Foo Fighters: The Color and the Shape – [Record 204]
The Colour and the Shape is the second studio album by American rock band Foo Fighters. Produced by Gil Norton, it was released through Capitol Records and the group’s own Roswell Records on May 20, 1997. The record is the debut of the Foo Fighters as a group, as the band’s previous record, Foo Fighters (1995), was primarily recorded by frontman Dave Grohl and friend Barrett Jones as a demo. After the project ballooned and became an international success, the group convened for pre-production in the fall of 1996 and brought in producer Norton to establish a pop sensibility for the tracks. The band strived to create a full-fledged rock record, although the music press predicted another grunge offshoot.
Primarily inspired by Grohl’s divorce from photographer Jennifer Youngblood in 1996, the lyricism on the record is substantially more introspective and the music more developed. The album’s track listing was designed to resemble a therapy session, splitting the album between up-tempo tracks and ballads, reflecting conflicting emotions. Early sessions at Washington farm studio Bear Creek were poor and led the band to discard most of the recordings. The band regrouped without drummer William Goldsmith in early 1997 to record a second time at Hollywood’s Grandmaster Recordings, with Grohl sitting in on drums instead. Goldsmith was offended and disgruntled that most of his material was re-recorded and left the band shortly thereafter.
Main singles “Monkey Wrench”, “Everlong” and “My Hero” peaked within the top ten on United States rock radio, and the album charted at number three in the United Kingdom. Critics found the album a significant American rock release of the era, and it is now viewed as a seminal modern rock album. It was nominated for Grammy Award in 1998 for Best Rock Album. The Colour and the Shape is the Foo Fighters’ biggest U.S. seller, having sold over two million copies according to Nielsen SoundScan. The album was remastered and reissued in 2007 with several bonus tracks, celebrating its tenth anniversary.
Record One. Side One.
2. Monkey Wrench.
3. Hey, Johnny Park!.
4. My Poor Brain.
Record One. Side Two.
5. Wind Up.
6. Up in Arms.
7. My Hero.
8. See You.
Record Two. Side One.
9. Enough Space.
10. February Stars.
Record Two. Side Two.
12. Walking After You.
13. New Way Home.
Background: The album was the debut of Foo Fighters as a band, as frontman Dave Grohl had recorded all of the first album by himself with the exception of one guitar part by Greg Dulli. The band’s original lineup was assembled for their exhaustive touring schedule throughout 1995 and 1996, during which the band became an international sensation on the strength of singles “This Is a Call”, “I’ll Stick Around” and “Big Me”. Although music press generally speculated the band’s sophomore record would showcase grunge-inspired garage rock, the band’s intention was to make a proper rock record. The deal the band struck with Capitol Records allowed a large degree of creative control regarding the band’s true “debut.” The songs on the record were composed during sound checks during the extensive touring that the band went through for the previous eighteen months. Mendel stated “the germ of every song is Dave’s”, with the frontman providing a riff and the basic structure, and afterwards the band would jam and each member would contribute to a part of the song.
For the band’s second album, Grohl recruited producer Gil Norton to provide additional pop polish to the material, demanding to hear guitar overdubs and harmonies with significant clarity. Grohl admired Norton from his work with the Pixies and how he was able to “distil a coherent pop song out of all their multi-layered weirdness.” Norton was very demanding of the band’s performance, eventually leading bassist Nate Mendel to enhance his musical formation. Grohl also stated that “it was frustrating and it was hard and it was long, but at the end of the day you listened back to what you’d done and you understood why you had to do it one million times.”
