This week, the Foo Fighters release Sonic Highways, their eighth album, which doubles as a selective history lesson in their own particular brand of rock ‘n’ roll worship. It’s fitting, considering their leader Dave Grohl has become one of Baby Boomer guitar music’s most vigilant defenders (take our quiz on that very topic), in an era when breathless praise of Led Zeppelin seems about as original as yelling “Free Bird” at a rock show.
With an HBO crew in tow, Grohl and co. descended upon eight American cities with rich musical histories, recruiting celebrities of the local scene — ranging from Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen to Joe Walsh to Bad Brains to Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard — to play on each of the album’s eight songs. As chronicled by the Sonic Highways docuseries, the idea is to capture the spirit and nod to the history of each of these cities, such as Nashville, Chicago, Austin, and Seattle. Pundits including Joan Jett, Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy, and Roky Erickson provide a few moments of lore.
Even a decade ago, it would have been a curious move for Grohl to make an album whose basic concept builds in an excuse to jam with his musical idols. Back then, he still maintained a hint of the Gen X hero who took center stage in his second act after Cobain walked away from their first. But somewhere along the way, the Foo Fighters grew up, abandoned the Jack Black goofs and cross-dressing costumes that kept early videos like “Everlong,” “Learn to Fly,” and “Big Me” on the lighter side, and took a moment to appreciate their elders. But just how did they — specifically 45-year-old Grohl — get here? How did he go from mixing ’60s pop hooks with punk in tracks like Nirvana’s “In Bloom” and the Foos’ “This Is a Call” to straight-up worshiping at the McCartney altar? Here are 25 career moments that may help to illuminate Grohl’s path.
1990: Grohl joins Nirvana while the band’s in the midst of writing and planning its major label debut (and breakthrough smash), Nevermind. Up until that point, Grohl had played with DC punks Scream.
1992: Grohl plays on King Buzzo, a solo EP from Melvins leader (and personal friend) Buzz Osborne. Though Osborne is responsible for Grohl joining of Nirvana, this marks the first time Grohl’s recorded with an established elder outside of his main gig — a balancing act he’ll come to know well in subsequent decades.
1993: Grohl works on the soundtrack for Backbeat, a film chronicling The Beatles’ early years, playing drums in a Fab Four tribute band of sorts that also included Mike Mills of R.E.M., Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli, and more.
1994: In the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death, Grohl figures out what to do with himself, musically speaking. One of the gigs he tries out, before settling on fronting his own major-label rock band, is as Tom Petty’s drummer. He performs as a member of the Heartbreakers on Saturday Night Live in November 1994, later turning down an offer to join the band permanently. “Even when I was a stubborn, cynical, punk-rock asshole, I still loved Tom Petty,” Grohl told Entertainment Weekly in 2011. “Because I felt like he was a stubborn, cynical, punk-rock asshole too. So, it was interesting. I easily could have become someone’s drummer. But I didn’t want to be anyone’s drummer.”
2000: Grohl plays on “Goodbye Lament,” from Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi’s self-titled solo album.
2000 (and onward): At this point, the Foo Fighters are an established force in modern rock, with three albums and numerous personnel changes under their belt. Grohl and Foos drummer Taylor Hawkins strike up a friendship with Queen guitarist Brian May, who performs on the Foo Fighters’ cover of Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar.” The Queen-Foos love continues when Grohl and Hawkins induct Queen into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, performing “Tie Your Mother Down” with the arena rock giants. It’s a collaboration that’s continued, with May appearing on the Foos’ “Tired of You” and in various live performances.
2002: Grohl jumps on a cover of Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting For You” for David Bowie’s Heathen. Double score!
2003: GROHL SUPERGROUP ALERT! At the 2003 Grammys, he joins Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, and Steven Van Zandt for a performance tribute to recently passed Clash legend Joe Strummer.
2005: The Foo Fighters recruit a strong group of guest stars for their fifth album, In Your Honor, including Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones (in addition to Grohl’s Queens of the Stone Age collaborator Josh Homme and Norah Jones).
2008: Sir Paul McCartney invites Grohl to be his special guest — on guitar and backing vocals — for a big concert in Liverpool.
2009: Grohl plays drums on new best bud Paul McCartney’s Grammy performance of The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There.”
2009 (and onward): Them Crooked Vultures — a collaboration between Grohl, Josh Homme, and John Paul Jones — emerges. Their self-titled debut drops in November 2009, they play SNL the following year, and they’ve been trying to record a follow-up ever since. McCartney reveals he was almost in Them Crooked Vultures instead of Jones. Grohl calls the band “one of the highlights of [his] life.”
2010: Grohl participates in McCartney’s Kennedy Centers Honor ceremony.
2012: The Foo Fighters serve as Mick Jagger’s backing band on SNL, playing the Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown” and “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll.”
2012: “Sirvana” emerges at the 12-12-12- Concert. The supergroup consists of Nirvana’s surviving members, with McCartney fronting in place of Cobain. They debut a new song called “Cut Me Some Slack,” which later appears on the Sound City soundtrack. The world freaks out upon seeing the two biggest rock bands in the history of American popular music merge into one weird supergroup. Sirvana performs on SNL a month later.
2012: Grohl performs in another Grammy tribute to The Beatles, this one featuring McCartney, Springsteen, and Joe Walsh. Grohl wears a Slayer T-shirt for the occasion — how metal.
2012-2013: After the Foo Fighters tour South America with Joan Jett in 2012, Grohl cowrites a song (“Any Weather”) from the Blackhearts leader’s 2013 album, Unvarnished. Jett intermittently appears live with the Foos as a special guest. “I wanted to write with Dave for a while,” Jett tells Rolling Stone. “I think he’s a great songwriter, but I don’t think he does a lot of writing with people outside of the Foos.” (Perhaps she hasn’t heard about Sound City.)
2013: Sound City, Grohl’s documentary about the Van Nuys recording studio of the same name, debuts with appearances from Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, McCartney, Neil Young, Barry Manilow, Rick Springfield, and many more classic rockers, some of whom appear on the film’s original soundtrack. Grohl forms the Sound City Players, a band that promotes the doc and its soundtrack with a full-blown tour. Stevie Nicks is its singer, no big deal.
2013: Grohl appears on Queens of the Stone Age’s …Like Clockwork, particularly on one song (“Fairweather Friends”) with Sir Elton John.
2013: Grohl appears on Creedence Clearwater Revival leader John Fogerty’s solo album, Wrote a Song for Everyone, for a hard-rockin’ duet of CCR classic “Fortunate Son.”
2013: Grohl and Foos drummer Taylor Hawkins induct Rush into the Rock Hall wearing silly costumes.
2014: Grohl performs in yet another Grammy-related tribute to The Beatles, this one celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Fab Four’s performance on Ed Sullivan. Joe Walsh, Gary Clark Jr. and Grohl cover “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
2014: Nirvana is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You just know Grohl did a Shomney Dance when he found out.
2014: Sonic Highways, the Foo Fighters’ eighth album and first HBO series, premieres with a slew of classic rock guest stars: Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, Joe Walsh, and Bowie producer Tony Visconti.
Last night: Grohl covers “Fortunate Son,” again, with Bruce Springsteen and Zac Brown at HBO’s Veterans Day “Concert for Valor.”