Why ‘Sonic Highways’ is more than just a documentary

In 2014, Foo Fighters released ‘Sonic Highways’, which wasn’t just any old album for them. On 17th October 1994, Dave Grohl walked into Robert Lang Studios in Seattle and recorded what became the first songs from the band, so this documentary goes alongside the album and marks the 20-year anniversary. Foo Fighters wanted to make something special to honour the occasion — a groundbreaking collection of tracks fuelled by meaning. And I can confirm, they did just that. 

The main purpose of their multi-part trip around the States was to find inspiration for the album. It was that thirst to dig into the history of music that made me so curious and interested in watching. They talked to musicians and producers to gather anecdotal information that would forge their sound. 

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Yes, I still use a DVD player…

The Sonic Highways docuseries

The series kicks off in Chicago, where Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Cheap Trick and even Kanye West were all faces in the slideshow of huge artists that originate from the area. Through Grohl’s interviews, he navigated themes of buttons on strings being the only way poor musicians (such as Buddy Guy) could play before they were able to get their hands on guitars. It was also noted that many immigrants flocked to Chicago to make money, which meant the city was a bubbling mix of cultures. This was when blues music came to the fore, which was wholly exciting to first-time listeners. 

Production input on the track Foo Fighters recorded in this episode came from Steve Albini, a legend in the industry, who doesn’t ask for royalties and works track to track. They also enlisted the skills of Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, who has a rock and roll past with noticeable blues leanings in there, too. 

Never heard of Naked Raygun? You definitely need to familiarise yourself! They were big in punk rock. The first time Grohl saw them live was at The Cubby Bear, a place for punk rockers to play and get their sound out there to the masses. Through gigs and venues like that, alongside indie stores such Wax Trax! Records, teenage dreams clearly began to turn into reality. Just look at what’s influenced Grohl here — that gig obviously ignited a passion within him, which will have shaped his contributions to music through Nirvana and Foo Fighters! It was history being made. And, in my eyes, that’s what’s so endearingly dramatic and thrilling about music. 

Everybody they spoke to during that episode had started something major from nothing, which is where the ‘looking for a dime and I found a quarter’ lyric has so much poignance. It’s what the entire first track on the album is all about. Other clever lyrics were harvested out of all the experiences they drew upon from their Chicago visit. It’s impressive, powerful and utterly motivating. It also evidences that many genres of music can be traced back to others — just look at how the blues scene fashioned the punk rock that exploded in Chicago! 

The Washington, D.C. episode began by focusing on Martin Luther King Jr.’s death and how it caused so many more race issues in the city. It was a transient community back then — and still is — as people come and go. There’s certainly been a turbulent history. Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye and Chuck Brown hailed from here, but it wasn’t just these major names — this episode covered go-go music and the club scenes that popularised funk. It would’ve been epic to have been part of this movement! 

Then came the spotlight on punk. Don Zientara recorded Bad Brains’ albums and there was some discussion about how that came to be. The members of Bad Brains grew up in the suburbs and, during their interview, they said their school was locked, so it felt like a prison to them. While governmental and authoritative people were white, the communities in the area were largely black. It was all about the music for them — Bad Brains dominated the scene and they were the punks to be. They played loud, fast and with energy like no other. 

Something that particularly piqued my interest was the making of homemade singles at Dischord Records. The people who started the teeny label began pressing their own vinyl and folding lyric sheets. These bands that went through Dischord influenced other huge artists who came from Washington, and that’s actually how Grohl joined Scream as a drummer — these sorts of laidback ‘musician recruitment’ tactics were all done via posters and word of mouth. 

The Positive Force movement had emerged at this stage, which united musicians in the common goal of vocalising the need for action against worldwide problems. Grohl, as a member of Scream, took part in a march against apartheid at the South African Embassy, alongside local people, musicians and activists. A punk scene that fought for positive change? That’s pretty amazing — especially as that genre’s often cast aside merely as ‘noise’. Better yet, by merging two adrenaline-pumping genres, Punk Funk shows then started popping up around the city, which brought a duo of underground sounds together in an awesome, somehow harmonious, culture shock. 

I just can’t identify with country, so the Nashville episode — with its Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris segments — didn’t fill me with giddiness. But, like all the other episodes, it did exhibit fine examples of the power of collaboration. 

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A very artsy scene exists in Austin, Texas, so it’s great for musicians. They say it’s the ‘live music capital of the world’, with its medley of vibes and genres. Billy Gibbons talked about music and its relation to hallucinogenics, while we were fed clips of Johnny Cash performing at Austin City Limits. As Foo Fighters were recording a track there, they then honed in on its importance as a time-treasured venue. 

Despite these big names, Gary Clark Jr. was the highlight for me. He was disillusioned by everything else when he discovered music. To me, he has a Jimi Hendrix-like style with strings, so he’s an incredibly talented export from the area. Playing Austin City Limits was career-punctuating for him and his heavy blues niche. 