Recording and production: The Colour and the Shape was recorded over the period of two months, primarily at Grandmaster Recorders in Hollywood from January to February 1997. The band spent the two weeks in pre-production the previous autumn, rehearsing the tracks and changing arrangements. Norton had his greatest impact during pre-production, during which he spent days with Grohl in his hotel room “stripping the songs back to their absolute basics.” His role in production taught the band the importance of self-editing and gave them confidence to see “the larger picture in a song.” Afterwards, the band set off for Bear Creek Studios in Woodinville, Washington, where the first recording sessions for The Colour and the Shape began on November 18, 1996. Bear Creek, described by Mendel as “a converted barn with a salmon stream running through it,” was located on a farm and the band lived in a cabin-like home adjacent to the studio. Grohl described the sessions as a “bad experience,” deciding to scrap nearly all of the recorded tracks. Over the holiday break, Grohl returned to Virginia and wrote several new songs, recording two of them, “Walking After You” and an acoustic version of “Everlong”, by himself at WGNS Studios in Washington, DC.
The band (minus drummer William Goldsmith) relocated to Hollywood’s Grandmaster Recorders in February 1997, described by Mendel as “a small studio that sometimes moonlighted as a porn set, and looked the part.” For a period of four weeks, the band re-recorded most of the album with Grohl performing the drum tracks. It started with only “Monkey Wrench” as Grohl and Norton felt the drums needed more work, but eventually Goldsmith’s drums remained on only two tracks, “Doll” and “Up in Arms”. According to Grohl, Goldsmith’s drumming had good moments, but his performances mostly did not fit what Grohl had conceived for the drum track, so the frontman decided to redo them himself. Goldsmith even asked if he should go to Los Angeles, but Grohl dismissed this by saying he was only performing overdubs. Once Mendel told Goldsmith the situation, Grohl said that despite replacing Goldsmith’s tracks, he still wanted him as a bandmember, but the disgruntled drummer decided to leave the Foo Fighters instead. Speaking about the tension surrounding the departure of Goldsmith, Grohl in 2011 said, “There were a lot of reasons it didn’t work out… but there was also a part of me that was like, you know, I don’t know if I’m finished playing the drums yet.” He would also state, “I wish that I would have handled things differently…”
After the move to Los Angeles, the album’s budget ballooned and deadlines became even more of an issue. Studio time was expensive and the group was pressured by Capitol to deliver the record in a timely fashion. The pressure never materialized for the band, and the band’s main priority was to make “music for its own sake and let the commercial concerns take care of themselves.” The album’s title comes from the band’s tour manager of the time, who would often spend afternoons rummaging thrift stores and purchasing strange memorabilia. On one occasion, he purchased a bowling pin with red and white stripes, remarking to the band he rather liked the “colour and the shape” of the object. The group found it arbitrary and hilarious and decided on that title, rather than base the title off the theme or mood of the music. The band considered placing a therapist’s couch on the album cover, as a reflection of the record’s track sequence (see Composition).
Composition: Much of the lyricism found on The Colour and the Shape revolves around battered romanticism, more specifically the dissolution of Grohl and Jennifer Youngblood’s marriage during the winter of 1996, which Grohl described as “the winter of my discontent.” The album’s track sequence reflects this sentiment, chronicling his change from chaos to newfound happiness. Although Grohl self-admitted the lyricism found on Foo Fighters were obscure and “nonsense,” Norton pushed Grohl to write lyrics that had meaning. Grohl also found new strength in his singing compared to the insecurities on his voice for the debut, and delved deeper into his feelings with the lyrics, with him stating that “there was a new freedom: ‘Wow, I can actually write about things I feel strongly about and things that mean something to me and things I wouldn’t normally say in everyday conversation.'” The frontman stated that the experience was “kind of liberating”, comparing the album to going to a weekly visit to the therapist “and then the rest of the week feel pretty good about everything”.
