When punk meets pop, the result really rocks

Music: The Foo Fighters, rooted firmly in punk, doesn't stifle its other, more surprising influences.

May 10, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Everybody knows Dave Grohl is a punk rocker. So why on earth is he sitting in his home studio in Virginia recording Gerry Rafferty covers?

It isn't just that Grohl's current band, the Foo Fighters (which opens for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the Baltimore Arena this evening) has cut three full albums that are as hard, fast and noisy as any Clash single.

Before he took up guitar and formed the Foos, Grohl played drums in Nirvana, the band that kick-started the whole punk rock revival of the '90s. Clearly, this is a guy who has impeccable punk rock credentials.

But Grohl and his fellow Foos -- bassist Nate Mendel and drummer Taylor Hawkins -- spent a few days between tour jaunts laying down versions of such old favorites as Andrew Gold's "Lonely Boy" and Rafferty's "Baker Street." They're not tunes listeners would normally associate with a hip, punk-schooled act such as the Foo Fighters, but Grohl insists these are the songs he and his band mates grew up on.

"We're just recording B-sides," he says. "When we release singles outside of America, we like to sprinkle them with a few little B-sides. We prefer to do ridiculous cover tunes for B-sides, because that's the kind of music we listen to. I guess we just want to bare our influences to everyone."

And he says that a lot of punk rock bands have pop influences.

"I mean, the Beatles are an influence to us," he says. "Gerry Rafferty is an influence to us. 10cc is an influence to us. So is everything from Anne Murray to '70s soft AM rock. That's the kind of stuff we love, and it does make its way into our music."

Maybe so, but not in the same soft-rock form that made Rafferty and Murray AM-rock staples in the '70s. Having grown up as punk rock kids, Grohl and his band mates believe that harder and faster are the rules every rocker should follow.

"I think our instinct is to plug into a distortion pedal and say, `Onetwothreefourgo!'" he says. "Let our punk-rock flag fly. But pop music and pop melody is so much more challenging than the cave man dynamic of noisy, metal punk stuff."

On the first two Foo Fighters albums, Grohl generally gave into his punk side, cranking the guitars and pushing the tempo to ensure that even his most melodic tunes never sounded too sweet.

"There's that punk rock guilt," he says. "We could record something and think, `Ohmigod, that's too poppy, that's too pretty. Let's put some messed-up guitar on it.' "

But with the Foo Fighters' latest album, "There Is Nothing Left to Lose," Grohl found himself moving away from punk guilt -- at least a little bit. "There's a song called `Ain't It the Life,' which sounds like the freakin' Eagles to me," he says.

"And I hate the Eagles. So we almost turned it into a little punk rock ditty, but then we thought, No, no, no. Keep it as it is, Because that's what it's supposed to be."

Funny thing is, Grohl actually learned the lesson of accepting songs for what they are, quirks and all, back when he was in Nirvana. In 1991, as the band's newest member, he wound up rooming with guitarist Kurt Cobain as the band was preparing to record its breakthrough album, "Nevermind."

"We were writing songs daily," he recalls. "Almost every day, Kurt would come up with a new song, and we would rehearse it. He definitely had this sideways version of how to tie chords together, and a twisted way of melody that somehow worked. It was really genius, but so simple."

Coming up with a simple-yet-unique blend of melody and harmony may be an admirable aesthetic goal, but it's no guarantee of selling CDs.

If anything, the opposite is often true.

"We were sitting around listening to a Wallflowers song the other day," says Grohl. "And the chords are just G-D-A, G-D-A, just the most run-into-the-ground chord progression you've ever heard in your life. And Taylor says to me, `Dave, you need to write a song with three chords, or we'll never sell a million records.'"

Grohl laughs, acknowledging the truth in his drummer's joke. But deep down, he's more concerned about communicating with his listeners than he is with making money from a big hit. As he sees it, what really makes a pop record popular is its ability to connect emotionally with the listener.

"I think the reason pop hooks are called hooks in the first place is that it just sinks its claws into your heart," he says. "And that is what I'm searching for. Whenever I write a song, I want it to get its claws not only into me, but into someone else. That's what I love about music, that it stays with you and maybe changes you."

Concert notes

Who: Red Hot Chili Peppers and Foo Fighters

When: 7: 30 tonight

Where: Baltimore Arena

Tickets: $35

Call: 410-481-7328

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