From his roots as a punk-worshipping Virginia teenager, Dave Grohl climbed the musical ladder with passion as his guide until his monumental break with the scrappy grunge outfit Nirvana rocked his, and our, world forever.
It was in Washington, D.C., at a Wilson Center show by Void, a chaotic, impossibly intense punk-metal quartet from Columbia, Maryland, that 15-year-old Dave Grohl first met Brian Samuels in autumn 1984. At the time Samuels’s band Freak Baby were seeking to add a second guitar player to their lineup, just as scene elders Minor Threat, Faith, and Scream had done the previous year, and Samuels invited the young guitarist to an audition at the group’s practice spot in drummer Dave Smith’s basement. Grohl wasn’t the best guitar player the band had ever seen — Chris Page remembers him as being merely “competent” — but what he lacked in technical dexterity he made up for in terms of the energy, enthusiasm, and infectious humor he brought to the band. In addition, Grohl’s simple but effective rhythm playing neatly complemented Bryant Mason’s more proficient lead guitar work. Freak Baby’s newest member made his debut with the band that winter, playing as support to Trouble Funk at Arlington’s liberal-minded, “alternative” high school H-B Woodlawn. It would prove to be the band’s one and only show as a quintet.
Freak Baby’s demise was sudden and brutal. One afternoon in late 1984 Grohl was behind Dave Smith’s kit at practice, trying out some of the rolls, fills, ruffs, and flams he had been practicing for years in his bedroom of his family home in Springfield, Virginia. He had his head down and eyes closed; his arms and legs became a blur as he hammered out beats to the Minor Threat and Bad Brains riffs running through his head. Lost in music, Grohl was oblivious to his bandmates urging him to get back to his guitar. Standing 6' 5" and weighing in at around 270 lbs., skinhead Samuels was not a figure used to being ignored. Grohl didn’t notice his hulking bandmate rise from the sofa, so when Samuels yanked him off the drum stool by his hair and dragged him to the ground, he was more shocked than hurt. The rest of his band, however, were mortified. They had felt that Samuels had been increasingly trying to assert his authority and control over the band, but this was too much. As Grohl stumbled back to his feet, Chris Page called time on the day’s session. Within the week he would call time on Freak Baby, too, reshuffling the lineup to move Grohl to drums, Smith to bass, and Samuels out the door. With the new lineup came a new name: Mission Impossible.
With the domineering Samuels out of the picture, initial Mission Impossible rehearsal sessions were playful, productive, and wildly energetic: All four band members skated, and at times Smith’s basement resembled a skate park more than a rehearsal room, with the teenagers bouncing off the walls and spinning and tumbling over amps and furniture as they played. But there was also an intensity and focus to their rehearsals. Songs flowed freely as they bounced around ideas, fed off the energy in the room, and experimented with structure, tone, pacing, and dynamics. Just two months after forming, the band felt confident enough to record a demo tape with local sound engineer and musician Barrett Jones, who had helmed a previous session for Freak Baby. Jones fronted a college rock band called 11th Hour, northern Virginia’s home-grown answer to R.E.M., and operated a tiny recording studio called Laundry Room, so called because his Tascam 4-track tape deck and 12-channel Peavey mixing board were located in the laundry room of his parents’ Arlington home. Now running a rather more sophisticated and expansive version of Laundry Room Studios out of South Park, Seattle, Jones has fond memories of the session.
“I’d recorded a tape for Freak Baby with Dave on guitar, but when he switched to drums their band was just so much better,” he recalls. “They went from doing one-minute hardcore songs to doing ... two-minute hardcore songs! But those songs were more ambitious and involved and dynamic.
“Back then Dave was probably the most hyper person I’d ever met,” he adds. “When we did that first Freak Baby demo he was literally bouncing off the walls. They were a hardcore band, so they all had that energy, but he was something else. But musically his decision to switch to drums was definitely the right one.”
Fugazi lead singer and Dischord Records cofounder Ian MacKaye recalls his first experience seeing Grohl behind the drums with Mission Impossible, at a Lake Braddock Community Center show on July 25, 1985. “Everyone said, ‘You gotta see this drummer, this kid, he’s 16, he’s been playing for two months and he’s out of control.’ And then I saw them, and Dave was just maniacal. He didn’t have all the chops down, but he was dialing it in from the gods. His drumming was so out of control, and he wanted to play so hard and so fast. It was kinda phenomenal. Everybody was like, ‘Whoa, that guy is incredible!’”
“One night Ian came up and told me that he thought I played just like [D.O.A./Black Flag/Circle Jerks drummer] Chuck Biscuits,” recalls Grohl. “To me, that was like saying, ‘You are just like Keith Moon,’ because Chuck Biscuits was a huge inspiration to me. So from then I became that kid in town who played like that. I had this reputation as being this super-fast, out-of-control hardcore drummer.”