I just finished watching all eight episodes of Sonic Highways, an HBO original series about the Foo Fighters, that was originally broadcast in 2014. The series documents the band's road odyssey to write and record eight songs in eight different cities for their eighth album, to mark the band's fifteenth anniversary.
I lost track of the number of "wow!" moments while watching these eight eps. Each one an in-depth history lesson on the city, its music and culture. The interviews with record label execs, producers, writers, musicians, journalists, etc. were flawlessly edited and mixed throughout with cityscapes (historical and current) and performance clips documenting each city's musical heritage.
I'm now planning on ordering the eight-track album. If you read the album's reviews on amazon, you'll notice that many of them are mediocre: some good songs, not the band's best or typical album, and such. But if you then read the comments to these reviews you'll see that, every time, the responder states that you can't appreciate the songs if you haven't seen the video. Why? Because each song was influenced by the recording studio in which it was recorded; by the history, the spirits if you will, of those who played before: the same piano that Ray Charles played when he recorded in that very same studio decades earlier, for example. And the lyrics that Dave Grohl wrote for each song were also some of the same words spoken by those interviewed throughout the episode. I think at one point Grohl even states that the song is more of a document, a record of the city's musical legacy.
Bear with me and I'll give you an example.
Here's the album's track list:
1. "Something from Nothing" - recorded in Chicago at the Electrical Audio Studio2. "The Feast and the Famine" - recorded in Washington D.C at the Inner Ear Studio3. "Congregation" - recorded in Nashville at the Southern Ground Studio4. "What Did I Do?/God As My Witness" - recorded in Austin at the original Austin City Limits Studio5. "Outside" - recorded in Los Angeles at the Rancho De La Luna Studio6. "In the Clear" - recorded in New Orleans at Preservation Hall7. "Subterranean" - recorded in Seattle at the Robert Lang Studios8. "I Am a River" - recorded in New York at the Magic Shop
The last episode featured the city and music of New York. In 1961, when Bob Dylan was nineteen, he knocked on the door to Woody Guthrie's apartment. Guthrie's daughter, Nora, answered the door. When she saw it was some stranger, she closed the door on him. He knocked, she opened the door, and closed it once again. The third time Arlo answered the door, saw that this young stranger had a guitar, and invited him in. Dylan has always said that Woody Guthrie was his biggest influence. If he didn't get invited into that apartment that day, what affect would that have had on the burgeoning folk -- and later folk-rock -- scene at the time in New York City?
Nora Guthrie also tells of receiving a package in the mail shortly after 9/11, long after Woody had passed away. The package was wrapped in brown paper and twine, with no return address -- exactly the type of package she should not have opened at the time, but she did so knowingly anyhow. The package contained four small spools of silver wire; no note in the package; she had no idea who had sent this to her. The spools contained "live wire" -- a recording process used for about a year and a half in the late 1940s, after which recordings were made using tape. These wire spools turned out to be the only recorded performance of Woody Guthrie in front of an audience. Steven Rosenthal, at SoHo's Magic Shop recording studio, brought that wire recording to life. The album The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949 won the 2008 Grammy Award for Best Historical Album.
In the Foo Fighters' song "I Am a River," the lyrics "The channel's changing / The heart is racing / From voices on a wire" refer to that "live wire" Woody Guthrie recording. And the song title itself? "I Am a River"? Refers to the underground river that Jimi Hendrix discovered when he built Electric Lady Studios in New York. Who would have thought a river flowed beneath 52 West 8th Street in Greenwich Village.
This, and more, is what I learned from just one episode of the Sonic Highways Blu-ray.
Check out the three-and-a-half-minute trailer below, and then go buy your copy of Sonic Highways from amazon, or wherever it is that you buy your vids.