Forty minutes into the first episode of Dave Grohl’s eight-part HBO docuseries, Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways, he starts singing out a heavy baritone guitar part to Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen in the most dramatic of manners, waving his hands like a marching band conductor. (Grohl, it should be noted, was just seen wearing a T-shirt with Nielsen’s face on it.) He breaks eye contact with the underrated guitar great just twice in the ten-second exchange, instead looking right at the camera as if to make sure there was footage of him directing yet another one of rock’s legends.
From his star-studded 2013 rock-doc Sound City to his “Sirvana” supergroup with Paul McCartney, Grohl has himself to thank for his current role as Gen X’s dutiful guardian of baby boomer rock. Sonic Highways situates Grohl atop this throne, but if the show’s first, hour-long installment focusing on Chicago’s musical heritage (premiering October 17 at 11 pm) is any indication, his subjects will occasionally span beyond those one would find in an issue of Rolling Stone. Some are well-known characters — Nielsen, notorious crank/”production god” Steve Albini, the last of the living blues legends Buddy Guy — but others, like Naked Raygun and other acts from Chicago’s 1980s punk scene that hung around The Cubby Bear and the Wax Trax! record store, are fresh faces in the grand scheme of the Wayne’s World-style rock-industrial complex.
The key element in these less obvious stories is Grohl’s proximity to them. He highlights his cousin Tracey Bradford’s band of preteen punks, Verboten, with the kind of clarity that suggests Grohl may have ended up a gregarious accountant had it not been for this family member. It’s touching and more compelling than a warmed-over history of Chess Records, the sort of thing one could find covered more competently in other documentaries, though I do applaud Grohl and HBO for their treasure-trove of archival footage. It almost goes without saying in conversations about HBO docs, but the series looks fantastic.
In terms of shedding new light on the familiar figureheads, Grohl’s best work centers around Albini, an old friend and the producer behind Nirvana’s final album, 1993’s In Utero. There are quotables, all right: “Steve Albini was this kid who hung around. He was annoying”; “Albini decided to be paid like a plumber — a hot-shit plumber — but a plumber no less.” This second quote refers to Albini’s moralistic practice of being paid a flat fee for producing bands’ albums, instead of taking points on album royalties — a decision that, at times, has left Albini struggling to keep his Electrical Audio studio running. Grohl clearly knows this story, so he tells it and humanizes Albini in the process. If Dave’s able to find just one character to do this with each episode, Sonic Highways should be worth keeping an eye on, even for tangential fans of his music (the recording process takes up about half the run-time in Episode 1).
As a publicity campaign for the Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways album, the HBO series is pretty brilliant. Each episode tracks the recording of one song on the album, highlighting the musical city that serves as the song’s inspiration in the process. A performance/lyric video of the new song closes each show. The album will debut November 10, halfway through the show’s run, with fans having heard four of its eight tracks.
As seen in Episode 1, Grohl incorporated a few of Buddy Guy’s most poignant quotes about coming to Chicago into Sonic Highway‘s opening track, “Something From Nothing.” For all the talk about how “the environment where you make a record, not just the studio, affects it,” the Foos did not — thankfully — create a song called “Chicago” or anything so obvious. Chi-town’s scrappy narrative is there, though, and as an album concept encapsulating distinct cities — Austin, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, New Orleans, Nashville, DC — it’s an interesting one that could really go either way: will it be viewed as a concept that doesn’t deliver on quality, or a living document far bigger than Grohl himself?
As a director, Grohl seems to have realized that retreading familiar rock ‘n’ roll lore doesn’t tell the best story. As a 20-year songwriting vet, his grasp of this concept is less certain. The former wins out in Sonic Highways (the show). TBD on the album.