Released 20 years ago today, The Colour and the Shape remains a watershed album in Foo Fighters history. The first Foos LP to feature an actual band – as opposed to the glorified Dave Grohl solo project that was 1995’s Foo Fighters – The Colour and the Shape featured such classic tracks as “Everlong,” “My Hero” and “Monkey Wrench,” and went on to sell more than 2 million copies in the U.S. alone, more than any other album in the band’s extensive catalog.
The album’s success came with a heavy price, however. “While recording this record,” Foo Fighters bassist Nate Mendel recalled in the liner notes for the album’s 10th anniversary reissue, “two marriages fell apart, we lost a drummer, someone nearly went to jail, and we discovered late in the day that record making is hellishly expensive and best done with a budget prepared beforehand.”
The breakup of Grohl’s first marriage, to photographer Jennifer Youngblood, hung particularly heavily over the album’s songs, though Grohl himself didn’t realize the full extent of it until he and producer Gil Norton began sorting out the album’s running order. “When we finally did sequence the album,” he told Vox magazine in June 1997, “I had this realization that it runs like a therapy session. The first song, ‘Doll,’ is all about your fear of entering into something you weren’t prepared for, which is the way I feel about mostly everything – it can pertain to the band as well; being a singer, songwriter and, uh, freaked out.
“I go through this whole therapy session, and I end up at the last track, when I realize that it’s OK, I can make my way through all of this, and I’m not that freaked out at the end. We were joking for a while when were thinking about artwork for the album. I thought, ‘Why don’t we put a picture of a therapist’s couch on it?’ For the rest of my life, when I listen to this record, it will be the fall of 1996, and my journal entries, which is a little strange.”
In honor of the album’s 20th anniversary, here are 10 things you may not know about The Colour and the Shape.
1. Dave Grohl wanted the band’s second album to be a “slick rock record” with a touch of Pixies.
Given the unexpected success of the self-titled first Foo Fighters album, many fans and critics alike were expecting more of the same on the band’s second album. But Grohl, who had played almost all of the instruments on the debut, envisioned something much bigger and grander for the record that would become The Colour and the Shape. “The first album was recorded in about five days,” he told the Montreal Mirror in October 1997. “I really didn’t pay much attention to the production or the arrangements. It was just ‘Get in the studio and get it done.’ But for this album we did pre-production, we hired a producer and we wanted there to be unconventional arrangements. We just wanted to go in and make kind of a slick rock record, and I think that we did.”
In order to achieve that goal, the band hired producer Gil Norton. “We went with Gil because on all of his albums he manages to get some sort of clarity, even in the dirtiest sound,” Grohl explained in the Montreal Mirror interview. “But the biggest reason we hired him was because of the arrangements on the last Pixies album, Trompe Le Monde. They’re all so bizarre, and he let me in on how they did a lot of them. Some of them are mathematical, like the first half of a song would mirror the second half, and stuff like that. And he just seemed like such a character.”
2. “My Hero,” the first of the album’s songs to be played live, debuted in concert nearly two years before album was released.
For the first five months of their existence as a live act, Foo Fighters’ live sets revolved primarily around songs from the first album with an occasional cover thrown in. It wasn’t until July 20th, 1995, that Dave Grohl introduced a new original into the set – a song that would eventually become one of the highlights of The Colour and the Shape, and the band’s discography as a whole. “How ya doing?” he asked the crowd, as the group took the stage at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom. “We’re the Foo Fighters … and we’re going to do a song that we wrote three days ago. It’s called ‘My Hero.'”
“I wasn’t sure what was going to happen,” Nate Mendel recalled in the 2011 documentary Foo Fighters: Back and Forth. “Like, can Dave write more songs? How is this writing process going to work? Will we suck? I had no idea. Does this band have a future or not? And I knew that we were going to be okay and that we would continue after I heard the song ‘My Hero,’ because it was great.”
3. “Enough Space” was written because the band needed a good set-opener for their 1995 European tour.
