For no good reason I can think of, I’ve never been a big fan of Nirvana or the Foo Fighters, which is odd given the impact that punk rock had on me in my late teens, as indeed it did on them. However I do have a lot of time for Dave Grohl, the former Nirvana drummer and the driving force behind the Foo Fighters, the hugely successful band he formed in 1994.
What I admire in Grohl is his musical authenticity and curiosity. By that I mean his connection and appreciation of the culture and history that has shaped and influenced popular music since the latter part of the 20th century.
In recent years he has turned filmmaker and delved a bit deeper into this. In 2012 he made a documentary about Sound City, the legendary studio in Van Nuys, California where Nirvana recorded the Nevermind album and which Grohl later bought and restored. It’s a fascinating film featuring some of the great bands that recorded there (such as Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Neil Young and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers to name a few) and well worth seeing for any music fan.
The project follows a musical journey Grohl and the band made, travelling to nine American cities, spending a week in each place, absorbing their musical culture, and writing and recording a track based on their experience. Grohl’s lyrics for each song are based on the interviews he made with musicians from each place.
The result is what Grohl has called “unravelling of our musical influences” and is an intriguing take on both American music history and the regional nuances that have shaped – and continue to shape – the sounds we hear today.
Some, like New Orleans jazz, are more obvious than others – although I didn’t appreciate how much the region’s humidity contributed to its unique sound because of how it affected the instruments. And I’m sure I’m not the only one to have never heard of go-go music, a wonderful funk sub culture of 1970s Washington DC. You can hear Grohl talk more about the making of the film in a recent episode of NPR’s All Songs Considered.
Those of you that share the same 50s vintage as Grohl and myself, or are into music history, will get a kick out of this film but I hope it provides a connection for younger listeners too. Knowing where music comes from and how it influenced your favourite artists opens up a whole new world of music to explore and widens your horizons. When I was growing up, for example, it was through artists like the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart that I learnt to appreciate blues legends like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Reed, the soul of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, and the genius of Bob Dylan.
As for the Sonic Highways album itself? It’s obviously interesting as a companion to the film but I’ll have to give it a few more plays before I am converted!