I'll Stick Around: Why Foo Fighters Have Endured as the Top Artist in the Alternative Songs Chart's History

When Billboard introduced its Alternative Songs chart 30 years ago, Dave Grohl was a teenager drumming for the DC-area hardcore band Scream, lying about his age to secure a spot behind the kit. Even though Scream was then, and has been ever since, too alternative for the alternative listing, Grohl was a fan of Siouxsie and the Banshees, the chart’s inaugural number one; he told Mojo last year that the gothic British new wave act was an interest he held in common with his older sister.

It only took Grohl three years to make the alternative No. 1 spot himself. In 1990 he auditioned for and was accepted as a member of the Seattle ur-grunge trio Nirvana, and it’s his pounding that kicks into gear “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the song that changed forever how America, the record industry, and the rest of the world thought about alternative rock. With its sharply accelerating, fast–loud dynamic and melodic chaos, “Teen Spirit” is the quintessential alternative rock song.

But the flash grenade blast that was Nirvana is not alternative rock’s quintessential band: Grohl’s next band would be the sound’s most enduring presence, for better or for worse. Foo Fighters land atop Billboard’s 100 Greatest of All Time Alternative Artists list (ranked by Alternative Songs chart methodology) because, more than any other alternative artist, they’ve stuck around. From their 1995 debut onward, the Foos have been a near constant presence on the chart, and they have matched their longevity with consistency: a Foo Fighters chart entry can be relied upon to be appealing, sturdily constructed, and, more often than not, impressively popular.

There have been better bands than Foo Fighters over the past thirty years of sharp-edged, radio friendly guitar music. They’re not as fiercely beloved as Weezer, as inventive as Fall Out Boy, or as intertwined with the rock zeitgeist of any particular moment as Korn or No Doubt or Mumford & Sons have been. But since “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” just two calendar years have passed in which Grohl did not have a new song peak on the Alternative Songs chart — 2001 and 2010 — and the immense majority of those appearances was with Foo Fighters. (Grohl also secured placings with supergroup Them Crooked Vultures and as a ringer on a couple of Queens of the Stone Age songs, including the number one “No One Knows.”) Pitiless as the sun, Foo Fighters are the enduring constant of alternative rock, and Foo Fighters are Dave Grohl.

That was literally the case on the band’s self-titled debut album. Grohl plays every instrument on the album, except for a brief guitar cameo from The Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli on “X-Static.” Recorded in Seattle only months after the suicide death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, the album drew back from the burned intensity of Grohl’s old band, and shifted its outlook into brighter, less fraught, and more vibrant territory. It would turn out that rock music as a whole was ready to do the same.

Songs like “This is a Call” and “I’ll Stick Around” had Nirvana’s urgency, but matched it with verve; considering the context in which they were recorded, it was not hard to mistake the determined affirmation of life in them. Meanwhile, the melodic “Big Me” demonstrated Grohl’s desire to chart his own creative course, and its playful video was the first of many high concept and crowd-pleasing clips that valued goofy fun over punk seriousness.

Soon after recording that solo debut, Grohl gave his band an actual line-up, including, in a demonstration of his scene bona fides, two players from cult Seattle emo group Sunny Day Real Estate. And then, not much changed: Foo Fighters recorded albums, released them, and toured. Radio played their songs because they were catchy, people liked them, Grohl had an easy charisma, and his band sounded great on stage. When they were done, they would make another album, one that wasn’t too different to the one before it, and do it all over again. In 2018, they’re still doing it; their most recent Alternative Songs appearance was with “The Line,” which reached No. 30 this past June.

But to highlight Foo Fighters’ steadfast competence is not to detract from them. This is, first of all, because just showing up is tougher than it seems. One of Grohl’s Seattle contemporaries, Pearl Jam, has sold 32 million albums in the United States, and their debut Ten has been certified Diamond by the RIAA. At Pearl Jam’s 1990s peak, they were a much more powerful, more thrilling band than Foo Fighters, pushing their arena-ready sound into stranger and more varied territory on albums like Vitalogy and No Code. For the past two decades, Pearl Jam has followed a similar path to Foo Fighters, reliably releasing proficient yet unflashy variations on a solid formula of guitar, bass, and drums — yet with far more modest results, particularly on alternative radio, where they’ve only scored one top five hit this decade. Pearl Jam’s stoic approach to its career seems tumultuous alongside the Foo consistency.

