Review: Dave Grohl – Play

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.

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Rock Is Dead, Long Live Rock

The other day, somebody told me how a friend of his who works for a record company has noticed a new trend: Rock bands sending out promo material are using every word under the sun to suggest that they are a rock band, without ever using the word ‘rock’. Of course, there are dictionaries full of descriptive splendour, and sub-genres old and new which neatly fit under the umbrella of ‘rock’ that may better encapsulate the sound of a band, but it’s got me pondering – what’s the problem with ‘rock’?

The first thing to say is thank god we do have those musical umbrellas, or record stores would be a nightmare to navigate. All umbrellas have sub-genres; while always being important in terms of definition, they’re not necessarily also an attempt to escape a tag…

Only yesterday on the BBC’s not so rock ‘n’ roll The One Show did I hear a reporter proclaim, “Lets rock!”, as he prepared to study the effect of greenhouse gases over a ten-day period… I’m sure Ozzy Osbourne was chewing bat heads to try and fill the void in his life while he waited for part two.

The problem is… Rock is middle-aged wedding dancers playing air guitar to Status Quo. Rock is what will “knock your socks off” at the ‘(Insert Name of Primary School Here)’s Got Talent’ concert. Christ, Rock is a fucking cake… It makes rock ‘n’ roll seem more like a heavy lunch than an evening of sex and drugs.

Most other genre names don’t have this sort of wide colloquial appropriation: “That’s so ska, man.” / “Yeah, boi! Dat is griiiiime ting.” / “You’re totally hip-hopping that outfit, babes.”

(I apologise, I really do.)

As its wider usage has risen, its usage within music has fallen. From Rolling Stones pastiche to a Gary Glitter Christmas (anybody?) to, well, the entire AC/DC back catalogue; the word ‘rock’ has been in many a song title, but even a cursory look at a list of the most popular shows us that the era that championed the term has long gone. In any case, any kudos that was left for the word after the turn of the millennium probably died when this happened

The other thing is that those old ideologies of rock (which I’ve discussed before) are now outdated, meaning the word ‘rock’ has these inextricable connotations for record label staff and A&R vampires who won’t want to get an old taste from the new blood presenting their necks.

The fact that Nina Simone, Tupac Shakur and Donna Summer have all been inducted in to the ‘Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’ in the last five years alone shows that the term has probably become too all-encompassing over the years, describing attitudes, personalities and ideologies rather than simply music. That is not to say that those three artists don’t deserve that recognition – they undoubtedly deserve accolades more than some of the other inducted artists who would self-define as rock; I’m just not sure a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame place is something they’d have even understood.

Dave Grohl has just ended a speech on stage at the Brits, “long live rock ‘n’ roll”, dedicating the Foo Fighters’ ‘International Group’ award to those who “plug in and play”. In reality, it’s something he wouldn’t even think of saying if rock was alive and well. Judging by the majority of the acts nominated this evening, it may be understandable if indeed he feels it isn’t. Still, new rock bands clearly exist, they just don’t want to be labelled as rock. So, at least to some, ‘rock’ is dead, but if it is, it’s had a lot of offspring. A rose by any other name would smell just as much like teen spirit.

Sore Throats, Broken Legs and Issues of Cancellation

On Tuesday, I went to Brixton Academy to watch Placebo. 11 years earlier, at Reading Festival, I witnessed a shortened set dogged with technical issues, so I was keen to see the alt rockers ‘properly’ on this, their 20th anniversary tour.

Due to illness, a number of their gigs in the last week had been postponed and one even cancelled, so, walking in, I felt lucky that our gig would be going ahead as planned.

Opening with Pure Morning, the band (backed by four extra touring members!) sounded huge, however, it was quite clear that enigmatic frontman Brian Molko’s vocal lines were not quite as normal, with no attempts to hit higher notes at all. As he greeted the Academy with the usual niceties, it was an issue which could not be ignored. “Well, my voice is slightly back, but it’s not entirely better … you’ll hear all of the songs you love, they just might sound a little weird … so tonight, you can all be the singer in Placebo”.

Anthems like ‘The Bitter End’ were gargantuan, but when the vocals came in, none of the impassioned intensity was there, in fact, nor was the song’s melody. The crowd would do the work, filling the room with calls of “as I followed you home”, but this was a mob of fans helping out the helpless. The famous ‘Nancy Boy’ really couldn’t stand up to its own legend either; Molko attempted to sing the song an uninspiring octave lower than the original, but not being able to then hit the lower notes in the sequence, it turned in to a monotonous dirge atop a minimally changing chordal backing. Certain lyrics were still delivered with a sense of gusto that roused the crowd, particularly as the crowd finished the line of “Just another…? NANCY BOY!”, but it was easy to see and hear that despite managing to jam-pack twenty years in to an hour and a half, this wasn’t how Molko had wanted it to be.

