The Colour and the Shape by Foo Fighters
What if I told you my favorite song on The Colour and the Shape was February Stars?
When I moved to Boston for college in 1997, one of my new dorm friends freshman year - “It’s David, not Dave.” - introduced me to the Foo Fighters’ second record The Colour and the Shape. I initially resisted. My perception of Foo Fighters was twinged by the video for “Big Me” from their eponymous first album. I don’t know if you remember it, but it was a really funny take on the ubiquitous Mentos commercials. The video is undeniably great, but I didn’t think the song was all that interesting or good. It’s a nice mid-tempo rock song with some jangly guitars, but for me, it lacked teeth or emotion. On top of it, the band made a mockery of themselves, which while admirable, didn’t pull me in as a teenage music fan. It caused me not to take them seriously. To this day, I’m an overly self-serious music fan. I’m here for emotional release whether it’s sadness, anger, loss, or whatever makes you feel something. “Big Me” didn’t make me feel anything.
Frankly, I wasn’t swayed by the rest of the album either. The closest was “I’ll Stick Around,” but it wasn’t enough to put me over the hump. I never bought this CD and never listened to it other than the radio singles or the videos on MTV. After coming out of Nirvana, I didn’t know if Foo Fighters were more Barenaked Ladies than Nirvana. Turns out they were their own thing, but I didn’t know it yet. I was shocked when my new cool college music friend told me I had to listen to The Colour and the Shape, but like most musical recommendations he was right.
Sharing Music to Tell People Who You Are
Freshman year at Boston University was like my own personal season of “The Real World.” I lived in a giant dorm on West Campus on the eleventh floor of a building called Rich Hall. At Boston University, that name didn’t go unnoticed with the number of wealthy offspring and privilege it took to go to a school where room and board were north of $30,000 per year. This was the 90s. For perspective, Boston University today costs north of $70,000 per year once you pay for tuition, room, board, books, and other supplies. However, despite the lofty prices, BU was a major melting pot on my freshman year co-ed floor.
My musical friend David was also a white male like me, but he was from Columbia South Carolina, and had a completely different musical vibe. Where we had commonalities in early grunge, when my Cleveland friends and I diverged to heavier stuff like Meshuggah, Candiria, and Acid Bath, his group diverged more toward indie rock like Sunny Day Real Estate, The Promise Ring, and Braid.
So, I would play him Chaosphere by Meshuggah and explain why it’s not just a bunch of noise. You have to listen to it two or three times to make sense of where the beats are to find the complex groove. It’s not for everyone, but at least after you understand what they’re doing, it gives you different respect for it. It was weird for a southern kid to listen to a Swedish math-metal band do a song called “New Millennium Cyanide Christ,” but David was willing to try.
Likewise, he introduced me to Sunny Day Real Estate, Mineral, and Christie Front Drive. Do you want to know how cool David’s musical tastes were? He introduced me to Modest Mouse with their EP The Fruit That Ate Itself well before Isaac Brock started making radio-friendly hits. Seriously, he had a song on there - that I liked - that essentially is just the words “dirty fingernails” over and over. It’s hard to imagine this was a step on the way to “Float On.”
I’ll admit that was an easier sell to me than some of my stuff was to him. And holy shit could he be dismissive and judgmental in those days. I remember specifically telling him that I knew it was a simple song but “Got You Where I Want You” by the Flys just sounded good to me anyway. He cut me off before I could even finish my justification and said, “No. I’m not going to be convinced.” Honestly, it hurt my feelings and really pissed me off, but sometimes your friends get in your kitchen, don’t they?
This is the context of the friendship we had, so when he said listen to the Foos, I borrowed The Colour and the Shape and I checked it out. I was completely blown away by it.