Unsurprisingly, the Los Angeles episode covers some greats. LA used to be grittier and was dubbed an epicentre for people who wanted to ‘make it’. The Doors, The Runaways and Mötley Crüe were among the rock and rollers who shook up Sunset Boulevard and drew out avid gig-goers. But it was the reason why artists sought sanctuary and solace in the desert that was the main focus. Josh Homme talked a little about that, and some people — Joe Walsh included — felt it was a calming place that afforded you room to think and breathe. 

Walsh then went on to feature on ‘Outside’, with his clean, simple and immaculately effective riffery. The place they recorded this piece was Rancho de la Luna, a studio that’s something of a diamond in the rough. Every artist that’s ever recorded there has spoken of its almost spiritual presence. It symbolises how music can transcend time and geographical location tenfold. 

Next up: New Orleans. Music is in the DNA of this place — everyone who calls it home has different genres flowing through their veins. That notion couldn’t be more appealing to me. Foo Fighters recorded their track at Preservation Hall, a former Spanish tavern that evolved into a gallery, which has been weathered but respected by history. Brass bands were big back in the day here as well, and Foo Fighters themselves even took part in the embracing processions. Streets were filled with people performing songs together, each playing different brass instruments.

Originally in New Orleans, people would congregate at the hall, and that’s basically how it all began there. New Orleans was a hub of creativity, after so many people from so many walks of life ended up residing here. In Congo Square, there was drumming on Sundays. And let’s not forget the magnificent Louis Armstrong hailed from there! Not even hurricanes could break the music in this place. Its magic really shone through on the episode, so I’m desperate to go now.

My yearning to visit one destination might trump that, though. You’ve guessed it — the Seattle episode gave me a buzz before I even put it on, because the grunge scene that was birthed there speaks to me. But Grohl had also hinted at the beginning of the documentary that it would be a place of significance. While they negotiated the highs of the grunge scene and how Nirvana came to it quite late on, it was only right and fitting to cover the death of Kurt Cobain. He was an icon for many and a friend for some, so it was a difficult time for an awful lot of Seattle residents — and that’s not to mention fans all around the world. Grohl shared that he was almost scared of music after that time and he actively avoided it. But it eventually healed him, with its bandage-like beauty, and he began writing from scratch. You could tell how much of a cathartic grieving process that must’ve been for him. 

They also managed to interview Chris Cornell when this was made, years prior to his passing. That’s something really humbling to watch now. As the last Nirvana album was recorded at Robert Lang Studios — the very place Grohl nods to in the docuseries’ opening — they chose to base themselves there for this song’s production. It was once a little garage and now a sort of chalet-esque setup, with eccentric exposed stone and marble. 

It made me feel even more elated when they covered Sub Pop Records. I mean, why wasn’t I born in this era? So unfair. While lots of game-changing bands — namely Pearl Jam and Soundgarden — developed in Seattle, it was Nirvana that stole the limelight in this segment. Let’s face it, when Grohl was the drummer, it would’ve been odd not to feature them primarily. Apparently, when they were in need of popularising and promoting, an English journalist from NME was flown over to see Nirvana play. It worked — they were dubbed ‘the USA’s answer to the Beatles’. 

Last but not least: the Big Apple. Paul Stanley of KISS talked about New York and its recording studios being ‘time capsules’ for music across the decades. This is where Jimmy Iovine chimed in with quips about the artists he produced through the ages. His average days at work almost seem like name-dropping exercises, because he’s met such a lengthy list of artists! It’s jaw-dropping. 

While Grohl touched on Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios, Foo Fighters opted to set up camp at The Magic Shop, a tucked-away venue in Soho. Coldplay, Arcade Fire and even David Bowie have walked through these doors to lay down their sounds. 

Another place they mentioned was the eclectic venue, CBGB, which I’d have been all over if I’d lived in NYC way back when. The successes of the Ramones were also traversed and attributed to city’s scene. 

In a final bid to unite all genres, I’m so glad hip-hop was talked about. Let’s face it, it’s also been a genre that’s done vastly well in the New York — especially as the Bronx and Queens were just on the doorstep. Public Enemy, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys are all celebrated artists from the borough. 

Something else that spoke volumes is how recording studios in jeopardy — and this was filmed prior to its 2014 release. It smacks of the worries we now face amid a pandemic that’s disallowed many venues to remain open and profitable, and has turned various grassroots venues into foreclosed sites without tenants. It’s nothing but sad to think about lost trades, and the mentorship between producer and artist could eventually be lost in the age of digitalisation. 

You can always trace back the roots of music…

So, for me, ‘Sonic Highways’ is much more than just a documentary. It’s a call to arms for all those who are empowered by music, whether you’re a creator or an adoring fan. There’s so much more I could’ve written about (and yep, I’m well aware this has been a long one!), but I feel the summary is simple: music’s always been around and it always will be. What we hear now has been so hugely influenced by what’s come before, sometimes we forget our place in the world. Keep listening, keep learning and keep feeling inspired…

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