Not much happens in Arcata. A 17,000-population college town in northern California, when term finishes and the students flock home, it empties to a near eerie state of quiet according to locals. “Chernobyl with sunshine and a health food store,” one resident I speak to jokes. It’s got a claim to fame, though. Over 21 years ago, the town became a footnote on the story of arguably the biggest band on the planet. Foo Fighters was “really still just an idea, and a pretty fucking scrappy, haphazard one at that,” according to Dave Grohl, when on February 23 1995 they played their first ever show – an impromptu slot at Arcata’s miniscule Jambalaya Club, opening for a local covers band, that resulted in chaos. Hundreds scrambled outside for tickets. Those who didn’t get in surrounded the venue, piling on top of each other to peer through the Jambalaya’s tall windows, trying to get a glimpse of the former Nirvana drummer. G Street, the road leading up to the venue, had to be cordoned off as hysteria escalated. “We weren’t ready for any of it,” laughs Grohl, two decades later. “From what I recall, it was pretty surreal, pretty fucking crazy.”
10 months had passed since the death of Kurt Cobain: a shock that, as well as grief, had sparked a new, gritted-teeth determination in Grohl. In Nirvana, on late tours, he’d pen simple sketches of breezy pop-rock songs on a battered acoustic backstage, in pockets of spare time between soundcheck and shows. In a state of depression after his band mate’s apparent suicide, Grohl decided in his desperation that recording those songs at nearby Robert Lang Studios, within walking distance of his Seattle home, could “maybe help clear that fog in my head,” he tells NME. “It was definitely a kind of catharsis for me.” He recorded alone, but for the production help of old room mate Barrett Jones, performing every instrument himself, recording four songs a day, finishing what became the Foos’ eponymous first album in a week.
By the time the songs were being mixed, in the sunnier climes of California, the ball was starting to seriously roll on what began as “fun, an experiment” but was now “a lot more serious.” Grohl had assembled a band, two of which are still in Foo Fighters today – Nirvana touring guitarist Pat Smear and bassist in cult Seattle emo pioneers Sunny Day Real Estate, Nate Mendel. Traveling to the studio where the record was being mastered, the band scoured local listings for bills they could hop on, to make their inaugural live performance as soon as possible. The owners of the Jambalaya thought it was a joke when they got the call. Dave Grohl wanted to play with his new band the following night? A man who, with Nirvana, had catalyzed a total rewiring of guitar music – from the goonish, oversexed, poodle-haired pomp of 1980 rock to the viciously raw nihilism of grunge, defining a generation along the way – wanted to debut his highly anticipated new music at the 220-capacity Jambalaya? Here in sleepy Arcata?
“I couldn’t quite believe it myself,” says Bob Doran, a columnist at local paper the Arcata Union who reported on the show. “But it was clear on the night that this was exactly what Dave wanted. It was all about getting back to his garage band roots.” Nirvana’s siege on American pop culture following 1991’s epochal ‘Nevermind’ had taken the then-26-year-old to some strange places – onto the red carpet at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, beneath the bright studio lights of Top of the Pops, into gossip rags, onto CNN. Grohl suddenly felt a long way from the DIY hardcore punk scenes he grew up on, obsessing over fanzines and playing in school bands and wanted to get back to “the reason I got into it all in the first place again” as he later told Rolling Stone.
“I think it’s why he looked after their merchandise table that night, selling home-made t-shirts made in their van with stencils for $3… why he was talking to everyone, why he and the band hung around and watched the other band over a few beers,” continues Doran. After the circus that enveloped Nirvana, Grohl longed for normality. As he put it on searing debut album joyride ‘Wattershed’ over a storm of Minor Threat guitars, he craved a return to being “skinny as a spit pan, dealing with a shit plan, in just another rock band.”
Word had spread quickly. Not much was known about the Foo Fighters at this point – only that they contained former members of Nirvana, had signed a deal with Los Angeles label Capitol to release an album and sounded, or so rumour had it, like “a hardcore Beach Boys”. That didn’t stop hordes of people descending on the venue hours before the show was scheduled to start, with no confirmation this wasn’t some elaborate hoax.
“The Jambalaya used to have these windows that were like six feet tall. At one point when I was inside, having got there at like 6pm to get in, I looked around and seeing every single space in the window being a space. There must have people on the back of people,” remembers Johnny ‘Red’ Ferrington, an Arcata local who managed to get entry. “They had to close G Street. There were so many people outside who couldn’t get in. Arcata’s so small you couldn’t even get pizza by the slice here back in those days, so for that kind of mania, it was weird.”
The band went onstage around 9pm, playing for “around an hour”. Margaret Malone, a fan who went to the show with Ferrington, says despite the audience not knowing any songs, there was an instant sense that “something was obviously happening that night. “I was a pretty huge Nirvana fan but this was totally different. They kicked ass, they played loud and hard, Dave was charging around pretty fearlessly onstage, a natural frontman, but these were pop songs. I remember being struck by how brave that was,” she tells NME. “What you have to remember is pop was not cool then. Nirvana had made it so you turned on a radio, and most bands had a kinda dark, slouchy sound. But these were huge melody-driven songs.” Ferrington and Malone, as it happens, ended up running into Grohl and his band the next night at a nearby bowling alley. “Dave’s a fucking fantastic bowler, in case you’re wondering,” says Red.
Among the tracks aired for the first time that night were ‘Floaty’, ‘This Is A Call’, ‘Big Me’, ‘Wattershed’ and ‘I’ll Stick Around’. “They were all drastically, drastically underpracticed,” bassist Nate Mendel tells NME. “All over the place. But we pulled through. At one point, the bass drum pedal broke. But we got through it.”
Grohl’s work for the night wasn’t done when the Foos’ set ended, however. “We were a kinda retro rock band who had some originals but did a lot of covers. Elvis Costello, the Beatles, that kinda thing,” says Ed Pierce of The Unseen – the band the Foos were opening for that night. “We expected them to play a few songs and maybe be snobs and leave, but they stayed the whole night and watched us. It’s pretty weird, playing while Dave Grohl yells song requests at you. We ended up inviting him up to play drums on a cover of ‘Slow Down’, the Larry Williams song the Beatles later made famous. He absolutely killed it. To say it was a memorable moment’s for us is an understatement.”
Foo Fighters’ recent UK shows, just to put the strangeness of this night in Arcata in perspective, included two nights at Wembley Stadium, in front of a combined 172,000 fans. That’s more than 100 times the town’s entire population. “They’re such an institution now, so naturally people in Arcata are pretty proud that a piece of this huge, huge act’s history took place in their own backyard,” says Malone. “I think even then it was clear, this wasn’t some new band from some guy in Nirvana. It was its own beast, coming from somewhere real, somewhere authentic. There was something in the air, definitely.”