It feels strange to be discussing the twentieth anniversary of Foo Fighters‘ debut album now – just months after Universal Music Enterprises celebrated the same anniversary for the release of Nirvana’s In Utero album. It seems weird because, while the original releases of those albums were only twenty-two months apart, they feel as though they came from two different time periods or different eras. Alt-rock was forced to grow up on a condensed timeline after the death of Kurt Cobain; it suddenly ceased to feel like it was just light-hearted kids’ stuff (no matter how dark or heavy the emotional undertones always seemed to be). Nothing ever felt as innocent as it had before and there was just no going back. Trying to fake it and pretend that nothing happened would have felt insulting not only to Nirvana fans but also to all the artists directly associated with the band, or even those in the same creative sphere.
That hesitation was the reason listeners came very carefully to Foo Fighters’ debut album and noticed its differences from Nirvana before they even tried to find any similarities. The album lacked the poppy dynamics that Kurt Cobain had installed in Nirvana’s music, yet it still had a lighter side; it was not as guarded in its artistic stance, but it still had a very martial rock element about it. That initial, ever-so-slight difference made it easier for fans who had been truly and genuinely shocked by the sudden end of Nirvana to approach Foo Fighters; what Grohl does here isn’t the same, but it is on an angle similar enough to be readily accessible for them without making them feel guilty for liking it.
That listeners could have felt guilty about appreciating Foo Fighters’ debut was a very real possibility in 1996, but that the album bravely doesn’t try to feign modesty in its presentation has really helped it keep from feeling dated, twenty years later. The album opens with “This Is A Call” as an almost serene explosion; after a few bars of warm-up and lyrics which almost feel as though they want to close the book on any uncertainty of life after Nirvana (the lines “Visiting is pretty/ visiting is good/ seems that all they ever wanted was a brother” sound simultaneously like the filler used to hold space on an unfinished demo as well as something to say because the song had to start somewhere), the song roars forth in a manner which is pretty far from Nirvana and closer to the melodic hardcore where Grohl’s roots were originally set.
Here, Grohl hammers his drum kit mercilessly and nervously (no shock there – he was a drummer first) and assembles a chord progression which is both tight to the beat and sweetly melodic to go on top and the result is epiphany-inducing. Cobain may have pushed the punk rock and hardcore banners to the forefront of Nirvana at every opportunity, but “This Is A Call” proves that the real hardcore threads through Nirvana’s hits was Dave Grohl’s performances above all. Now in a different context, the drums continue to drive the songs but far more simply, and the guitar figures in “This Is A Call” make the most of needs-first playing but still route out a solid performance nonetheless. It’s really impressive in that regard because it doesn’t just sound like any one part is the focus with everything else just filling in; it sounds like a rock-solid rock song.
With “This Is A Call” setting the precedent that Foo Fighters isn’t just a vanity project but an ambitious baby band looking to make a mark for itself right off the bat, it gives the album a bit of freedom to not be so focused as it continues, and illustrates a few different styles of songwriting as it goes. “I’ll Stick Around” turns the heat up a little higher to answer “This Is A Call” with some simmering guitar licks and seething vocals (check out “How could it be/ I’m the only one who sees/ Your rehearsed insanity” – which everyone just assumed was about Courtney Love in 1995 – as well as the vitriolic “I don’t owe you anything” refrain which comes right before the bridge) before lightening up dramatically and playing with a thematic level head for “Big Me” (which, of course, proved to be the break-out single for the alt-lite audiences of the day in spite of not being representative of the album at all) and then swimming deeply into the far more wracked “Good Grief” before finally closing the side with the resigned and almost serene “Floaty.”