For as dismissive as David could be, he also had a way of making you feel incredibly special. I could talk about all the songs on this record, but it doesn’t make sense to me to join the chorus talking about the impact of “Everlong” or “My Hero.” Those songs are obviously worthy of discussion, but they’ve had plenty of it. I want to talk about “February Stars,” because I thought it was going to be one of the biggest songs on the album. If you were there listening to this album when it came out, before all these songs became what they became, you might have thought this was going to be one of the biggest songs in the country at some point too.
“February Stars” is a slow build. It starts so low in volume that it’s barely audible. Dave Grohl and his guitar are singing slowly. Then he comes in with a harmony. Then the band slowly starts to join. The song really kicks in after about a minute, but unless you had your headphones or speakers cranked, you could have missed the whole first part of the song. When the song hits its peak at about three minutes, it blows away your speakers. This might help with a visual. I am kind of an audio geek as a musician and a podcaster, so I downloaded the MP3 and opened it in an audio editing tool so you can see what the song sounds like.
Now go re-read everything I said about how the song develops and builds into its peak. If you know the song, you know just how powerful it is. However, if you were a radio programmer, you’re not going to put this song on your station. It’s torture for a casual listening audience either driving around in their cars or listening on their headphones on the train. They’ll crank up the volume for the beginning and by the end, unless they’re riding their volume knobs, it’s blowing them out. It’s like taking the issue of commercials being louder than shows on TV and multiplying it.
I’m not saying it doesn’t work for the song, but it’s problematic at best if you wanted to make it a big radio hit, I think. In an era where producers were trying to make everything loud, this song flew in the face of that convention completely, maybe to its detriment as a potential hit. Contrast it with the visualization of Everlong, which also relies on dynamics heavily. It’s just not even close. You can see what I mean by “the loudness wars.” (There’s a Wikipedia entry for the loudness wars because of course there is.)
So “February Stars” was, far and away, my favorite song on this album when I finished listening to it. To this day, it might be my favorite Foo Fighters song, and there have been so many good ones to choose from. And this is how David could be the sweetest, most supportive friend in the world.
I can’t remember which break we were returning from, but David made sure to tell me this story. He was home talking to his best friend from South Carolina. He was telling his friend about me and all the music I had been introducing him to. And he wanted to tell his friend from home just how different and cool my perspective on music was and he was in the middle of a sentence to his friend overexplaining and not really making his point before he stopped himself. “Look. Here’s the thing about Craig. His favorite song on The Colour and the Shape is February Stars.” His friend looked at him inquisitively in an almost shocked manner. David looked him straight in the eye, smiled a bit, and said, “Yep.”
I know I’m not that cool. I’m not that special. I’m an individual, maybe, in some ways, but I don’t think of myself in any really special way, but David didn’t have to have that conversation about me. He certainly didn’t need to tell me about it later. It was one of the cool kids telling me that he thought I was a cool kid too. And make no mistake, David didn’t think he was cool either. There was no power dynamic other than two musical elitists thinking they knew their stuff, but also wanting recognition in a strange way. Put more simply, everyone wants to feel special even if they deny it or don’t realize it. At that moment, with this one song, from this one record that he shared with me, David made me feel special by letting me show him how I saw it slightly differently. That validation and acceptance and promotion meant so much to me. The mutual respect of somewhat dissimilar people looking for common ground is fucking powerful.
Why do I love The Colour and the Shape? It’s an incredible record with songs that are absolutely electric, including what another friend Chris would refer to as brainstem rock like “Monkey Wrench.” I’m not exaggerating when I say that this album has one of the best rock songs of all time with “Everlong.” Those things are important factors, but for me, it’s about “February Stars” and that friendship I had with David built on sharing music and getting to know each other.
David and I don’t really know each other anymore. After college, he and I went our separate ways. We used to mail each other letters and mix CDs in our mid-20s, but you know, things happen. He’s not on social media, which is so very much on-brand for him. I looked him up during the pandemic and I think I found his address and sent him a letter, but I never got one back.
Post-Script Book Review
I recently finished Dave Grohl’s auto-biography. I have a glowing review, but I want to make sure I set expectations for what it is and what it isn’t.
