I’m assuming you don’t get the Foo Fighters, either. The popularity. The Grammys. Those teeth. Dave Grohl is a likable enough guy. He’s been through a lot, of course, and carried himself with relative dignity. But I don’t understand the Foo Fighters. I’ve got their albums and seen them live, but the sound they purvey — a sort of pop-thrash, with lyrics that struggle to convey meaning — remains indistinct. Their commercial and industry appeal? A mystery.
Anyway, about the Foo Fighters, about Dave Grohl, I hear you. And you would be forgiven for thinking that Grohl’s new HBO show (wait — a Dave Grohl show on HBO?) was eminently missable, or even avoidable. I mean, who could sit through eight hours of documentary about the Foo Fighters recording an album? Just the glare of the spectacular dental work sported by Grohl and his BFF Taylor Hawkins, the band’s drummer, would be difficult enough. (Call it the Brotherhood of the Traveling Teeth.) The idea is that Grohl and his bandmates travel to eight different cities and record a single track for their album in each with the help of producer Butch Vig (whom Grohl of course met during the recording of Nevermind). “The environment in which you make a record ultimately influences the end result,” Grohl contends. Along the way, we learn some interesting backstory about each city. And — you’re gonna love this — Grohl himself directs the whole thing.
Okay, that’s the setup, and the punch line is that Sonic Highways, as the show — and the band’s new album — is called, is something unexpected: an unapologetically deep look at the quirky corners of each city’s musical history that is both engrossing and revelatory. It’s necessarily attenuated, sure, by each episode’s hour running time, but still deep and wide-ranging in every case, reminding us time and time again of the astonishing stories that led certain stars (and non-stars) to their destinies. And each episode is shot through with Grohl’s unapologetically romantic take on the vagaries of punk-rock at its best — the DIY ethos, its reliance on the odd ideas of misfits, and the network of mutual support and understanding that results.
It’s not unique — there’s a Minutemen documentary, We Jam Econo, which provides a decent look at the ethos of punk at its best. But the care and detail lavished on each city in Sonic Highways is incredibly interesting and powerful. Grohl lets the musicians tell their story. So for the first episode, in Chicago, Grohl visits Buddy Guy, the unrepentant hard-blues guitarist, his face still by turns adamantine and mischievous, his life a connection to a past most of us have no reference for. (He was friends with Muddy Waters, for one; for another, Guy mentions in passing that he’d grown up picking cotton in Louisiana and hadn’t seen a radio until he was 15 or 17.) The other stars of the first episode are Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen (from Rockford, not Chicago, but a nice touch and a tip o’ the hat to power-pop); and the city’s quintessential ‘80s-punk outfit, somewhat forgotten by history, called Naked Raygun. But Grohl also finds time to record a song with Nielsen at underground producer Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio Studio, and adds in lots about Albini’s own punk-rock career. The acerbic and amusing Albini steals the show, as you’d expect. (“There’s another studio on the other side of that wall,” he says at one point, “which you guys aren’t going to get to see, because fuck you guys.”) We get some of Grohl’s story, too. As a young teen, he visited a cousin in the Chicago suburbs and got taken to a Raygun concert in town, which, he says, changed his life. It’s not comprehensive — passing or no mention to Curtis Mayfield, R. Kelly, Liz Phair, Wilco, even Touch and Go, the famous underground record label — but it’s enough, and a lot to pack into an hour.
And yet the pacing is always calm and thoughtful, and there is consistently amazing archival footage, and musical and philosophical moments to dwell on. In the piece on Austin, it’s great to hear ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons take the time to go on about Willie Nelson’s lead-guitar playing (“on that beat-up Martin”), and then nice to watch Nelson play for a while. (We also get a few minutes to chat with psychedelic-pioneer-cum-acid-casualty Roky Erickson.) In D.C., the story focuses first on that city’s unique brand of molten funk, called go-go, tracing its origins with an impresario named Chuck Brown, then, of course, on the steadfastly anti-industry Fugazi and the other bands that put the area on the punk map in the late 1980s. (Grohl started here, drumming for a band called Scream before he wound up in Seattle with Nirvana.) The presence of Albini, whose put-downs come with a crooked smile, harshes the mellow of the Chicago punk story, but here Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye and others from the area explain how they fell into that scene’s particularly caring brand of positive DIY-punk. (A key component was an activist who got the scene fired up about apartheid.) MacKaye tells the story of how, back in the LP days, the bands would take another label’s records, tear the packaging apart to see how the jackets were made, run the template to a printer, and then have parties where their own records were constructed and packaged and sent to fans, sometimes with personal messages scrawled on the jackets.
I lived in Chicago and D.C. and have been to Austin ten or 15 times, and I still learned a lot in every episode. The pieces are nuanced, closely observed, and edifying. The L.A. one made me care about two bands I was sure I didn’t care about — the Germs, one of the most self-destructive groups in the ass-end years of punk, and Kyuss, a sludge-rock ensemble from the desert cities near Palm Springs. The Germs, Foo Fighters guitarist Pat Smear’s first band, had a horrific and doomed lead singer named Darby Crash. (There is something epic about his failed bid to become a rock ‘n’ roll immortal, which I won’t spoil here.) Kyuss and its successor band, Queens of the Stone Age, formed out of a different misfit community that would hold nighttime “generator parties” in natural canyons out in the bush. (We learn that Kyuss’s tres-heavy sound evolved out of trying to make as big an effect as possible in open spaces.) Grohl also takes time to chat with producer Daniel Lanois, who, it turns out, helped set up the appropriately weird Rancho de la Luna studio in the nearby high desert. (“If you were to take a home studio book of the dos and don’ts,” says Joshua Homme, of Queens of the Stone Age, “Rancho literally has all the don’ts.”)
You can quibble, but I won’t, because I’m sure Grohl would say he’s well aware of all the talented people he left out of each episode. I would point out that there’s nothing here about sexuality, though particularly in the L.A. episode, it played an important part. And in Austin, we never find out why Stevie Ray Vaughan felt he had to wear a kimono.
The DIY thing, it’s great, but as a critic, I’ve always been skeptical because process is sometimes a crutch, a way to avoid talking about the quality. (There are limits, of course, but if Radiohead had clubbed a few baby seals while recording OK Computer, I’d be fine with that, and I really don’t care if Maroon 5 fed the homeless while recording their latest pabulum masterpiece.) But just as a piece of sociology, Sonic Highways shines when Grohl lets himself be a romantic. “Their life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll,” Lou Reed once sang, and this is their story, stars or not, great artists or not. There’s a guy out with the desert bands in the L.A. episode named Mario Lalli, whom no one’s ever heard of. He gives Sonic Highways its motto, one that applies to punk rock and rock ‘n’ roll generally, now that I think about it. “We had to do it ourselves,” he says. “We had to find our place.”