Foo Fighters’ debut was a bridge between Nirvana and mid-’90s alt-rock
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Longtime readers of The A.V. Club might remember Permanent Records, a recurring feature that ran on the site in the late ’00s. Subtitled “Albums from The A.V. Club’s Hall Of Fame,” Permanent Records spotlighted music that was nearest and dearest to our hearts. Sometimes we talked about lost classics like Sloan’s Between The Bridges and the Everly Brothers’ Roots. Other times we delved into overlooked deep cuts from superstar discographies, like Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel Of Love and Marvin Gaye’s Here My Dear. The idea was to examine records that were known but not terribly well known, or even held in high regard by most people. We weren’t necessarily calling these the best albums of all time; it was more an act of tapping readers on the shoulder and saying, “Hey, check this out, we think it’s more important than you might realize.”
If you’ve missed Permanent Records, we have good news: It’s back, and this time it’s a little more in-depth. We are delving into albums that we believe are both vital to our own experiences as music fans and (here’s the tough part) important in the larger scheme of the musical world they came out of. For an album to qualify as a Permanent Record, it must move the writer on a personal level and leave a mark on the world in some way.
The introductory installment of the new Permanent Records covers an album that’s the opposite of a lost classic or overlooked deep cut: Foo Fighters’ self-titled 1995 debut was certified platinum, spun off six singles, and launched the career of perhaps the most ubiquitous radio-friendly rock band of the last 20 years. But looked at another way, Foo Fighters is exactly the sort of underappreciated record we’ll be covering here. If you were like me in the mid-’90s—a high-school kid from middle America who unequivocally loved alternative rock—Foo Fighters is like what the first Boston record was to teenagers in the late ’70s, or Def Leppard’s Hysteria was in the late ’80s. It was the rock record you knew by heart even if you didn’t own it. Now, it’s become so ingrained in contemporary rock music that it’s practically invisible.
Dave Grohl is a generally well-liked guy, but if he’s celebrated for anything among music critics, it’s for counting off the songs behind Kurt Cobain in Nirvana. Foo Fighters is typically regarded as a nice but workmanlike rock band that makes decent singles but is generally unexciting. To be fair, Foo Fighters is a nice but generally workmanlike band whose specialty is churning out hits with a minimum of flash or coloring outside the lines. Foo Fighters songs are distinguished by their ability to not stand out from the pack for anything other than their superior craftsmanship compared to the dregs of their radio brethren. On 2011’s Wasting Light, that craftsmanship was so consistently strong that it filtered past the obvious singles and down to the filler tracks. But for the most part, a Foo Fighters LP does its job if it can deliver at least two songs that can be played every other hour for the next 10 years.
The Foo Fighters have been the safe, dependable band you can trust for so long that people forget just how risky it was for Grohl to put out his debut in the wake of Nirvana’s untimely demise. Foo Fighters weren’t even an actual band in 1995: Grohl recorded the songs by himself over the course of a week in the fall of 1994. The album went on to become a chart success and MTV staple, but Grohl faced plenty of skepticism and resentment for essentially picking up the torch Nirvana had dropped and moving it in a relatively conventional, mainstream direction. Grohl talked about this period in the 2011 documentary Foo Fighters: Back And Forth:
They asked me, “Why did you decide to carry on and make music that sounds like Nirvana?” And I said, “Wait a minute, what do you mean, like loud rock guitars and melodies and cymbals crashing and big-ass drums? ’Cos that’s what I do. I was in that band. What do you want me to do, make a reggae record?
Over time, Foo Fighters would conquer the world of arenas and stadiums that Nirvana was on the verge of entering, with a sound that built on a template that Cobain created in a way that, frankly, would’ve probably displeased him. Foo Fighters ended up being a bridge between the original grunge bands of the late ’80s and early ’90s and the “bubble-grunge” carpetbaggers who took over alternative rock in the mid-’90s.
There’s no question Foo Fighters comes directly out of Grohl’s experience with Nirvana. Many of the songs were written when he was still a member of the band, and overall, Foo Fighters is the most Nirvana-like of all the Foo Fighters albums. The song most obviously indebted to Cobain, “I’ll Stick Around,” was one of the few tracks that Grohl wrote after the singer’s death. While not a deliberate tribute, “I’ll Stick Around” bears the hallmarks of Cobain’s songwriting style—the soft verse/loud chorus dynamics, the simple but catchy riff, the slowly unfolding catharsis that explodes by song’s end—while dressing it up in a slick, palatable package.
Grohl’s history automatically made him more credible than Bush, Live, and all the other bands that rose to prominence in Nirvana’s absence. But while the Cobain influence is obvious on Foo Fighters, Grohl wasn’t interested in the noise-for-noise’s sake that distinguished Nirvana’s final studio album, In Utero. Foo Fighters might’ve been a glorified demo that was recorded quickly mere months after the trauma of Nirvana’s instant break-up, but Grohl didn’t so much channel that darkness as subvert it into the purest pop music of his career.
In terms of “softness,” Foo Fighters is to the left of Nevermind and even most of Foo Fighters’ catalog, which has turned more militantly “rock” as Grohl has aged into the genre’s highest-profile flag-waver. The loudest “rock” songs on Foo Fighters—the chunky “Alone + Easy Target,” the pop-punky “Wattershed”—still have a bright, punchy sheen that would’ve embarrassed Cobain, who was prone to fleeing anything resembling commerciality at the end of his life. But even when he was working at his most casual and off-the-cuff, Grohl’s pop sense proved as indestructible as it was ineffable.
At the time of Foo Fighters, Grohl’s songwriting and vocal abilities were not yet known quantities. The album’s greatness lies in how it establishes Foo Fighters as a band both connected to Nirvana and a separate entity pointing toward alt-rock’s post-Nirvana period, and does it in a relaxed, relatively unassuming way. There are no major “statements” on Foo Fighters: Grohl claims to have written most of the lyrics minutes before recording them, and only the most committed Nirvana-ologist would be able to glean anything meaningful about Grohl’s personal feelings about Cobain’s death or his old band from these songs.
Foo Fighters sounds like what it is: A bunch of songs Grohl wrote for fun over the course of several years, presented in a simple, straightforward, engaging way. Half of the album ended up on the radio, but that’s no slight to the other half, which is just as catchy. The best of the filler cuts is “Oh, George,” which quotes George Harrison’s “Something” and features a glimmering, Harrison-esque slide-guitar solo. Despite the Harrison tribute, Foo Fighters suggests that Grohl might’ve emerged as the sweet, outgoing Paul McCartney to Cobain’s acidic, agoraphobic John Lennon had Nirvana stayed together. But it’s more likely that Grohl’s emerging talent, so different from Cobain’s, would have made the always-volatile Nirvana even more unstable.