(I recommend the audiobook. Dave reads it himself, and listening to him laugh at some of his own stories is really great.)
First of all, Dave Grohl is an incredible storyteller. Even beyond the fact that he’s lived a fascinating life, the way he talks about himself, his family, and other cornerstone people on his journey makes you feel like you know and love them too. He’s especially poignant and effective talking about his daughters and how it feels to be a dad, relating it back to his mother and what kind of son he had been. Dave is gracious, thankful, funny, sincere, and wholly believable throughout the book.
However, if you think this is a cohesive story of Dave’s life, you’ll be a bit disappointed. I found myself feeling there were a few record-scratch moments where the continuity of the book didn’t really hold up. It’s like this was a collection of essays and they organized it as best they could, but it was missing some filler and connective tissue to make it a fully-functioning body.
In one section, Dave talks about leaving the West Coast and Los Angeles as he settles in his home area in Virginia. It’s an incredible love letter to his upbringing. Then, as he transitions into talking about being a father in a future section of the book, we find out that he’s raising his daughters in Los Angeles. Wait, what? What happened between the love letter and starting a family? I didn’t know that, and I guess it doesn’t matter, but a little bit of “first I did this, and then I did that, and here’s the nuts and bolts of how I arrived there” would make the book even better before diving into the meaty emotional parts.
Similarly, I don’t remember hearing about him getting married for the first time before we’re finding out what it was like in the aftermath of his divorce. It didn’t hurt the book overall, and again, consider this a glowing review, but I had to do some Wikipe-Deep-Dives to understand the overall timeline of Dave Grohl’s life in order to truly appreciate how we connect all the dots. When I used to talk about movies on my podcast with my friend Brian, he called it world-building. I think that term applies here too. If you want people to get lost in the narrative and never get pulled out by anything, you must build the world.
(Now that I’m writing this, I’m curious how many times I’ve failed in my various essays on this site so far. I might be taking for granted what any of you know about me. I digress…)
All that said, I recommend this book. If you already like Dave Grohl, this will cement it for you. If you don’t know him well, this will give you a new appreciation for a fascinating life lived so far, and the guy who managed to pull it off, flaws and all.
Good lord, Craig. It's so freaking dumb how similar we are. I went through the EXACT same process with Foo Fighters. I couldn't stand them when that first album came out. I thought they were a joke band and it honestly kind of pissed me off that this was what was being born out of Kurt's legacy. I know that's silly now. But it's how I felt at the time. And also, I LOVED that Flys song!
The only difference is I came to Colour and the Shape earlier and more on my own. My high school band wanted to cover Monkey Wrench. I had heard it on the radio and didn't hate it. I thought it was significantly better than previous things I had heard from Foo Fighters. The guitarist in our band loved Foo Fighters from the beginning, and he knew how I felt about them. But he assured me not only would I like this song, but that there were quite a few songs on the new album that he thought I would like. So I borrowed his CD so I could learn the bass part to Monkey Wrench (which was harder than I expected...it wasn't hard, hard....but I expected it to be really basic but Nate often throws in weird little timing wrinkles that I don't expect).
After nailing the bass line to my satisfaction, I decided to let the album play and see what it was all about. I fell in love on first listen. The sequence of Hey, Johnny Park -> My Poor Brain -> Wind Up just blew me away. I was already in on this album. That was before Enough Space -> February Stars -> Everlong -> Walking After You -> New Way Home, which to this day is one of my absolute favorite stretches of any album ever.
To this day I would consider myself a Foo Fighters fan. I've listened to all of their albums. I liked most of them, loved a couple of them. I've seen them live. I generally follow what's going on with them. I'm a fan. But honestly, there's a part of me that is just forever chasing the dragon with them. I feel like they've never really accomplished an album like Colour and the Shape again. And that's ok. They have had an amazing career and are one of the greatest rock bands of all time. But that will always be what's so special to me about Colour. There's just never been an album quite like it.