As fans, as lovers of music, and as admirers of the creative process, we often want to be in the room when the artist laid it down on paper, canvas, film or tape. There’s a reason behind-the-scenes features exist.
Whether we are attracted to these creative moments because we want to learn from them, live vicariously through them, or just take things apart to see what makes them tick is irrelevant. But we have to be very careful what we ask for because sometimes, knowing doesn’t add anything to the final product. In some cases, it can possibly take away from it. Dave Grohl is letting us in to the creative process and inspiration behind Foo Fighters’ new album via his HBO series Sonic Highways. Is it revealing or is it too much access? One episode in, I’m not sure.
The premise of Sonic Highways is that every city and its people influence local music and each other in a back and forth that is beyond genre, social status or any other sort of line that we might impose. Categories such as punk, blues, rock’n’roll, and glam might be separate on the surface, but they will share a common thread if created within a specific geographic location. With this premise in mind, Foo Fighters will be traveling to 8 different cities, exploring the local music scene, past and present, write a song about it and record with a local artist.
First up is Chicago where we get interviews with Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Steve Albini, Rick Nielsen and several others. We get a very brief history of Chicago blues, touching on Muddy Waters, mainly to get to Buddy Guy. During one bit, Buddy tells a story about not having a guitar until he was in his teens, but playing with rubber bands or a string with a button on it just so he could hear it. This idea is eventually tied to punk, a connection that was right on. The DIY spirit of both genres is clear and is reflected in the rawness of both. In a voice over, Grohl says something to the effect that hearing old blues records or old punk records, it’s hard to imagine either of these styles would have a commercial aspect to them at all. It’s like they were just recorded for the artist alone.
In the best section of the episode, Dave visits his older cousin who many years back took him to his first concert to see Naked Raygun, who are also featured in the show. The personal revelation of the one show, the moment that forever changed Grohl’s path is what I think the show is trying to achieve. A similar story happens when James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem talks about a letter he wrote to Steve Albini when he was a kid, asking him for advice on how to build a recording studio. Albini responded by sending him plans and diagrams, which Murphy used to build his first actual studio. The musical family vibe these stories present is what we all tend to hope is happening behind the scenes. It’s not the money and compromising of ideals we get in tabloid ready stories about musicians. It’s not the drugs and debauchery. It’s people, artists, who love what they do and love sharing in it.
And that’s all well and good, but by the end, I was too aware of having been manipulated, mainly because it all lead to a song. Near the end, there is a scene of Grohl scribbling in a pad, while sitting on the floor, against the wall in the studio. The notes he scribbles seem familiar. The scene is meant to play like he’s writing, in his zone, unaware of the camera. Except he’s credited as the director, so we know that’s not true. The scene is contrived. And that leads to a music video of the song he just wrote, complete with the scrawled lyrics superimposed on the scene as the band plays, “Something From Nothing.” And then a lyric about a button on a string pops up and I realized I knew too much. The spirit of the song was fine. It captured the idea of what we just saw all Chicago music seemed to have in common: the uncompromising do it yourself edge present in blues, punk and beyond. And the lyrics, on their own, would likely be ok. Not revelatory, but appropriate with an air of mystery. But having heard all the interviews that were directly referenced in the song, it came off clumsy, pretentious and cheesy all at once. This is definitely a case where being in the room killed the magic.
Still, I do appreciate the attempt and while I’m not the biggest Grohl fan, I respect the man enough and don’t think he would intentionally do this with any pretension. Perhaps, this would be better if it was someone else actually directing the show, instead. Either way, I’ll be watching the next episode, hoping it gets better. I look forward to seeing other cities and learning about artists I may not be familiar with.