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Music

Is Dave Grohl a better songwriter than Kurt Cobain?

I’m going to come out and say it…Kurt Cobain was a one-trick pony. Yes, Kurt Cobain, lead singer and writer of Nirvana, was a one-trick pony. His miserable antics veered into self-parody as early as 1993 when Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher challenged his philosophies with ‘Live Forever’. The “all is pointless” schtick grew tired and boring, and it didn’t help that Cobain tended to punctuate the records with the same plodding guitar solos that showcased a lack of ability and assurance. He didn’t need to be a guitar wizard to shake up the formula by putting in a couple of extra power chords into the mix.

Which is more the pity, because seated behind him stood a man who would go on to prove himself as one of the most important songwriters of all time: Dave Grohl. Sat behind the drumkit, Grohl’s primary job was to keep the beat, and his second role was to sing harmony vocals to the compositions, which is why he was perfectly poised to re-invent himself as a songwriter when he founded Foo Fighters following the breakup of Nirvana. His influences were diverse, which stemmed from a record collection that was as catholic as his Irish roots.

“I grew up, like most people my age, falling in love with the Beatles, Kiss, Rush, and AC/DC,” the drummer turned songwriter admitted. Grohl’s most Beatlesque moments included ‘Learn To Fly’, but he never aimed to sound like a Beatle, much as Cobain so desperately did on the Nevermind album. Instead, he fashioned a voice that was strikingly original as the drum fills that barrelled behind Josh Homme during his tenure with Queens of The Stone Age.

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In a moment of rare self-effacing humour, Grohl offered audiences the chance to laugh at him during the making of Studio 666, a probing character study in the realm of paralysis and pensive demeanour. Indeed, if he has songwriting equal, it’s Noel Gallagher, the former Oasis frontman now spearheading a career that thrives on creative spontaneity.

Grohl recorded the first Foo Fighters album almost entirely by himself, which detailed the foundations of his childhood (‘This Is A Call’, ‘Big Me’) to the liturgies that commemorated the achievements of his musical heroes (‘Oh, George’, ‘Wattershed’). It was a deeply autobiographical work, and although future Foo Fighters albums would downplay the personal in an effort to make it more inclusive of the other band members fleshing out the songs and concerts, it makes it no less impressive.

In Taylor Hawkins, Grohl had a loyal lieutenant who could bring out the muscle in his work, and in Pat Smear, he had a strong foil to help realise his potential. And when he recorded the euphoric ‘I Should Have Known It’ in 2010, he was able to liberate himself from the trappings of Nirvana, bolstered by Krist Novoselic’s accordion playing.

Melody proved the beginning of Grohl’s musical foundations, but then rock took a more prominent position: “Then I made this radical shift into underground American hardcore punk rock music,” the singing drummer recalled, “And to me, the allure of that was its unpolished, unproduced, independent qualities. I liked the fact that these people were doing it themselves; they didn’t need a record company.”

Grohl took a liking to the more bohemian approach of playing to the feeling of the track in question, delving into the mindset of the people in question. His music was formed by the commitment to the work, suggesting that to be truthful meant being insightful, even if the work itself seemed esoteric. “There are songs that are very specific, and there are songs that are written with a very general emotion in mind,” Grohl admitted. “Sometimes I’ll write a song that’s so vague that an audience will sing along for 16,000 different reasons. I’d hate to exclude someone from a song because it’s about someone they don’t know”.

Noel Gallagher has a similar rationale to his work, suggesting that if a song is too personal, then it shouldn’t be released to the general public. Music is about inviting inclusion into the world at large, and although the work may seem resolute, it needs to be inclusive in order for it to snowball into something universal and crowd-pleasing.

But that’s precisely because Grohl is happy to tap into the more obscure and commercial aspects of his record collection, clearly buoyed by the desire to create something that sits happily in both camps. Whether or not Foo Fighters will continue touring without Hawkins is speculative at this point, but there’s no reason why Grohl should stop creating new compositions, particularly in the post-pandemic environment.

Indeed, Grohl’s activities are vast, opaque, muscular: everything the nihilistic Cobain was not, or at least never showed himself to be in his all-too-brief time on this planet. But impressions should be based on the art, not the person, and Grohl’s catalogue has more depth and diversity than Nirvana’s.

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