I like Dave Grohl, the nominal leader of the Foo Fighters. He’s made a name for himself outside the day to day duties of recording and touring with his band. He’s a regular at the Kennedy Center Honors, appearing in support of The Who in 2008, and Paul McCartney in 2010, and again with Led Zeppelin in 2012. Grohl performed “Hey, Bulldog” on last year’s celebratory remembrance of the Beatles 1963 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. He was a performer on HBO’s Concert for Valor. The avuncular Grohl has become the frontman for guitar rock, a genre I find, sadly, to be dying out.
It’s not surprising that HBO cast Grohl in the role of documentary filmmaker, a la Ken Burns, to tell the story of the music scene in eight different American cities: Chicago, Washington, D.C., Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Seattle and New York. Each one hour episode investigated the important influences on at least one important genre in the city, with Grohl leading the viewer through interviews, recording studios, record stores all laid against the Foo Fighters trying to record a song each week in a different city.
Though I’ve watched each show in the series at least three times, each episode stands on its own, and it’s not necessary to watch the entire series to get something out it.
Episode 1: Chicago
Special Guests: Buddy Guy, Steve Albini, Rick Nielsen
Foo Fighters Song: Something From Nothing
This episode established the model for the rest of the series, as Grohl quickly established the theme for the city. His interviews with blues legend Buddy Guy connects the city with its Chess Blues roots. Like most of the remaining episodes, however, Grohl explores a personal connection to the city, in this connection to producer Steve Albini, who produced Nirvana’s “In Utero” album. He also explore his early connection to punk rock, and the difficulty Chicago had giving birth to bands like Albini’s Naked Ray-Gun. Legendary Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen sits in on the recording of “Something From Nothing,” the strongest of the recordings in the series.
Episode Grade: B
Episode 2: Washington D.C.
Special Guests: Ian Mackaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi,) Dr. Know (Bad Brains,) Pharrell Williams, Mark Anderson (organizer,) Big Tony Fisher (Trouble Funk,) Don Ziantara (Inner Ear Records)
Foo Fighters Song: The Feast or the Famine
This is a deeply contextual episode drawing on Grohl’s personal experience growing up in a nearby northern Virginia town. It begins by focusing on the racially segregated and economically unequal nature of the nation’s capital and the lack of a local musical sound through the 1960’s. The episode goes in two directions beginning with the emergence of the Go-Go sound in urban Washington. It’s a funk scene built around exotic drumming promoted and popularized by DJ Chuck Brown in the late 70’s. Grohl moves the scene to suburban Virginia and the explosion of a punk sound featuring the all-black, incredibly fast-paced Bad Brains. Ian Mackaye shared his experiences as a member of the pioneering Minor Threat, with punk great Henry Rollins. His delineation of the differences between Britain’s class conscious punk scene and the more emotional American variety was a revelation. Eventually Grohl shared his beginning as a punk musician in the band Scream and their participation in a broader D.C. social movement. An interesting but quite personal and complex episode.
Episode Grade: B
Episode 3: Nashville
Special Guests: Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Tony Joe White, Willie Nelson, Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys, Zac Brown (The Zac Brown Band,) Tony Brown, Steve Earle
Foo Fighters Song: Congregation
The show opens with Grohl performing at Nashville’s iconic Bluebird Café, explaining that during his week in Nashville he felt like “a fish out of water.” The hour that follows in “Hitsville, USA” is probably the most interesting of the series’ episodes. As a complete Nashville outsider, Grohl is able to take a respectful but critical look inside the country music hit machine. Though considerable attention is given to song writing, and the importance of great songs in country music, Grohl illustrates the clear division between songwriting and performing artists. He concludes that those who write the songs are chiefly interested in repeated commercial success-up tempo party songs that no longer perform the simple story-telling that made country music great. He concludes that he identifies most closely with country music’s outsiders: Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Tony Joe White, and Zac Brown. Worth a look, regardless how you feel about country music.
Episode Grade: A
Episode 4: Austin
Special Guests: Steve Earle, Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top,) Gibby Haynes (The Butthole Surfers,) Willie Nelson, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Jimmy Vaughn, Terry Lickona (Austin City Limits,) Gary Clark, Jr. Rocky Erickson (13th Floor Elevators)
Foo Fighters Song: What did I Do?/God is My Witness
The Austin hour really does trace the evolution of music in the home of SXSW from the 60’s to the present. Grohl shares Austin’s nascent psychedelic scene with 13th Floor Elevators in 1966 that preceded that in San Francisco. Considerable importance is credited to the success of the PBS series Austin City Limits in creating a national audience for Austin’s local scene. Another factor in the Austin’s notoriety as a live music mecca was the return of Willie Nelson from Nashville and his notorious 4th of July picnics. Jimmy Vaughan, Stevie Ray Vaughn and the Austin blues scene are remembered, as well as the punk sound of the 1980’s. The episode concludes with the spotlight on Austin guitarist and Gary Clark, Jr, and threats to the Austin music scene from development and gentrification. An excellent hour inside one of America’s great, if often overlooked, music centers.
Episode Grade: A
Episode 5: Los Angeles.
Special Guests: Joan Jett, Joe Walsh, Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age, Kyuss,) David Catching, Daniel Lanois, Mario Lalli (Fatso Jetso,) Rodney Bingenheimer, Paul Stanley (Kiss,) John Desnmore and Robby Kriger (the Doors.)