In listening back now with the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard not to think that “Floaty” never developed past the demo stage, but it didn’t really need to; Grohl’s vocal sighs along, disconnected, and it feels like a marvellous sojourn from fare like “Alone + Easy Target,” “I’ll Stick Around” and “Good Grief” on the surface, but proves to be actually far more involved as one digs in. Sure – the verses do little more than change pronouns as they play through (from “he” to “she” to “they” to “We float/ Float away/ On the ground/ We come back down”) but the delivery of those lines and the obvious dissatisfaction in the tone quickly begins to feel disconcerting; it’s hard to tell if Grohl is suppressing fury or simpering for dramatic effect but, either way, the sound is so hypnotic that listeners will be hooked and pulled through until the needle lifts at song’s end – it’s beautiful and incredibly satisfying.
Without intending to overstate the point, the A-side of Foo Fighters was definitely a defining document in regards to establishing that there could be new creative life after Nirvana for Dave Grohl, but it’s actually on the B-side of the album where the singer produces the great, eye-opening stuff. The A-side has all the radio singles but the B-side has more guts. Right off, “Weenie Beanie” sears out harder and hotter than any of the songs on the album’s A-side and piques listeners’ curiosity. Is it a good song? Well, the vocals are unintelligible (while there is a lyric sheet, the overdriven capture of the vocals makes it impossible to make them out), but the screaming guitars answer the forms first set by Nirvana with some real post-punk fury of a sort that wasn’t yet standard issue in 1995 and the drums effortlessly tickle the amygdala of those listeners who already exhibit some aggressive tendencies. The final result is a perfect bait – listeners will be ready for MORE after “Weenie Beenie” gets them started.
Listeners will find more fine sustenance to soothe their cravings for loud rock with “Oh, George,” but then will do a double-take when “For All The Cows” slows the going right down for the closest to a ‘soft verse, loud chorus’ alt-rock song to be found anywhere on the album. Again, as was the case on “Floaty,” Grohl starts delicately with a lyric sheet which reads as silly (come on – what would you call “I’m called a cow/ I’m not about to blow it now/ for all the cows”?) before totally blowing the tweeters out of speakers for a rabble-rousing and explosive chorus. Now, to be fair, the song doesn’t feature the best songwriting (the lyrics are vague and really do little more than imply a couple of come-ons) but it makes up for what it lacks in craft with raw power in much the same way “Lithium” did for Nirvana.
Listeners may still be feeling the high from “For All The Cows” as “X-Static” screeches out featuring the one appearance made on any instrument by a performer other than Grohl (Afghan Whigs major domo Greg Dulli contributed a guitar part) and arguably the most dramatic arrangement on the album before lambasting listeners so hard their ears may bleed from “Wattershed” and then simply letting the vibes recede gently out on the aptly entitled side-closer “Exhausted.” Each step along the way here (moreso than on the album’s A-side), Grohl’s desire to really make sure his personality, his musical stamp and his authoritative voice are upfront and obvious – but the best thing about that is how very abstract it rings.
Nothing about Foo Fighters absolutely plays like a reaction to the events which ended Nirvana. As stated, the closest to a reaction to any of that at all may appear on “I’ll Stick Around,” but the song is still written in a thematically abstract manner which keeps it from really standing out. Nothing overtly addresses anything really; the tracks on Foo Fighters are good rock songs, but they’re not CANDID rock songs – at least not in any obvious way. That was yet another way by which listeners could appreciate Foo Fighters. With all the torment which had surrounded Nirvana and grunge and alt-rock et cetera in the middle of the Nineties, Foo Fighters could just be a record which sought to stand on its own.
…And stand on its own it has. As it would turn out, Foo Fighters would quickly become a very big and different band from this first creation; they would grow in size (they’re currently a five-man band), would be recognized and win lots of awards in their own right and gain an impressive fanbase. Foo Fighters have toured the world several times over, been showered with praise and become an institution in their own right. Their successes have been spectacular – but everything they’ve done can all be traced back to this, stylistically. This album is the lynchpin; without it none of what the Foo Fighters have done since would exist. That said, anyone who wants to ask how this album could be a classic needs to first ask themselves how it couldn’t be.