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‘Sonic Highways’ Hits D.C.: 5 Things We Learned

From go-go and hardcore punk to Don Zientara and Revolution Summer, here are five things we learned from Foo Fighters’ trip to the nation’s capital

Foo Fighters‘ HBO series Sonic Highways visited Washington D.C. Friday night, which marked a homecoming of sorts for Dave Grohl: The rocker was raised in the Virginia suburbs outside of D.C. – his mother still lives there – and he started out drumming for area acts like Mission Impossible, Dain Bramage and “his favorite band ever,” Scream.

In addition to recording the Sonic Highways track “The Feast and the Famine,” Grohl also provides an extensive look at a pair of homegrown genres that became the backbone of the D.C. music scene: Go-go and hardcore punk. Here are five things we learned from the Sonic Highways trip to the nation’s capital.

1. D.C’s go-go scene had a profound impact on both hardcore punk and Pharrell Williams
“When you’re a kid, your environment is your main influence, but you don’t know that until you grow up, start finding out about yourself,” Pharrell Williams says on Sonic Highways. The Neptunes producer was raised in Virginia Beach, Virginia, not too far from the go-go scene in D.C., and the complex drumming and funk rhythms of that musical style have made their way into Williams’ productions: Nelly’s hit “Hot in Herre,” produced by the Neptunes, borrows its hook from “Godfather of Go-Go” Chuck Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose.”

With D.C.’s hardcore scene exploding thanks to Minor Threat, Scream and Bad Brains, those audiences found kinship with go-go acts like Trouble Funk, and the groups would often stage unlikely “punk/funk” gigs together.

2. “The Feast and the Famine” lyrics make a lot more sense after viewing the episode
Even more than the Chicago-inspired “Something From Nothing,” the Sonic Highways D.C. track is packed with references to the city’s history and music scene. “Last night they were burning for truth, down on the corner of 14th and U” references the scene of the city’s 1968 riots following the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. The line “Still screaming” is a nod to Scream’s debut album, while “wrecked my brains” is dedicated to Bad Brains. “Where is that PMA?,” Grohl sings, which harkens back to Bad Brains’ mantra “Positive Mental Attitude” as well as the spirit of Revolution Summer.

3. Ian MacKaye wasn’t a punk music fan
The father of D.C. hardcore, MacKaye was a member of the Teen Idles, Minor Threat and Fuguzi, as well as the co-founder of Dischord Records. Still, MacKaye didn’t care for the Clash or Sex Pistols, who were busy singing about heady political matters that didn’t much apply to a D.C. high school student. Instead, MacKaye worshipped Ted Nugent. “Punk just seemed kind of a joke to me,” MacKaye tells Sonic Highways.

4. One man’s name is on almost every single landmark hardcore D.C. album: Don Zientara
As a producer, engineer and owner of Arlington, Virginia’s tiny Inner Ear Studios, Zientara’s name appears in the credits of countless hardcore sleeves, from Minor Threat to Nation of Ulysses’ 13-Point Program to Destroy America. Upon touring Zientara’s memento-packed Inner Ear Studios, the Foo Fighters’ Nate Mendel admits that this was the studio he looked forward to recording in the most since Zientara was responsible the soundtrack of his youth. “The Feast and the Famine” was also recorded at Inner Ear.

5. Grohl still considers himself a D.C. rocker
While people often – incorrectly – call Foo Fighters a “Seattle band” due to Grohl’s Nirvana roots and the band’s debut LP being recorded in that city, Grohl aligns himself with the Washington D.C. area as Foo Fighters’ There Is Nothing Left to Lose and One By One were both recorded in the Virginia suburbs in D.C.

“The experiences I’ve had in this city, from the age of 14 years old, set this foundation for the rest of my life as a musician,” Grohl says in the episode. “The community, the support, the love that was here in the D.C. music scene has carried over into what I do now. The way that Foo Fighters work now, we’re like a family, and we try to treat everyone that way.”


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