Twenty years after its release, “Everlong” remains Dave Grohl‘s boldest stroke of perfection. Legend posits he wrote it amid the disintegration of his first marriage and the fizz of a new closeness with Veruca Salt’s Louise Post, who may or may not have inspired the lyrics. “It was basically about being connected to someone so much that not only do you love them physically and spiritually, but when you sing along with them you harmonize perfectly,” Grohl told Kerrang! in 2009. Some fans even speculate that Post sang the song’s uncredited high harmonies, though that’s never been confirmed (and likely never will be).
While it’s known today as an alt-rock landmark, the second album Grohl made with his band Foo Fighters — and the first to feature substantial contributions from musicians other than himself — was birthed under duress. Grohl’s perfectionism led him to re-record nearly all of drummer William Goldsmith’s percussion parts. (Goldsmith quit shortly after.) When that album, The Colour and the Shape, hit CD stores on May 20, 1997, the magnifying glass had descended. Would the 28-year-old Grohl’s first real outing as a bandleader collapse in on itself? Or would he write a song so potent it could top the buzz-saw beauty of the band’s self-titled debut, and live forever on rock radio (in both acoustic and full-band versions) for decades to come?
He did the latter. He wrote “Everlong,” based on what he thought sounded like a Sonic Youth riff, and brought it to Geoff Turner’s WGNS Studios in Washington, D.C., in late 1996. Turner knew Grohl from their days in the city’s hardcore scene. At WGNS, which Turner ran with Charles Bennington for 15 years, musicians found an austere home: cement floors, brick walls, and a 14-foot-high ceiling inside what Turner calls “a big-sounding room.” Grohl walked in with “Everlong,” a new composition, and, with Turner, began tracking each instrument to tape. It didn’t sound like Sonic Youth to Turner. It sounded “quirky,” like the B-52’s and Genesis.
“When we were recording it, it had that sort of shuffle hyper-disco beat, this kind of new wave-y beat,” Turner told MTV News, also mentioning a vintage 1960s amplifier that Grohl used in the studio. “I remember by the end thinking that this was going to be a B-52’s rock song.”
Grohl recorded no vocals for “Everlong” that day. In Turner’s estimation, the session’s purpose was to get the idea down so Grohl could present a mostly finished arrangement to the rest of the band — at the time Nate Mendel on bass, Pat Smear on guitar, and Goldsmith on drums. Turner did not oversee the main sessions during which The Colour and the Shape coalesced, alternately at Washington state’s Bear Creek Studios and Hollywood’s Grandmaster Recorders between 1996 and 1997, though he did host the band (with new drummer Taylor Hawkins) a handful of times after.
“I always enjoyed doing these one-on-one sessions with Dave, just to get a chance to watch him play drums and to record him, which is so easy,” Turner said. (A few years earlier, he had helped Grohl record 1992’s Pocketwatch, a cassette of primitive songs he’d written before and during his time in Nirvana, including the grunge rager “Hell’s Garden.”) “You could record him with one mic or 10 mics. It wouldn’t make any difference. It would just sound like Dave.”
Berating drums, clawing chords: Nothing sounds more like Dave than “Everlong.” After recording a rough version with Turner, the songwriter returned to the West Coast to record the officially released album and single version with Mendel and Smear. Thanks to heavy radio play and Michel Gondry’s surreal music video treatment, the song exploded. Today it’s one of the Foos’ most well-known compositions, and arguably their signature song. It’s often mentioned as David Letterman’s favorite song, and some (including this writer) have even owned up to preferring it over anything in Nirvana’s discography.
When Foo Fighters released their Greatest Hits in 2009, “Everlong” made the cut twice: once as the standard version and once acoustically. Turner produced the stripped-down performance, a “very quiet, almost withdrawn version” that Grohl recorded quickly a few years after the original.
“I actually heard that on the radio recently, and I was like, wow, I can still hear the Metrobus rumble in the background from our studio that was on 14th Street in Washington,” Turner said. “I thought that version was kind of dead in the water, because Dave had a cold and he was in a rush and it was very noisy. But hearing that version now sounds totally cool.”
Directly after “Everlong” blares its final notes on The Colour and the Shape, about 10 seconds of silence precede the spectral, melancholy breakup song “Walking After You.” Grohl carried this song, too, into WGNS along with the unfinished idea for “Everlong”; for it, Turner set up microphones all over the room and let Grohl begin drumming with a mallet and a brush. More instruments followed, each one individually. Grohl hardly got up from behind his kit, singing vocals via an overhead drum mic. Turner likened it to watching a performance.
“It’s the same as every other track I’ve made with Dave,” he said. “From the vantage point of the engineer, it didn’t come off as being this one-man band, one person’s obsessive take on the song. It sort of came off as a live performance featuring one person in six positions.”
After being mixed back in L.A., this exact version of “Walking After You” ended up as the penultimate track on The Colour and the Shape. In its final seconds, Grohl can be heard getting up and walking away from the kit as the cymbal-swirl reverb dissipates into that big-sounding room — the one where “Everlong” first materialized in its rawest form. “This was another one of the sessions where it’s just Dave playing with Dave, basically,” Turner said. At that time, the only person Grohl had to harmonize with was himself. And it was perfect.