t at the peak of mainstream rock; as the drummer of Nirvana, he was a role player in the movement that was about to blow the mainstream to hell and gone. There’s no need to rehash the history of Nirvana and how grunge rose to prominence in 1991, except to note that it wiped away the bloat and pomp that existed at the time, replacing leather pants, hypersexual braggadocio, and the unattainable glamor of popular rock with personalities rooted in the style and mire of everyday existence. This will be important to remember later.

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    Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994 put an end to Nirvana. His death extinguished the defining voice of an era. On a more practical level, Grohl was left with nowhere to go. He had some options. There were rumors he was going to join Danzig or Pearl Jam, and he even joined PJ onstage for a few songs in 1995. Tom Petty had offered him a spot as drummer for the Heartbreakers, which, as you know, if you’ve ever happened to see Grohl play with Petty for the latter’s “Honey Bee” on SNL in 1994, would have whipped a serious amount of ass. He could’ve also kept playing with Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic in a new band.

    Ultimately (and obviously), Grohl rejected all of these options. While returning behind the kit was the most likely and realistic answer, he wasn’t emotionally ready to switch from Nirvana drummer to drummer for another band. Continuing forward with Novoselic would immediately be compared to Nirvana and put too many expectations and too much pressure on a new group, so that was out of the question.

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    While in Nirvana, Grohl penned over three dozen songs that he never felt comfortable sharing with Cobain. Depressed and with a glut of tunes on his hands, a lot of spare time, and a lot of difficult feelings to work through, he decided to record a solo record. Performing essentially all instruments and vocal tracks, Grohl ripped through 15 songs in about a week, calling the project “Foo Fighters” in the interest of retaining anonymity. Grohl only had 100 LPs pressed, 100 cassettes copied, and he just kind of gave them out to folks. It wasn’t supposed to be the start of a new career.

    Foo Fighters created a lot of buzz and laid the foundation for what was next. There are the big, fuzzy riffs familiar to Nirvana fans and the thrashy undertones one would expect from a drummer who worshipped Motorhead and Bad Brains. But there’s another element, and you can hear it in songs like “Big Me”. Grohl is also a rock and roll classicist, a fan of huge hooks and anthemic choruses that play to larger audiences.

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    If the eponymous debut was the start of something, The Colour and the Shape was the tipping point that turned Grohl into an alternative rock star, independent of his Nirvana past. It plays like a goddamn mixtape of mid-to-late ’90s FM modern rock radio. There’s the sound itself; it’s arguably the finest distillation of the post-grunge/pre-nu-metal sound. Then, there are the hits — “Monkey Wrench”, “Everlong”, and “My Hero” — that were all over the airwaves for years and sound just as vital today as they did in ’97.

    The singles kept coming: “Breakout”, “Learning to Fly”, “All My Life”, “Low”, “Times Like These”, “Best of You”, and “The Pretender”. Those are just the big ones between 1999 and 2007 that I can remember without having to scan the band’s Wikipedia page. In between these, Grohl made a celebrated return to drumming when he backed Queens of the Stone Age on the brilliant Songs for the Deaf, paid tribute to his heavy metal heroes (and helped give those legends some big, fat royalty checks) with Probot, played Satan in Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny, and formed the supergroup Them Crooked Vultures with Josh Homme of QOTSA and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.

    By the conclusion of this flurry of activity, a change had occurred. Dave Grohl was neither a beloved drummer nor lead singer of a band with a series of charming music videos and a string of hits. Foo Fighters weren’t just a successful alternative rock band that managed to sustain relevancy through grunge, nu metal, changing trends, and inferior acts indebted to their aesthetic ::cough:: Nickelback ::cough::. Grohl became THE go-to guy for all things rock-related in pop culture, and Foo Fighters had reached the top of the mainstream rock food chain.

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    There’s Grohl playing “I Saw Her Standing There” with Paul McCartney at the Grammys and joining him onstage at Wembley for a smattering of tunes. And there he is reuniting the rest of Nirvana for the first time in nearly 20 years to record a new song with Macca, officially acknowledging Nirvana’s spot in the lexicon of all-time great acts. Interested in more than just music and have a ken for pop culture? Well, if you tuned into Chelsea Lately back in 2013, you saw Grohl serving as guest host for a week. Or if you watched ABC’s short-run Muppets show in 2015, who was that losing a drum-off with Animal? You know who. What about the guy singing the “Here We Go Song” with Elmo and Big Bird during the 50th season of Sesame Street? Yep, that was Grohl, too.

    During Queen’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Grohl and Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins joined the rest of the band on a torrid rendition of “Tie Your Mother Down”. When Foo Fighters sold out Wembley Stadium in 2008 (that’s a wild 86,000 tickets, FYI), the group had some special guests during the encore. Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones joined them to rip “Rock and Roll” and “Ramble On”. In 2015, KISS’ Paul Stanley joined them onstage to take on “Detroit Rock City”. Joe Perry of Aerosmith and Liam Gallagher jammed on “Come Together” with Foo Fighters in 2017. These team-ups are more than just a series of super-cool thing hangs with iconic figures. They’re highlighted because they serve a purpose. Grohl’s place in rock history was solidified long before Foo Fighters. But in collaborating with the rock gods of the 1970s (and the last of the classic-style rock stars, Liam Gallagher), it both gives Foo Fighters a stamp of approval from artists they’ve openly worshipped and cited as influences and gives the band status as the inheritors of the classic, arena rock tradition.

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    Despite reaching that exalted position, Foo Fighters aren’t your typical uber-famous act. There are no airs, no pretensions. If you go back and watch any of the aforementioned duets, there’s a palpable ebullience emanating from Grohl and the band; they’re legitimately happy to be sharing the stage with their heroes. The commitment to their concerts and their fans is underrated. Grohl played a substantial portion of the Foo Fighters’ 20th anniversary tour with his leg in a cast after breaking his ankle during a show. There’s a fundamental likability and down-to-earth quality that makes them feel approachable and human. Only Grohl could engage in a series of viral drum-offs with 10-year-old Nandi Bushell without sacrificing credibility or appearing to pander to the masses. It’s a logical progression of the anti-rock star rock star that Grohl helped usher in 30 years ago, one that fits both his personality and this era perfectly.

    At this point, each new Foo Fighters release is guaranteed to be commercially successful. The 2011 single “Rope” spent 20 straight weeks at No. 1 on the rock singles chart, and 9 of the 14 singles issued since then have cracked the top five. All six Foo Fighters LPs released in the 2000s have cracked the top three of the album charts. That type of run is unheard of for a rock band these days, and they appear aware of it. Their last LP, Concrete and Gold, was one the most ambitious records they’ve ever released, offering up strings and other subtle modifications to their well-established sound.

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    This week, Medicine at Midnight is coming out. It’s one of the most highly anticipated major label releases of the year, and Grohl has promised it’s the most dynamic Foo Fighters album yet. We’ll see if he’s right. For a band 10 albums into their career, finding new inspiration is rare. But then again, managing to move from sideman in a transcendent band to a one-off solo project to achieving mega-stardom and doing it all without sacrificing your image or integrity isn’t exactly a normal career trajectory, either.

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