Like many, drummer Dave Grohl felt destroyed in April 1994 when he heard that Nirvana’s lead singer and guitarist, Kurt Cobain, had taken his own life. While Grohl had written several dozen songs himself, he had deferred to Cobain’s songwriting ability, and for a long time after his death he was barely able to listen to music, let alone think about recording again. When that feeling gradually started to lift, however, he considered drumming for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Pearl Jam, and even talked to Nirvana’s bass player Krist Novoselic about the possibility of forming a new band. None of those options felt right to him however, and instead he entered Robert Lang Studios in October 1994 to record 15 of his own songs, playing practically all the instruments himself. "I was supposed to just join another band and be a drummer the rest of my life," Grohl said. "I thought that I would rather do what no one expected me to do. I enjoy writing music and I enjoy trying to sing, and there's nothing anyone can really do to discourage me."
Grohl later handed out cassette tapes of the sessions to his friends under the name Foo Fighters, which is what the allies called unidentified flying objects during WW II. The tapes started to cause a stir and soon record labels were knocking at Grohl’s door. Fast forward until today and, incredibly, Foo Fighters have won 12 Grammy Awards - including Best Rock Album four times (more than any other band) - and sold an estimated 30 million records. Dave Grohl and his band are now, without doubt, rock royalty. Here are Guitars Exchange’s pick of their top 10 songs:
10. All My Life (One by One, 2002)
Dave Grohl has said that this song is about the joy he finds in giving oral sex. He has described the lyrics – such as "I love it but I hate the taste," and "Over and over down on my knees" – as being ‘a little dirty’. Grohl plays his signature Gibson Memphis ES-335 on one of the band’s live performances alongside three other guitarists; no-one can say, therefore, that the song does not contain some outstandingly good licks.
9. Monkey Wrench (The Colour And The Shape, 1997)
When Grohl wrote This is a Call he was in Dublin and just about to marry Jennifer Youngblood; Monkey Wrench in contrast - according to his interview with Mojo magazine - is about the disintegration of his marriage to the photographer. "It's about living with someone and feeling like you're living in a f**king cell. And then I wound up getting a divorce," he said. On the other hand, this was the first single off the Foo Fighters’ second album, which was recorded under great stress. Grohl was unhappy with William Goldsmith’s drumming, and when Goldsmith left, he ended up re-recording the drum parts himself. From the disaster of both his band and his closest personal relationship falling apart, Grohl produced a ‘power punk song’ that has endured and is a staple in the band’s live act. “I still remember every single word you said, And all the shit that somehow came along with it/ Still, there's one thing that comforts me, Since I was always caged and now I'm free,” he sings.
8. Stacked Actors (There Is Nothing Left To Lose, 1999)
Stacked Actors was the lead single from Foo Fighters' third album, and represents an attack on all the ‘phonies of Hollywood’ and their materialistic obsessions. Grohl had just spent 18 months living in the Mecca of film and his disgust with the experience is clear in the lyrics: "I'm impressed, what a beautiful chest … And we cry when they all die blonde." "I just hated it. I had a lot of fun, but I had a lot of fun hating it," he said in an interview with Sway magazine.
7. My Hero (The Colour And The Shape, 1997)
Grohl has said he wrote My Hero while watching teen movies like Valley Girl, but it relates to neither; it's simply Grohl explaining that his real heroes as a child were ordinary people whom he trusted. “Pete Stahl who was the singer of Scream [one of Grohl's first bands] was one. I was 17 years old when we hit the road and that guy showed me the ropes, so to me he was a hero,” he said. “And family members ...my mum's a saint. She raised two kids with no money and we managed to be a happy family, so she seems like a hero to me." This beautiful song is a homage to ‘solid everyday people’ who display values like loyalty and reliability, without making a show of it. On one live version of the song Grohl can be seen strumming his Gibson Elvis Presley Dove acoustic.
6. This Is A Call (Foo Fighters, 1995)
This was Foo Fighters’ first single, written at a time when Nirvana had just finished, and Grohl felt he had nothing left to lose. Grohl scribed the words 'This is a call to all my past resignations...' and shortly afterwards decided to step up, strap on a guitar and be the front man of his own band. While the lyric that forms the chorus is a ‘thank you’ to all those in his life, Grohl has said that the rest of the lyrics were all nonsense because he knew they would be scrutinized for meaning, and he wanted to sidestep all that by being utterly absurd. But that never stopped thousands of fans singing out loud at his concerts: "fingernails are pretty, fingernails are good..."
5. Best Of You (In Your Honor, 2005)
Apart from being an A-list rock star Grohl is also a political activist, and the song Best of You was inspired by him campaigning in 2004 for then-presidential candidate John Kerry (who lost to George W. Bush). In an interview with NME however he explained that he had ‘shelved it’ because he didn’t rate it, but that his manager heard it and said “‘Where’s that song that says ‘the best of you’ a hundred times?’ Just pound it into their head!” The manager had the right instinct because the song became the lead single from their fifth studio album, and a worldwide hit. It might be on the sentimental side, but the emotional power of the song cannot be faulted.
4. Big Me (Foo Fighters, 1995)
This catchy jingle has an infectious melody that rapidly sinks its hooks into your brain. Despite it being about heartbreak and being written around the time Cobain was inspired to write the wonderful, but incredibly bitter, You Know You’re Right, Grohl was penning this whimsical number about being dumped. As Grohl himself put it: "Girl meets boy, boy falls in love, girl tells him to f**k off!"
3. Learn To Fly (There Is Nothing Left To Lose, 1999)
Foo Fighters’ second biggest hit is reportedly one of Grohl’s least favourites; but it nonethelesss flies high on this list. It came at a time of instability in the band as they were considering replacing guitarist Franz Stahl, while also trialling drummer Taylor Hawkins for the first time. Learn to Fly peaked at number 19 in the Billboard Hot 100 and was given heavy airplay by MTV, despite the controversy over its ‘scary’ airplane video. Yes it is a radio-friendly earworm but it put Foo Fighters on the map, and they never looked back.
2. Times Like These (One By One, 2002)
Times Like These was the second single release from band’s fourth album and was born out of another moment of turmoil in Grohl’s life."I am a little divided," the lyrics run, "Do I stay or run away, And leave it all behind?" Backed by jangly, cascading guitars, Grohl overcame his doubts to produce a tune that is universally uplifting, as he himself agrees: "I think actually that this is the best song I've ever written – it's very emotive and passionate." The song gained another lease of life during 2020’s pandemic when BBC1 produced a celebrity rendition, which became a viral sensation and racked up over 13 million views on Youtube. “It’s times like these you learn to live again, It’s times like these you give and give again,” he sang, and for a moment it felt like the world was singing along with him.
1. Everlong (The Colour And The Shape, 1997)
We end near where we started – with a song inspired by the collapse of Grohl’s marriage and his growing feelings towards someone else. Surprisingly the tune was, at the time of its release, drifting into obscurity, until Grohl picked up an acoustic during his appearance on Howard Stern's show and squeezed out all the emotion of the song. Stern loved it and played it on repeat, converting the song into a blockbluster in the process. Whether it is played ‘unplugged’, or with Grohl’s full band, it is now a staple at Foo Fighters’ live concerts. It is a testament to the power of love, Bob Dylan has said how much he admires it, and Grohl himself has said he never tires of playing it: “So many people connect with it that that communal energy makes it magical every fucking night,” he says.