The album’s opener, “Doll”, involves the fear of entering into situations unprepared. “Wind Up” was written about the relationship between musicians and journalists, wherein the latter tend to paint the former as convicted and reluctant. “My Hero” criticizes idolatry and instead extolls friends who are ordinary heroes, which has been considered a statement on fame and partially inspired by former bandmate Kurt Cobain. On the record’s closing track, “New Way Home,” Grohl longs for his hometown and recalls the drive there on Highway 99. Through this journey, “I realise that it’s OK, I can make my way through all of this, and I’m not that freaked out at the end.” Three types of songs permeate the record: ballads, up-tempo tracks and combinations of the two. Grohl felt they were representative of the specific emotions he would feel after the divorce.
Release and reception: The Colour and the Shape was released on May 20, 1997, being preceded the month before by lead single “Monkey Wrench”. The promotional campaign tried to emphasize the group identity and each of the bandmembers’ personality. For instance, each member gave interviews with press of their interests, with guitarist Pat Smear talking to guitar and fashion magazines. Just as the album was finished and Taylor Hawkins was hired as the new drummer (he was the former touring drummer for Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill in 1995), Smear expressed he would also leave the band, claiming he was exhausted and not motivated to go into another extended tour. The promotional tour started in May 1997, with Smear remaining until a replacement was found, which turned out to be Franz Stahl, Grohl’s former bandmate in Scream. Smear announced his departure and handed the guitar over to Stahl during a performance at the Radio City Music Hall in September, just before the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards.
Critical response to the record was generally positive. UK-based Melody Maker viewed The Colour and the Shape to be a significant American rock release, writing, “The Colour and the Shape is a great rock album at a time when great rock albums are viewed with increasing suspicion.” The publication saw the album as leagues ahead of other post-grunge acts: “The first album might have been a collection of loveable songs, but lacked the sheer visceral attack that thrills this time round,” wrote Victoria Segal. “An attack that would have almost any other US rock band biting their nails in anguish and embarrassment.” Christina Kelly of Rolling Stone was largely positive, although she singled out Norton’s production as distracting: “Colour has a big, radio-ready, modern-rock sound. Some might even call the album overproduced: On the ballads, the vocals are overprocessed and fake sounding.” Entertainment Weekly praised the band’s growth, but criticized the sound journalist David Browne described as “like much current alt-rock: been there, grunged that.” In contrast, Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic described that production as revolutionary: “everything here wound up defining the sound of post-grunge modern rock, and it remains as perhaps the best example of its kind.” In his review for The Village Voice, Robert Christgau said the music is routine but elevated by Grohl’s “marital breakup content/concept”, allowing him to “fully inhabit the music that meant so much to him and millions of other Kurt Cobain fans”.
To commemorate The Colour and the Shape’s tenth anniversary, the album was re-released on July 10, 2007, and included six previously released B-sides, consisting of “Dear Lover”, “The Colour and the Shape”, and four covers, including “Baker Street”.
Doll: Grohl stated that it is “basically a song about being afraid to enter into something you’re not prepared for.”
Monkey Wrench: Grohl stated that it was “a song about realizing that you are the source of all of the problems in a relationship and you love the other person so much, you want to free them of the problem, which is actually yourself. It was a riff that turned into another riff that turned into another riff and ended up being a nice little power punk song.” In another interview, Grohl stated his pride in the song, “With Monkey Wrench I remember I had the main riff, but I didn’t have the little jangly riff that goes over the top of it and I thought it needed something. So I came up with the jangly riff and thought ‘Oh my God this is never gonna fly! Everyone’s gonna hate it’. But I was really excited the first time I heard it on the radio – it was in the middle of a load of mid-’90s grunge shit and I thought it was so killer.” The song was released as the first single from the album in 1997.
Hey, Johnny Park!: The lyrics to this song follow a series of different themes, as Grohl noted himself, “Oh, my God, that song’s about 15 different things! The only reason why it’s called ‘Hey, Johnny Park!’ is because when I was young, my best friend was this kid who lived across the street from me called Johnny Park and we were like brothers from the age of 5 to 12. I haven’t heard from him since I was about 14 years old and I thought if I named a song after him he might call.”
