I once was given a gift with a poem about a character called ‘Rock Pig’. It read:
Rock Pig don’t like disco
Rock Pig don’t like dance
Rock Pig don’t like ambient
Rock Pig don’t like trance
Rock Pig don’t like R&B
Rock Pig don’t like soul
Rock Pig just likes heavy duty
Bad-Ass ROCK ‘N’ ROLL
To finally put music out under your own name can be a turning point for an artist, a way of making a huge statement, a chance to signal a change of direction, an opportunity to finally release something you felt you couldn’t with any other musician or in any other project up to that point in their life. But what ‘Play’ does is show us exactly what we already know Dave Grohl is about – Bad-Ass ROCK ‘N’ ROLL.
Describing himself as “a kid in a candy store”, Grohl plays an array of musical instruments (well, strings and percussion) to produce a 23-minute instrumental opus. Having seen Foo Fighters produce an acoustic record on double album In Your Honor and even tour that set-up through Skin & Bones, I doubt we’ll ever see their famous frontman do ‘that famous frontman thing’ and truly go it alone. This may be the closest he ever gets…
Despite this, when ‘Play’’s first big riff kicks in, I would have believed anybody who told me that it was a new Foo Fighters song. Full of power, the sudden and synchronised start/stop technique and gradually bending guitar strings have been utilised by them many times before. As the track develops, however, there’s one give away… Despite Foo’s drummer Taylor Hawkins being a hugely respected and talented musician, Grohl is an inimitable animal on the drums; with virtuosic fills and an almost signature sound, it’s great to hear him behind the kit again, where he first made his name.
In fact, there is definitely a little homage to his famous drum intro from ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ at 15:40. That was the first moment that most of the world heard the sound of Dave Grohl on any instrument, at a time when he probably did still feel like a kid. Grohl is clearly aware that that song is a large part of the reason he is paid to ‘Play’ today.
‘Play’ is described as, “Celebrating the rewards and challenges of dedicating one’s life to playing and mastering a musical instrument”; and when you hit play, seven Dave Grohls walk in to a studio to record the track (I bet Grohl’s ex-bandmate Josh Homme wishes he’d thought of that, considering the Queens of The Stone Age band members timeline). When considered alongside his multiple BBC documentaries and supergroup appearances, most musicians in his position would be perceived as arrogant or worse, but he’s still thought of as “the nicest guy in rock”.
Cynics may not believe his humble claim that, “I didn’t know if I could pull [‘Play’] off”, but to me it feels believable. ‘Play’ is accompanied by a video about young people learning instruments and a list of organisations where we can sign up to learn. The key thing here is that unlike the Bonos and Geldofs of this world, he’s not preaching to us about anything apart from music. The kid who still just wants to play. Oh, and he’s also not been done for tax evasion. That always helps.
Despite the undeniable quality of the piece, there are musical limitations. Without lyrics to give a different focus or context on the piece, the quiet/loud/quiet formula Grohl has been perfecting ever since his Nirvana days is particularly blatant, growing slightly weary over 23 minutes. Although a nice touch for the video, changing drum kits and guitars during takes makes those quiet ‘in-between’ sections feel slightly more forced than usual.
That repetitive process of big riff > sudden stop > quiet riff > build back up > repeat, and the fact that ‘Play’ ends on a hugely extended E minor chord (E is the lowest note a guitar in standard tuning can play) is of no surprise and is hugely typical of his, and indeed most rock music. This is quite simply, a very long rock song. But then, so is ‘Freebird’, so is ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, and so is ‘Hey Jude’. While it’s effect won’t be as long-lasting, it’s still damn good at points.
Some of ‘Play’’s best bits come from the rare moments where the music sounds slightly less like Foo Fighters, such as at 6.15 where acoustic guitar and percussion take the lead, or at 19:10 where the power chords are given a break and we’re treated to Jeff Buckley-esque picking and delicious chord changes. These are the moments where ‘Play’ starts to sound less like a well-packaged compilation of unused Foo Fighters riffs and more like something which stands firmly on its own two feet.
Simultaneously, the biggest success and the biggest disappointment of ‘Play’, in a musical sense, is that if you’re a Dave Grohl fan, you’ll be a ‘Play’ fan; if you’re not, you won’t be. It would be fascinating to see Grohl push himself and take a step outside of the rock genre, rather than finding countless acts, instruments and formulas to re-package the same ideas. However, it doesn’t seem as if he is going to risk alienating a fan base or tarnishing a legacy which feels like it gets stronger by the day. Perhaps the main reason for that is because Dave Grohl don’t like disco, Dave Grohl don’t like dance. Dave Grohl don’t like ambient, Dave Grohl don’t like trance. Dave Grohl don’t like R&B, Dave Grohl don’t like soul. Dave Grohl just likes heavy-duty, bad ass Rock ‘n’ Roll.