One of two future Colour and the Shape songs to be unveiled during Foo Fighters’ tour of Europe in the autumn of 1995 – the other was “Up in Arms” – “Enough Space” was specifically designed to get the European audiences moving during the first minutes of the band’s shows. “In Europe and in England, when bands play, the audience doesn’t beat the shit out of each other like they do in America; they do this bounce, right? Everybody bounces,” Grohl explained in Foo Fighters: Back and Forth. “So I wanted to write a song that everyone would start bouncing to when we first came out and played. I had a melody and a riff idea, but I didn’t know the tempo. So I jumped up and down and I found a tempo by bouncing. I wrote the song, I brought it to soundcheck; I said, ‘Hey, I have this new song. Let’s learn it so we can open with it tomorrow night or tonight, or whatever.’ We opened with it the next night, and it worked!”
4. Gil Norton pushed Grohl to write more meaningful songs than those he’d written for the first album.
“Last time the lyrics were obscure for a good reason,” Grohl confessed to Melody Maker in April 1997. “They were nonsense. A few songs meant a lot, but for the most part I just needed a vocal track. In no way do I consider myself a clever lyricist, or even a lyricist. I can’t even write fucking postcards. How am I going to write songs that really grab someone? The first album, Foo Fighters, I was just so afraid of anyone understanding anything I had to say – but I had no choice for this record.”
For The Colour and the Shape, producer Gil Norton made it clear that he wasn’t going to be satisfied with a bunch of “nonsense” lyrics. “He wouldn’t let me have dinner until I’d written some lyrics,” said Grohl of Norton. “Every time I wrote a bad line I’d get 40 lashes.” As Grohl was going through a divorce at the time, many of the album’s songs wound up referencing that relationship and its aftermath. “They’re about last winter, the winter of my discontent,” he told Melody Maker.
5. The initial sessions for the album were “a bad experience” – especially for drummer William Goldsmith – and produced little in the way of usable material.
Bear Creek Studio, a residential recording studio located in a barn on a 10-acre farm in Woodinville, Washington, seemed like an ideal spot for Foo Fighters to make their first album as a real band. But for Dave Grohl, guitarist Pat Smear, bassist Nate Mendel, drummer Will Goldsmith and producer Gil Norton, the month they spent recording at Bear Creek in late 1996 was as tense and frustrating as the setting was bucolic. Grohl would later describe it as “a bad experience,” while Mendel and Goldsmith – dubbed “the rhythmless section” by Gil Norton – found the sessions exceptionally difficult.
“Dave had me do 96 takes of one song, and I had to do 13 hours’ worth of takes on another one,” Goldsmith told the Miami New Times in 1998. “It just seemed that everything I did wasn’t good enough for him, or anyone else. I think that everyone at the label wanted Dave to play drums on the record. The producer wanted him to play drums on the record, and it felt like everyone was trying to get me to quit.” Though the band tracked 14 songs at Bear Creek, very little from those sessions would ultimately make it onto The Colour and the Shape.
6. “Everlong” began life as “a Sonic Youth rip-off.”
With its ringing, sustained chords and earnestly romantic lyrics – long rumored to be about Louise Post of Veruca Salt, whom Grohl was briefly involved with following the breakup of his first marriage – “Everlong” remains one of Foo Fighters’ most beloved tracks. But when he first came up with the chord sequence, Grohl thought it sounded more like Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” than anything else. “We took a break for Christmas, so I went back to Virginia by myself,” he told Kerrang! in June 2006. “I took the rough tracks of what we’d done and it didn’t seem right. The album had something missing. But I had this one riff that I originally thought was a Sonic Youth rip-off, but I decided it might be good to turn it into a song. When I brought it to our producer Gil Norton, he said, ‘That’s great! Let’s put it on the album!'”
7. Most of the finished tracks were re-recorded at a Grandmaster Recorders, a Hollywood studio that previously birthed massive albums by the Black Crowes, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Stevie Wonder.