Foo Fighters Song: Outside
Planning out the Los Angeles episode must have been daunting. The scene is so big and so important, how much could be realistically covered in an hour? After spending some time with some basic background, Grohl gives us a look inside bandmate and L.A. native Pat Smear and his time in the seminal punk band, The Germs. But the bulk of the story moves out to the desert, where it forks between the Rancho de Luna recording studio opened in 1992 near Joshua Tree and the bubbling rock scene that grew up in the canyons outside Palm Desert. I found this episode to be least interesting of the eight. An episode about L.A. music should tell the story of the L.A. scene, and this misses the mark. Outside is an amazing song and includes Joe Walsh’s awesome guest guitar solo at the 3:24 mark. It’s incredible what the man can do with just a few notes.
Episode Grade: C
Episode 6: New Orleans
Special Guests: Cyril Neville (the Neville Brothers,) Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Dr John, Allen Toussaint, Daniel Lanois, Bonnie Raitt, Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys)
Foo Fighters Song: In the Clear
Another fascinating story of New Orleans music history and traditions, mostly involving the city’s black music scene and traditions. Grohl has extended interviews with Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, and Ben Jaffe. In many respects it is a story of perseverance as black musicians struggled to obtain a wider audience and opportunities to perform with their white peers in face of repressive segregation rules. Grohl’s interview with Ben Jaffe, proprietor of Preservation Hall and a member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band illustrates how deep the iconic jazz traditions of the city run. Though, the episode does remind us of the important contributions to funk/soul by the Neville Brothers and the Meters, it’s the day to day struggle to retain the city’s tradition jazz roots by third and fourth generation musicians that captured my attention and heart. More than any other episode, Grohl does a superb job of distilling and sharing the importance of the city’s musical traditions to the daily life of New Orleans. First rate storytelling.
Episode Grade: A
Episode 7: Seattle
Special Guests: Nancy Wilson (Heart,) Chris Cornell (Soundgarden,) Duff McKagan (Guns ‘n Roses,) Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie,) Bruce Pavitt (Sub Pop,) Jonathan Poneman (Sub Pop,) Larry Parypa (The Sonics,) Charles Peterson (photographer,) Robert Lang (Robert Lang Studios,) Bruce Martin (Screaming Trees.)
Foo Fighters Song: Subterranean
As a Northwesterner, this is an episode I anxiously anticipated. Grohl does a great job of reviewing the contributions of Northwest bands to the local and national rock scene. One minor detour on his trip, was to emphasize the importance of the Tacoma band, The Sonics who were grungy before their time. Unsurprisingly it didn’t take long before the show focused on Seattle’s grunge era, when Seattle was briefly the center of the musical universe. Interesting observations included the importance of creating a locally grown music scene because Seattle was too far for many touring bands to visit, and that there was nothing else to do in the bad weather months but write songs and play music. Inevitably the story moves toward Nirvana, their success and that terrible day when Kurt died. In turn that leads us back to Dave’s decision to record on his own and form The Foo Fighters.
Episode Grade: B
Episode 8: New York
Special Guests: Joan Jett, Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Tony Visconti, LL Cool J, David Fricke (Rolling Stone,) Jimmy Iovine, Steve Rosenthal (producer,) Chris Martin (Coldplay,) Nora Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, Paul Stanley (Kiss,) Joe Walsh, Chuck D (Public Enemy), Mike D (The Beastie Boys,) Rick Rubin (Def Jam Records,)
Foo Fighters Song: I am a River
The final episode of Sonic Highway shows New York as a nexus for American musical styles, from Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan’s folk, to a more urbanized soundtrack featuring The Ramones and Public Enemy. Though the successful and famous like Led Zeppelin and the Stones visited the city because that’s where the studios were, it was the urban sound of New York City that caught on in the 1970’s and 80’s that took part in defining popular music of the time. More than anything however, this episode shines a light on the changes in making and recording music in a city that increasingly values its image as a safe place, a corporate showplace that is slowly squeezing the life out of the small, unique musical centers that built a New York sound.
The episode closes with an attempt to synthesize the messages learned in each of the cities. The various talking heads share their views of the importance of making music, and closes with an interview with President Obama extolling the various streams of American musical tradition that join to make our popular music. The ending all seems a bit sappy and sentimental, but if the message is that American popular music, across all its genres and locations is what binds us together, that’s better than suggesting we are hopelessly divided by region, urban/rural conditions, and politics.
Episode Grade B+
Sonic Highways was a great experiment. The best thing the series does is create a context for understanding the music in each of the eight cities and how the city made or makes that sound unique. Though none of the shows are bad, some are clearly better than others.
As much as I like Grohl and the Foo Fighters, the best episodes are those in which the host has as little history with the city as the viewers. In the places where Grohl has a connection, such as Washington, D.C. and Seattle, and to a certain degree Chicago where Grohl had a relationship with producer Steve Albini, the story bogs down a bit and becomes more about Grohl than about the city. For example, the Seattle episode could have spent more valuable time on the breadth of the Grunge scene, rather than taking time to focus on Nirvana, Kurt’s death, and Grohl’s resurrection. I just think that’s a different story. Still a good episode, but you get what I’m saying. The best episodes are Nashville, Austin, and New Orleans, all with fascinating musical stories where Grohl is a neophyte, a fish out of water to use his own words.
We also get a chance to get a slight peek inside how a band goes about recording a song, but let’s be clear, the time devoted to this is fairly insignificant. In fact, one thing the series doesn’t do a great job of is getting inside the Foo Fighters. We see a lot of Grohl and drummer Taylor Hawkins, but honestly so much on the band members. Though he takes pains to show his songwriting process, it doesn’t seem more than cramming for a test the day before the exam. In the respect that we see how the place a record is made affects the final product that is missing. Ultimately, however, that seems artificial and unimportant.
If Sonic Highway is imperfect, it is a genuine effort to explain, illustrate, and synthesize the disparate strands of popular American music. Though it tends to relate to more recent genres, from the 70’s – 90’s, the genuine openness toward all of it was a breath of fresh air. I learned a lot, and found Sonic Highways to be worth every mile traveled.