By Kelly Dearmore
What if the entire Foo Fighters catalog consisted of only a trio of records spanning seven years? Without 20th century chart-toppers like “Best of You,” “The Pretender” and “These Days,” there would barely be enough hits to cobble together a proper greatest hits collection.
What started in the early ‘90s as a hotel room side project had unpredictably grown into an alt-rock juggernaut by the beginning of the next decade, but the troubles surrounding Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters during the gestation of 2002’s One by One must’ve reminded him of the slow dissolution of Nirvana and, more importantly, the untimely loss of one of his best friends.
Rock history is littered with scrapped albums and the bands that fell apart trying to make them. The record that spawned “All My Life” and “Times Like These” and catapulted Foo Fighters to the arena stage was almost one of those. Spirits were high when Grohl, Nate Mendel, drummer Taylor Hawkins and newly-added guitarist Chris Shiflett (he was working at Guitar Center when a friend got him an audition to join the expanding Foos lineup, replacing Franz Stahl, who himself replaced Pat Smear after the former Germ’s first go-round) convened in spring 2001 to lay down demos near Los Angeles, but attitudes surrounding the new material had drastically shifted by the fall. Hawkins told band biographer Paul Brannigan that, once the sessions moved to Grohl’s home studio in Virginia, “we were almost forcing ourselves to make that record. And it just wasn’t right.”
To inject some life into the process, Foo Fighters headed back west to Hollywood at the beginning of 2002, putting 29 tunes to tape there. The amount of time and money spent on the various sessions had piled up rather high, though, and there were only a few finished songs the band felt decent about. They ultimately decided not to release what had been recorded up to that point.
The album was finally finished in May, but only with the band members recording their parts in separate studios on opposite coasts. If it feels as though there are some gaping holes in the timeline here, that’s because there are. The summer of 2001 and spring of 2002 presented challenges both life-threatening and band-threatening. How the Foo Fighters made it through either season is a testament to their solidarity.
Thanks to readymade festival anthems such as “My Hero” and “Learn to Fly,” the European summer fest season had become an annual ritual for the quartet by 2001. Following headlining sets in Germany and Staffordshire, England, the Foos performed at the V Festival in Chelmsford on August 19. The next day, Grohl found out his drummer and friend had been taken to the hospital following a heroin overdose.
Hawkins remained in a coma for nearly two weeks before making a full recovery and working to get sober. In that time, Grohl found himself questioning everything he had ever known and loved. "When Taylor wound up in the hospital I was ready to quit music,” Grohl revealed to The Guardian in a 2011 interview. “To me, it felt like music equaled death.” The drummer told Beats 1 Radio in 2018 that this marked “a real changing point for me,” but the band as a unit had additional hurdles to navigate in the coming months.
Around the time Hawkins recovered from his horrific ordeal, Grohl added even more tenuousness to the band’s lifeline by accepting an invitation to drum for Queens of the Stone Age. Grohl happily jumped back behind the kit when friend and QOTSA bandleader Josh Homme asked for his help in recording the desert rock icons’ classic Songs for the Deaf.
“It was just like, you know, something’s off but you don’t want to really say it to the next guy,” Shiflett recalled to Louder in 2016. “There was that feeling of like, ‘Wait, are we breaking up?’”
This strained marriage came to a head in April 2002, when both the Foos and QOTSA were scheduled to perform at Coachella. At this point, relations between the band mates were so strained that the immediate future of the former was in a great deal of doubt. Of that morose weekend, Grohl later told Mojo, ”I thought, ‘This is going be the last show,’ but I didn't say anything.”
As the band members so candidly discussed in the 2011 Foos documentary Back and Forth, that Coachella performance was in fact not the end, but a new beginning. They gelled on stage and Grohl’s passion and prowess for the frontman role was reignited. Grohl and the gang made immediate plans to finish One by One, and he even had an idea for a new track. “Times Like These,” a song Grohl wrote about the months he was apart from the band, came together after that mending of fences in the southern California desert.
One by One enjoyed critical giant sales numbers when it was finally brought into the world in October 2002, debuting at Number Three on the Billboard albums chart. The critics offered a wider array of opinions than previous Foo Fighters releases had inspired. Bridging the divide between gritty punk authenticity and commercially viable mass appeal was a battle the Foos had long waged, albeit with primarily positive results up to this point.
Some slagged the LP’s slick production and tracks perceived to be unapologetic grabs for FM domination, but Rolling Stone seemed to appreciate its arduous authenticity: “It’s rock that draws power from its determination to struggle onward.”
Lead single “All My Life” presents an especially cathartic opening salvo to One by One, highlighted by one of the heaviest Foo Fighters riffs to date and a fantastically frenetic vocal turn by Grohl. Later, standout album tracks like the schizophrenically-paced “Disenchanted Lullaby” and power-pop gem “Overdrive” lift up a tracklist that, admittedly, sometimes conjures the fatigue the Foos felt in crafting it. However, the bruising seven-minute closer “Come Back” sends One by One off with a wonderful cacophony of distorted guitars and an encouraging message to Grohl’s bandmates: “I will come back for you.”
“Okay, this isn’t ending,” Shiflett remembers thinking in Back and Forth.
One by One represents a pivotal moment for one of the most storied, decorated rock bands of our time. Its release and success at the Grammys marked a happy end to a nearly two-year period that could have ended the band’s run acrimoniously and, possibly, tragically. Nearly two decades on, it’s clear that One by One is the album where Foo Fighters grew out of their punk adolescence and matured into rock ‘n’ roll survivors.