And second, Foo Fighters steadiness is laudable because, even long past the band’s peak, they remain capable of sudden, clarifying pleasure: songs that burst out of the speakers with the vibrant, canny precision upon which the band made its name. It is a name built on songs, and on radio hits particularly. Unlike best-selling fellow chart heavy-hitters Red Hot Chili Peppers and Green Day, Foo Fighters have never even had a multi-Platinum-certified album — but they have had ten Alternative Songs number ones across fifteen years, and eight more that reached the top five. It is no surprise then that they have claimed seven spots to themselves in Billboard’s Top 300 Alternative Songs of all time list. Listeners didn’t have to have bought a single Foo Fighters record to have heard the band again and again, year after year.

The band secured its legacy with its first three albums. Grohl’s unaided first LP was followed with The Colour and the Shape, their most balanced and assured album, which was anchored by the anthemic fan favorite “Everlong” and the muscular riffing of songs like “My Hero” and “Hey Johnny Park!” even while it ventured into both harder and softer territories on “Monkey Wrench” and “February Stars.” That was succeeded by There Is Nothing Left to Lose, which sharpened its predecessor’s aim and resolved its guitar crunch into gleaming missiles of charged melody: “Generator,” “Breakout,” and especially their first Alternative Songs number one “Learn to Fly” were as obvious and direct as anything the band would come up with across its 23 years.

No subsequent Foo Fighters album would mark up to the standard set by their first three, but the band would have no shortage of deservedly successful singles after that early peak. Some of their best-loved songs were produced in those later years, including 2005’s “Best of You,” a screamed hurricane that sounds gargantuan in scale and too fragile to hold together. “The Pretender,” released two years later, has the same relentlessness, but Grohl is in control of his faculties, hanging on with teeth-gritted determination. And two more years after that came “Wheels,” another career high point, but one that only ever appeared on the group’s Greatest Hits compilation, evidence of their dedication to the craft of the radio single. An optimistic and sentimental roll through widescreen Americana, it sounded like Tom Petty, whom Grohl briefly drummed for in 1994. Like Petty, it was traditional without being staid.

Straddling the old and the new is a hallmark of alternative rock, a form that takes the experimental ethos of more outré acts and grounds it in an American FM radio heritage whose sounds have become as familiar and formalized as ritual: Gibson guitars belong next to Ford motorcars and McDonald’s burgers as shared incidents of national memory. Foo Fighters do belong to the now, but, with perhaps The White Stripes, they are also one of the last rock bands that could find a place in the canon of even the most traditionalist classic rock stalwart. They are not today’s most exciting guitar act, or yesterday’s best, but they are better suited to bridging that three-decade divide than any other.

The greatest Foo Fighters song, the unimpeachable classic that will outlast them all, is “Everlong,” the second single from their second album. Poised yet frenetic, earnest and romantic, it creeps in with guitar textures that sound like Sonic Youth cleaned up. Grohl murmurs and mutters, and, eventually, neither he nor his band can hold back: the drums pile on, Grohl’s voice strains for feeling he doesn’t have the technical ability to fully realize, and the chorus explodes. It is as if every single sound is sparkling.

Foo Fighters songs are always well made, and Grohl is capable of red-lining them with remarkable intensity when he needs to, but “Everlong” is the band’s only song that sounds bigger than the men who made it. For four minutes, it exists in its own universe with corners unknowable even to its creators, defying the consummate craftsmen of alternative radio who brought it into being. It is understandable that the band would never again make something so ephemeral or so luminous.

“If everything could ever feel this real forever,” Grohl sings, and it seems right. Even long after the guitars have faded away, the Foo Fighters endure.

You may also like

Leave a comment