I left the concert with the opposite feeling I’d had when walking in – I actually sort of wish they’d postponed the gig. Having paid a fair amount of money for tickets, for travel to London, for travel in London, dinner, drinks, and everything else that comes with it in terms of time and effort; it’s fair to say I felt a little short changed.

Possibly, other Placebo fans who have seen the band countless times would have seen this as a night where they gave back to the band, a one-off occasion where they heard different versions of the songs. The trouble is, these versions weren’t designed, they were suddenly and unavoidably thrust upon the band. Various vocal lines did not work, and where key changes for certain songs may have been appropriate, there was presumably no time for the band (including the additional musicians) to work on this.

It reminded me of when I saw the band I Am Kloot at London’s 93 Feet East venue many years ago. As the band walked on, with the crowd still cheering, frontman John Bramwell told the audience that “tonight’s show is actually cancelled … this is not a joke”; cue sudden bemused silence. The band played around five songs before a croaky-voiced Bramwell apologised and told the crowd they could either have a full refund or a ticket for one of the upcoming gigs in their tour. He then went and spoke to fans, apologising and spending considerable time with every individual who had waited around for the opportunity to do so.

The other personal concert disappointment I have was after Dave Grohl famously broke his leg falling off stage during a concert in Gothenburg. Foo Fighters were forced to cancel a whole host of European dates, including their headline slot at the 2015 Glastonbury Festival. As a huge fan, who had never had the opportunity to see the band live before, I was devastated.

They more than made it up to the Eavis family at the 2017 festival, giving one of the most energetic and hit-filled sets the Pyramid Stage has seen in some years. However, this was of little comfort for those who didn’t have tickets for that year’s event.

So, the question I have in my head today is – at what point should a concert appearance be cancelled or postponed, for what reasons, and at what cost?

After the I Am Kloot mini-gig, I travelled home with a signed poster and a full refund, struggling to feel hard done by. I left the Placebo show feeling underwhelmed, but at least the show happened. At Glastonbury 2015, I felt little but disappointment on the night I should’ve been watching Foo Fighters, but didn’t even know that they would be on the bill at the time I bought the ticket.

To be fair, I reluctantly understood the Foo Fighters cancellation. Despite finishing the Gothenburg show in the most rock n’ roll way possible (with a doctor holding his leg in place while he played!), Grohl had a serious injury which had to be treated in order to heal properly. If the broken leg had belonged to drummer Taylor Hawkins then the tour could not have happened, at least without a sticks-for-hire learning their entire set, but with Grohl’s voice and arms intact, there was no reason the music itself would not sound as good as ever. So, determined to continue, the tour would resume weeks later with Grohl in a purpose-designed guitar-laden throne!

It’s arguable that physical injury to a band member would actually hinder the live performance of a pop act such as Little Mix more than a lost voice would. For an audience, vocal parts being borrowed by other members or being taken by a backing track or singer would probably appear less awkward than three quarters of the group doing a synchronized dance in-front of a wheelchair-bound other.

However, Placebo aren’t renowned for their pirouettes. When 50% of your band is only operating at 50% of their sonic abilities, surely the quality of the show (and indeed health) should be prioritised?

There are always people who will complain at a show not taking place: pre-booked travel and accommodation is not always refundable, those who can’t make re-scheduled dates (see personal Foo Fighters hell) will miss out, and I’m sure Placebo fans with tickets for the cancelled Plymouth date would rather have had tickets for the Brixton show I witnessed than the refund they will currently be in the process of receiving.

It’s fair to say that Placebo are a bigger band than I Am Kloot. That, and the size of the venue, means that giving refunds would be a lot more costly and problematic for them, and herein lies the problem: every case is different.

With an artist, an audience, a venue (and its staff), and a whole host of management, PR strategists, and other record company employees all not wanting to be disappointed – either by the quality of the show, or by the cancellation and its effects; it is hard to come up with a definite conclusion to what will always be an issue in music performance.

Dave Grohl’s ‘throne’ seems a great example of how, with time for consideration, a negative can even be turned in to a unique sort of positive. In this same way, in the case of a longer-term illness, I’m sure with time Placebo would have been able to create unique versions of their back catalogue which would have delighted any audience, but artists don’t always have that time, nor control over all decisions.

When acts and management are forced in to late decisions, there’s rarely a ‘right’ one that can be made. However, having been on the receiving end of a variety of decisions; I believe that the performance quality of a professional act should never be compromised (after all, it’s harmful for all parties), and if postponement is a viable option then it should always be taken when this is the case.

Although, as fans, we ideologically keep art and commerce entirely separate, by purchasing concert tickets we enter in to an agreement with acts and we expect the best. Thus, where money can be even partially refunded, it must clearly go some way to making up for fan disappointment, and sometimes it may be appropriate even where a gig can still take place.

Either way, with ticket prices inflating year on year, it’s more important than ever to keep the emotions and needs of fans at the heart of the music events industry, and for any fan nothing should tick those boxes more than a quality performance.