Dave Grohl’s ‘Play’ and Why Music Matters

by Evan Phillips

'It’s always going to be a puzzle, it’s always going to be a challenge. It’s a beautiful mystery. But, once it gets its hooks in you, that’s when the obsession and the drive really kick in. It’s not something that you ever truly master. I’m still trying to figure it out.'

Anyone that has found themselves learning a musical instrument will probably see something they recognise in the opening narration of Dave Grohl’s latest musical ‘experiment’, Play. Simple enough conceptually but a logistical nightmare on paper, this twenty-three-minute instrumental track sees Grohl playing every instrument and each individual part being recorded in one, unbroken take. Dave even acknowledges the challenges of attempting such a project, ‘I didn’t know if I could pull it off’, but there’s a sense of delight in his voice as he says it. Wherever you stand on Foo numero uno, it’s endearing to see a musical icon still deep in the throes of his love for music.

The song itself is equally as restless and inquisitive as the man behind it. Each section lasts around three to five minutes and within each one there are codas and riffs that are built on and returned to; nothing feels underdeveloped. It sways from colossal stadium rock attack in the opening section that feels like an as-yet-unwritten Foo Fighters hit, to more downplayed Zeppelin-esque acoustic strumming and, at the close, an anthemic sprint to the finish line that takes from the more progressive end of rock music (think Rush crossed with Queens of the Stone Age and you’re pretty close). It’s an enjoyable listen, especially so the first time through; unsurprisingly sitting through a twenty-three-minute instrumental gets a little wearisome when repeated. Ultimately though, it isn’t so much the song itself that I want to talk about, but its message and the slightly unexpected reaction I ended up having when the last trailing synthesiser note had faded away.

If you go to the web page advertising Play where you can watch the video/mini documentary for the track and/or listen to the song, there are a few links below it to several musical charities including Join the Band, a music school featured in the documentary based in San Francisco. A number of students were interviewed for the video and one of them, Mussaf, a drummer, says ‘My school does not support music, whatsoever. In a way it’s kind of frustrating but, when I come here I forget about school, homework, everything.’ Music in general is an escape, it’s one of the most powerful things about it. Like a great book or a film, music can take you wherever you need to go. But the act of playing an instrument, that’s an outlet, and for me, it’s the best thing about learning. However you might be feeling, whatever emotion is occupying your mind be it joy or frustration, anger or loneliness, having something to turn to gives you a voice whether you need to scream or sing.

Since quite literally the dawn of civilisation, music has been a way of healing and communicating; alongside art it’s our oldest way of expressing ourselves as individuals and attempting to decipher the world around us, to make sense of all the chaos. More recently, music therapy has gained new prominence with some medical studies showing links between playing/listening to music and an improvement in our mental health and even between communal singing and memory retention; going as far as managing the symptoms of dementia in some cases. Then there are the communities built around music, from fans of particular genres to bands themselves, simply the act of playing music with other people means you have created a community. What you’re reading and I’m writing right now is part of a wider musical community. Music is key to our development as people, and it makes us who we are. So why are we so eager to discourage it?

In the U.K., Grant in aid arts funding has been progressively falling since a high of £453 million in 2009/10, to a projected figure of just £186 million for 2019/20 according to The Stage. No prizes for guessing why that is. In practical terms, Alistair Smith suggests this ‘would mean ACE could only continue to fully fund 50 of its largest national portfolio organisations – including the National Theatre, the Young Vic and the Royal Opera House.’ That’s to say nothing of the cuts to arts and music courses in schools. A BBC report from earlier this year heard from 40% of the country’s secondary schools who said they were having to cut back on funding to ‘at least one creative arts subject’. Meanwhile music in particular is in danger of disappearing entirely from A-Level curriculums, with TES suggesting it was ‘the subject most likely to be cut’ from A-Level studies. And in the U.S., the same story, as Donald Trump’s cabinet proposed a staggering ‘80% cut’ to the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) in their budget that took effect in October 2017.

All of this is, sadly, nothing new. When austerity is the order of the day, art is usually the first casualty because it appears at face value to be frivolous spending with no obvious economic benefits. And yet, as Hayley Miller notes in a Huffington Post article, ‘the NEA and NEH’s $148 million budgets account for a fraction of 1 percent of the budget yet provide access to thousands of arts education programs as well as funding for museum exhibits and galleries’. Art and music are not superfluous to education, they’re an essential part of it and, as the figure above shows, they’re not even expensive to maintain and invest in.

I’m a little scared of the direction those in charge of educating the next generation seem to be going with regards to the arts, and I’m alarmed at the thought that someone in the same position as me when I was ten, falling in love with the guitar and rock music, might not get the chance to have that experience. Play is a love letter to music, an impressive showcase of one man’s musical talent and proof that practicing doesn’t make you perfect, but it does make you better. That’s what playing music is all about, chasing an endless rainbow. So, if you’ve got a dusty guitar, a knackered keyboard or a bassoon you were using as a hat-stand lying around at home, pick it up again. And if you’ve always wanted to learn, it’s never too late to start. Savour that feeling and pass it on to someone else. With a bit of luck, we might make the world a better sounding place to be.