My Poor Brain: Grohl says of the song, “This song’s an experiment with dynamics, whether it’s the lyrics or the sound of the song. It’s just going from dreamy vocals to screamy vocals and Jackson Five to Black Sabbath. Sling it all in there.” This song was first played live in 1996 and was called “Chicken Derby”.
Wind Up: Grohl described this song as such; “Wind Up is about the press. It has to do with me reading about people that… I mean there’s certain musicians who have nothing better to do than complain, People, that can’t feel fortunate for what they have been given, and if you don’t want it, then fucking just quit and get away from it. It drives me insane when I hear musicians that don’t understand how fortunate they are that they don’t have to go and pump gas for twelve hours a day. They can sit on their couch and smoke pot, and complain to their friends that they hate it when someone comes up and says that he likes their band. And it also has to do with… I mean there are two sides: there’s the reluctant rock-star, and then there is the prying journalist that almost lives for the reluctant rock-star, it’s just talking “about the hand you’ve been dealt.” Every time I hear about “the hand you’ve been dealt,” it drives me fucking nuts, spare me your confessions. And paramania is the joy of complaint, like if you’re a pyromaniac — if you’re a paramaniac, you love complaining about everything. I don’t want to complain about anything, I want people to know that I’m happy doing what I’m doing. I’ve had so many fucking bullshit jobs for the half of my life – you know, working in furniture warehouses and planting trees, painting houses – and it’s a lot more fun to play music.”
Up in Arms: Of the song, Grohl said, “A typical love song. It’s almost like a Knack song, just a simple pop song.” In another interview Grohl stated, “I wrote that song to be a teenage makeout song. I just love the image of two teenagers making out on the beach listening to that song.” Also in the song, Dave changed the last line which is meant to sing “always coming back I cannot forget you girl” to “always coming back I cannot forget you Gil” in reference to their producer Gil Norton.
My Hero: Many fans have speculated that this song was a tribute to Grohl’s deceased friend and bandmate, Kurt Cobain. However, in Grohl’s own words, the song is, “(his) way of saying that when I was young, I didn’t have big rock heroes, I didn’t want to grow up and be some big sporting hero. My heroes were ordinary people and the people that I have a lot of respect for are just solid everyday people – people you can rely on.” This was the third single to be released from the album.
See You: Grohl stated this song was, “Just another pop song. It was the one song that nobody wanted to put on the record, but it’s my favourite song. I think that the only reason it ended up on the record was that I re-did the drum track to make it sound like ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ by Queen.”
Enough Space: Grohl has said, “[Enough Space] is actually about a movie called Arizona Dream, which is one of my favorite films!” He also said the song emerged from his desire to create a song that would be a good opener on their set lists, with a tempo that mimicked the jumping and bouncing of European crowds in the beginning of sets.
February Stars: The lyrics are said to be about “hanging on by the tips of your fingers and hoping you don’t slip and fall.” This song dates back to at least January 1994, when an early take of the song with alternate lyrics, titled “Dave/Acoustic + Voc” was recorded by Grohl and Krist Novoselic on Harmonium during Nirvana’s last recording session.
Everlong: The song was written when the band took a 2-week break from recording after the initial sessions. Grohl wrote “Everlong” by himself at his home in Virginia. It is considered to be one of the best songs by the band and is highly acclaimed. Grohl was apparently reduced to tears after performing the song at Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit. In the words of bandmate Taylor Hawkins, it is a “powerful song.” In 2000, David Letterman revealed that it is his favorite song.
Walking After You: This song was written and recorded by Grohl on his own in a studio in Washington. This version appears on the album. The band would later re-record the song with all the members for The X-Files soundtrack. Grohl stated, “It’s an emotional, sappy song about getting dumped.”
New Way Home: According to Grohl, “That’s about winding your way through all of these songs, emotions and pitfalls and ups and downs, but at the end of the day, you realize that you’re not scared any more and you’re gonna make it.”