Unhappy with the results of the Bear Creek sessions, Grohl worked up a couple of tracks (“Walking After You” and an acoustic version of “Everlong”) by himself at a small studio in Washington, D.C., over Christmas. In January 1997, he flew to Hollywood to finish the album at Grandmaster Recorders, a former silent movie theater that had once served as a writing and rehearsal space for Stevie Wonder when he was preparing to record his blockbuster 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life. The Black Crowes (Shake Your Money Maker) and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (One Hot Minute) had also made multiplatinum albums at Grandmaster (which, sadly, has recently been sold for redevelopment), and the place’s mojo seemed to rub off on The Colour and the Shape, as well – though Grohl, Pat Smear and Nate Mendel had to re-record most of the album’s tracks there before finally achieving the sound and feel that Grohl was looking for. “If I listen to a song, and I don’t think it has the thing that it needs, it’s not necessarily going to get past me and get on an album,” Grohl would later explain in Foo Fighters: Back and Forth.
8. Goldsmith left the band after learning that Grohl had re-recorded most of his drum parts behind his back.
While the Grandmaster sessions ultimately resulted in one of Foo Fighters’ finest albums, they also directly led to the departure of William Goldsmith. While Goldsmith cooled his heels at home in Seattle, under the impression that Grohl was just adding some final touches to the album in Hollywood, Grohl was busy recording over most of his drum parts from the Bear Creek sessions; when Goldsmith discovered the truth, he was understandably less than pleased. “I had this idea that I was going to play drums because we were running out of time and William was having difficulty recording,” Grohl recalled in Paul Brannigan’s This is a Call: The Life and Times of Dave Grohl. “I thought ‘OK, well, just to save time, I’m going to record these new songs … and then we’ll have Will re-do the other stuff.’ And then William caught wind that I was going to do drums and basically just said ‘Well, I don’t agree and I don’t want to be in the band.’ Most people are under the impression that I kicked him out of the band, but he absolutely quit.” Goldsmith’s original drum tracks can still be heard on “Doll,” “Up in Arms” and the verses of “My Poor Brain,” but the drums on the rest of the album are all Grohl’s.
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9. The album’s title was inspired by a bowling pin that the band’s tour manager purchased at a thrift shop.
“The title is kind of like an inside joke that we have with the band,” Grohl explained to LiveWire magazine in October 1997. “When we were on tour, our tour manager was always out shopping every day before the show and buying really weird stuff. He’d come back with these really huge candles from 1947 and the next day he came back with a lamp with Jesus on it. … So one day he comes into the dressing room with this bowling pin, a red one with white stripes, and he said, ‘Look what I bought today.’ I said, ‘What the fuck are you doing? Why would you buy a bowling pin?’ – ‘Because I like the color and I like the shape.'”
The album was christened thusly, though (or perhaps because) the vaguely evocative title stood in stark contrast to the soul-baring songs contained inside. “It has absolutely nothing to do with anything,” Grohl continued. “Because if we wanted to give the album a name that referred to the mood or the attitude of the record, then it would be called ‘My Therapist’s Couch’ or something.”
10. Pat Smear wanted to leave the band before the album was even released – though he eventually stuck around until they could find a suitable replacement.
When William Goldsmith left Foo Fighters, former Alanis Morissette skinsman Taylor Hawkins was brought in to replace him. But shortly after Hawkins’ arrival, the band was shocked by guitarist Pat Smear’s announcement that he would also be leaving. With the new album due to drop on May 20th, Grohl begged Smear to reconsider – or at least go out on tour with the band until they could find another guitarist. Smear agreed to stick around for the initial phase of album promotion, finally making his official exit in September 1997, during the band’s performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, when he was replaced mid-set by former Scream guitarist Franz Stahl.
“We had known for almost four months that Pat was going to leave the band,” Grohl told ID magazine at the time. “He told us early on this year that he didn’t want to tour anymore and he doesn’t like doing press and he hates flying, tons of stuff. Of course we were totally shocked. Then I remembered, when Pat joined Nirvana, all of his friends were placing bets on how long he was going to last in that band. Some friends bet a week, or a month, or two months. This is the longest he’s stayed in a band since the Germs.” Smear would return to the band in 2005.