As you may have already seen, there’s been a fair amount of criticism leveled at Dave Grohl’s new HBO documentary series, Sonic Highways, since it launched five weeks ago. And, in the week since the accompanying Foo Fighters album of the same name was released, yet more angry voices have emerged.
Accusations have been thrown at Grohl and the band for seeking “respectability by proxy,” and at the show for being “nothing more than promotion for the Foo Fighters and their new record,” as well as a “bloated, rambling…gimmick.” Is the show perfect? Good Lord, no. Some of it is too much about who Dave Grohl knows in each city, rather than the city’s musical history itself (the Los Angeles episode was particularly guilty of this). We also, like many other reviewers, could do without every show ending with the song the Foo Fighters just wrote about the city they’re in for the episode. (Wouldn’t it be more fun to watch the documentary series, then figure out which song goes with which city later?)
For all of this series’ flaws, however, Foo Fighters’ concept of making an album of songs that are each inspired by a different place in the country is actually a great one. And while, yes, we’d like the show more if there was more music history and less Foo Fighters stuff, this series has been entirely worthwhile for some of the fantastic nuggets that have been unearthed on it. Here are our favorite moments from each of the first five episodes.
Episode 1. Chicago
The story of how Big Black came together is a gem. Steve Albini in his youth was, according to Naked Raygun’s Jeff Pezzati, “this kid who hung around. He was annoying.” Naked Raygun was “by far” Albini’s favorite band, though, and he desperately wanted to play in one. When Albini finally approached Pezzati with some tapes he’d made, Pezzati agreed to play with him. First rehearsal was at punk locus the Coach House. As Albini and Pezzati experimented with sounds in the basement, upstairs Santiago Durango was trying to watch TV, but couldn’t because “They were making a racket.” In frustration, he went downstairs, put on a guitar and joined in. Albini tells Grohl in this episode: “My favorite guitar player in the world was now in my band because I had prevented him from watching a football game.” Just beautiful.
Episode 2. Washington, D.C.
Punk-funk shows — the unification of D.C.’s angriest hardcore and grooviest go-go groups — is probably the most bizarre series of concerts the nation’s capital has ever seen. Salad Days, a brand-new documentary about the D.C. hardcore scene between 1980 and 1990, makes mention of these weird happenings, but Sonic Highways goes much deeper, offering real insight into Chuck Brown, Trouble Funk, and the essence of go-go that made it so appealing for punks like Ian MacKaye and Minor Threat in the first place.
Episode 3: Nashville
The lasting legacy that old-school Nashville still has on pop music is presented beautifully in this episode by juxtaposing hugely successful songs with their lesser-known predecessors. There’s Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” — a song originally recorded by Kansas Joe McCoy in 1929. There’s Tina Turner’s “Steamy Windows,” which came after Tony Joe White’s earlier rendition. Sure, we all know Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” but this is the first time we’ve seen footage of Willie Nelson performing it so early in his career, he’s wearing a suit and a crew-cut. And then there’s the most famous one of all: Whitney Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” — the song that, Parton explains in a different part of the episode, she wouldn’t sell to Elvis at the peak of his popularity, even though it broke her heart to say no. “I just held my ground,” she says. “And it’s worked out pretty well for me.”
Episode 4: Austin
Remarkably, legendarily crazed Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes was an auditor at an accounting firm when the band was starting out, driving from San Antonio to liberal enclave Austin to hang out and perform. “A San Antonio newspaper found out we were playing in Austin,” Haynes tells Grohl in this episode. “They came down and took a picture of me onstage, naked, with an American flag wrapped around my waist, and it was on fire. And their headline was: ‘Could This Be the Worst Band in the History of Rock ‘N’ Roll?’ ” Unsurprisingly, Haynes is happy to add: “I was the worst accountant, probably, in the history of that office.”
Episode 5: Los Angeles
Pat Smear’s Runaways-related revelations in this episode are beyond glorious. First of all, the (filthy, loud, violent, self-harming) Germs were inspired to form when Smear and his friend Darby Crash (they met through a mutual speed dealer) found out the Runaways were the same age as them. Even better, though, Smear reveals in this episode that, when it came to the controversial girl band, he and Crash were “groupies…sneaking backstage.” Just when you think the Germs can’t get any cuter, it also turns out that Joan Jett only ended up producing their (GI) record because they were told that their first choice — David Bowie — wasn’t available. Bless.