Most “what if?” conversations concerning Nirvana focus on what kinds of records the trio might’ve made had Kurt Cobain not killed himself in April 1994. Less tantalizing but also worth considering is the question of whether Cobain’s survival would’ve kept the world from ever knowing Foo Fighters.
In the early ‘90s, when Cobain was still alive and Nirvana was the hottest band on the planet, drummer Dave Grohl was amassing a stockpile of solid solo songs. Nine landed on the self-titled Foo Fighters debut, released 20 years ago today, on July 4, 1995. Grohl recorded the tunes—plus four he’d written in the months following Cobain’s death—over a weeklong period in Seattle, working with producer Barrett Jones and playing all the instruments himself. Grohl had no expectations, but once tapes started circulating, he quickly landed a deal with Capitol and put together a backing band.
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Featuring former Germ and sometime Nirvana sideman Pat Smear on guitar and the rhythm section from Sunny Day Real Estate, the Foos took pains to present themselves as a proper group—not a vanity project for the ex-drummer of the era’s definitive alt-rock band. While every subsequent record has been a collaborative effort, Foo Fighters is pretty much straight-up Dave: the surprising sound of a supposed East Coast hardcore kid opening his vaults and showing he’d absorbed more than just punk rock.
While Foo Fighters is less polished, dynamic, and ambitious than some of the arena-ready Foos records that followed, it avoids the blandness that’s often part of the package. On the singles “This Is a Call” and “I’ll Stick Around,” Grohl picks up roughly where Nirvana left off, scaling back the aggression of 1993’s In Utero and presenting palatable angst-pop more reminiscent of 1991’s Nevermind. The big difference, of course, is in the lyrics, as Grohl never tries to reach people on the same visceral level as Kurt.
Not that Grohl wouldn’t become a great songwriter in his own right. It’s just that his gift is speaking for anyone and everyone all at once, and that’s why Foo Fighters have sold more than 10 million albums, won 11 Grammys, starred in their own HBO series, and positioned themselves alongside Pearl Jam as one only two ‘90s alt-rock bands that will probably still be packing arenas in 20 years. The grunge generation didn’t know it needed a Springsteen or a Petty, but it got one anyway.
Read on for a track-by-track take on the record that proved Grohl was more than just a drummer, and that there was life after Nirvana.
“This Is a Call”: Grohl introduces the Foos with a statement of purpose that says little yet still sounds rather purposeful. It’s classic rock with a grunge coating—proof that Dave, like Kurt, could follow nonsense verses with choruses that rally the kids.
“I’ll Stick Around”: Arguably the disc’s most Nirvanaesque number, “I’ll Stick Around” isn’t about Kurt, as Grohl feared people would think, but rather Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love. Dave denied it for years, and that was OK—there’s plenty of “rehearsed insanity” in the world, and this classic alt-era scream-along works in any number of contexts.
“Big Me”: Remembered as a novelty thanks to its video—a clever homage to those silly ‘90s Mentos commercials—this jangly breakup tune suggests Grohl was digging on some Big Star or NRBQ while cruising with Nirvana back in the day. If nothing else, he was studying up on his Beatles.
“Alone + Easy Target”: Upon hearing an early demo of this eventual Foo Fighters standout, Kurt reportedly kissed Dave on the face. It figures he’d be proud: This quiet-loud (or loud-louder) expression of opaque anger plays like a star pupil stepping up and showing what he’s learned. “Did you ever listen?” sings Grohl, ready to spread his own tuneful vitriol. “Get out, get out, get out.”
“Good Grief”: This dark, driving tune comes with another batch of inscrutable lyrics; once again, the attitude matters way more than the words. The key phrase here is “Hate it!” which Grohl sings kind of like “Hey, dad!”—an exclamation that, in the grunge days, would’ve worked just as well.
“Floaty”: Possibly about UFO abductions, this album highlight goes from shoegazer to rager as Grohl sings the bizarre chorus: “That’s not as big as what’s flown ‘round here.” For such a noisy song, it’s weirdly peaceful.
“Weenie Beenie”: In the ‘90s, it was cool to make it sound like you were singing through a megaphone into a broken intercom. That’s what Grohl does here, putting effects behind his disaffected lyrics and emerging with the album’s most punishing track. Some listeners thought “one shot nothing” was a reference to Kurt, but Grohl wrote this in ’91, when he must’ve had other things gnawing on his mind.
“Oh, George”: The lead guitar on this fuzzy filler tune inspired Grohl to name the song for George Harrison, his favorite Beatle. Knowing that, it’s tempting to hear the line “always waited for my turn” as a commentary on his stint in Nirvana.
“For all the Cows”: In the lazily strummed verses, Grohl chews a blade of grass and contemplates being labeled a cow. With the overdriven choruses, he owns the tag, declaring, “My kind has all run out.” It could be a song about following the herd or compromising your values for money—concepts Grohl and his contemporaries were all too aware of.
“X-Static”: One of the four songs written after Kurt’s suicide, “X-Static” features Afghan Whigs leader Greg Dulli on second guitar. Although it’s the only track Grohl had outside help on, the music isn’t especially memorable. It’s all plodding drums and distorted guitars that don’t go anywhere, but Grohl saves the day with a glimpse into his post-Nirvana mindset. He sings of waiting, taking leaps, making mistakes, and wishing he could be a winner. His relative directness makes it a keeper.
“Wattershed”: Summoning the punk ferocity of his youth—hence references to the bands Black Widow and Flowerhead—Grohl rails against the mailman, the banks, record contracts, and the need to oil yourself up in the summertime. There’s lots of anger directed at nothing in particular, which is why Grohl should take his own advice and go for a swim.
“Exhausted”: While not on the level of “Something In the Way” or “All Apologies,” those meditative devastators that close the two Nirvana records made during Grohl’s tenure, “Exhausted” ends Foo Fighters with grimy contemplation and guitars that go from scraping to snarling. In the first verse, when Grohl is “running exhausted and lost,” there’s no accusing rock’s Mr. Nice Guy of false humility. In 1995, Grohl really couldn’t have known how high the Foos would fly.