Why Learn To Fly is Foo Fighters' most uplifting song

18 September 2020, 09:00

The track from 1999's There Is Nothing Left To Lose was recorded at a crossroads in Dave Grohl's life. Here's the story.

For a one-man solo project concocted by the drummer of one of the biggest bands in the world, Foo Fighters quickly blossomed into a force to be reckoned with.

Dave Grohl's 1995 album under the Foos name was a case of the musician coming to terms with the death of his bandmate Kurt Cobain and becoming a songwriter in his own right. The record was a Grohl solo album in all but name.

But Foo Fighters as a genuine, live touring band was a messy birth. The original line-up of Grohl, bassist Nate Mendel, former second Nirvana guitarist Pat Smear and drummer William Goldsmith toured the album extensively through 1995 and 96, but the line-up wouldn't last for long.

Foo Fighters Mark 1 at the 1996 MTV Awards: Nate Mendel, Pat Smear, Dave Grohl and William Goldsmith
Foo Fighters Mark 1 at the 1996 MTV Awards: Nate Mendel, Pat Smear, Dave Grohl and William Goldsmith. Picture: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Working on what would become Foo Fighters' second album, The Colour And The Shape, Goldsmith quit when Grohl insisted on re-recording all the drum parts himself. He was replaced by Alanis Morissette's drummer Taylor Hawkins, while Smear left to be replaced by Franz Stahl, an old friend of Grohl's.

The Colour And The Shape was a huge international hit, spawning the singles Monkey Wrench, My Hero and Everlong. However, when the time came to record the Foos' third album, personalities clashed again.

Grohl found his songwriting style didn't mesh with that of Stahl, meaning the parting of the ways with another guitarist - a decision that caused the former Nirvana drummer song quite some angst. The new album, There Is Nothing Left To Lose, was recorded by the trio of Grohl, Mendel and Hawkins.

Foo Fighters in 1999: Taylor Hawkins, Dave Grohl and Chris Shiflett
Foo Fighters in 1999: Taylor Hawkins, Dave Grohl and Chris Shiflett. Picture: Mick Hutson/Redferns/Getty Images

For Dave Grohl, the uncertainty within the band's line-up was just one of a number of changes he was undergoing in his life. His marriage to photographer Jennifer Leigh Youngblood had come to an end in December 1996 and the year touring The Colour And The Shape had led the musician to come to some conclusions.

"I'd been living in Los Angeles for about a year and a half," he told Kerrang! in 2006, "just being a drunk, getting fucked up every night and doing horrible shit, and I'd finally got sick of that. I was like, 'I've gotta go back to Virginia or I'll fucking die in this place'."

Dave bought a house in Virginia, hung some sleeping bags on the walls of his basement and began work in earnest. One of the new songs was titled Learn To Fly, and summed up the new phase in Grohl's life.

"I'm looking to the sky to save me, looking for a sign of life"

Grohl said of the song: "It's kind of looking for inspiration, just trying to find... life. Not necessarily the meaning of it, but something that will make you feel alive."

"The last album was kind of depressing, I think," he told Sway magazine in 1999. "It had a lot to do with the demise of a relationship, and missing someone and loving someone and understanding that there's no way you can be this person but there's no way you can be without them, blah blah blah, stuff like that.

"And having gone through a year-and-a-half or two years, two-and-a-half years later, you sort of had to learn how to live life again.

"Learn To Fly is that search for things to make you feel alive and exploring..."

"I'm looking for a complication, looking 'cause I'm tired of trying... / Make my way back home when I learn to fly"

Though Grohl initially claimed that Learn To Fly was one of his least favourite songs, when talking to Kerrang! about the band's back catalogue in June 2006, he'd revised his opinion.

"Lyrically it was all about just settling in to the next phase of your life, that place where you can sit back and relax because there had been so much crazy shit in the past three years.

"At that point it was me and Taylor and Nate and we were best friends. It was one of the most relaxing times of my whole life. All we did was eat chilli, drink beer and whiskey and record whenever we felt like it. When I listen to that record it totally brings me back to that basement."

"I remember how it was in the spring so the windows were open and we'd do vocals until you could hear the birds through the microphone. And more than any record I've ever done, that album does that to me."

Dave Grohl in 1997
Dave Grohl in 1997. Picture: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images

Learn To Fly went on to be Foo Fighters' biggest US hit to that date, making Number 19 on the Billboard Hot 100, thanks in part to the hilarious video that starred Tenacious D: Jack Black and Kyle Gass.

The pair are involved in a comical spoof of the Airport movies, with the band playing all sorts of different roles: Grohl is a steward and a young girl and the Foos save the day when the pilots are knocked out by sleeping powder!