At a star-studded tribute to Taylor Hawkins last year at London’s Wembley Stadium, a parade of drummers celebrated and stepped in for the late Foo Fighters timekeeper. For the final song, however, the seat at the kit was empty. Hawkins could be seen as both eminently replaceable and utterly irreplaceable in the space of one show.
The finale was Everlong, with Foo singer-guitarist Dave Grohl living for the moment while knowing it would not last: “If everything could ever be this real forever; If anything could ever be this good again.” There is nothing sadder than instant wistfulness.
Grohl works through sorrow on the new Foo Fighters album, But Here We Are, a title that speaks to an unforeseen situation at hand. The band’s 11th album is a melodic-rock expression of grief that comes in the wake of not only the sudden loss of Hawkins at age 50 but the death of songwriter Grohl’s mother, Virginia, as well.
Grohl rages, roars, whispers and reflects on an emotional riptide of a record: “You showed me how to need,” he sings on Beyond Me, “but never showed me how to say goodbye.” While lyrics throughout the album seem to apply more to Grohl’s mother than his drummer, Hawkins is remembered on a strummed verse of The Glass: “I had a person I love/ And just like that, I was left to live without him.”
The album is a longing for an unrecapturable past and the imagining of a future with a colossal hole in it. A mother, of course, is irreplaceable. Perhaps a drummer is as well: It is believed that former Nirvana drummer Grohl took over the backbeat chores himself on the new album.
Replacing a band’s drummer is a disputed issue. Anyone who watched the 1984 rock mockumentary This is Spinal Tap is led to believe drummers come and go regularly. And sometimes explosively: The fictional Peter (James) Bond spontaneously combusted on stage during a jazz festival on the make-believe Isle of Lucy.
The reality is more complicated.
“It depends on the band,” Rheostatics singer-songwriter Dave Bidini told The Globe and Mail. “In some instances, drummers are just timekeepers, but they’re also musicians and human beings. You have to think about the band’s chemistry.”
Bidini and the Rheostatics have had a number of drummers, including one early on who quit after the rest of the band told him his grandmother’s cookies were pathetically bad. Later, in 1995, when Don Kerr replaced Dave Clark, newcomer Kerr took some flak. “It was in the early days of online message boards,” Bidini recalled. “There were some real anti-Don Kerr fans, and it was really hard for him.”
It was also really hard for Kenney Jones, who joined The Who in 1978 following the death of the inimitable Keith Moon. Singer Roger Daltrey spoke about the switch years later, explaining that Jones (a former member of the Faces and Small Faces) was not a good fit.
“I didn’t dislike the guy, but I just felt he wasn’t the right drummer for The Who,” he said. “It’s like having a wheel of a Cadillac stuck onto a Rolls-Royce. It’s a great wheel but it’s the wrong one.”
The Rolling Stones, on the other hand, replaced Charlie Watts without missing a beat. Only one month after Watts died in 2021, the Stones kicked off a tour with Steve Jordan in place of their drummer of nearly six decades. Of course, the Stones are something other than sentimentalists: Just two days after former member Brian Jones drowned in 1969, the band hosted a free outdoor festival in London’s Hyde Park.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Led Zeppelin and Rush permanently disbanded after the deaths of iconic long-time drummers John Bonham and Neil Peart, respectively. The thought of replacing a distinctive musician, in particular, seems problematic. Does a band bring in a copycat, or does it go in a completely different direction?
“It’s a massive challenge,” says Bidini. “There’s probably a lot of pressure not to change and to replace the drummer with a facsimile. But if you allow the new drummer to have their own musical identity, it’s going to be easier for him or her.”
The Foo Fighters have split the difference. Josh Freese, who has worked with Guns N’ Roses, Nine Inch Nails, Weezer, and Paramore, has been announced as the band’s touring drummer. It remains unclear if he is a permanent member of the group.
At last weekend’s Boston Calling music festival, the Foo Fighters brought Hawkins’s 17-year-old son, Shane, to drum for one song, I’ll Stick Around. There’s the sense that the band is not prepared to completely move on from their deceased drummer just yet – or maybe ever.
According to a reviewer with the New Musical Express, the stand-in Freese wore a T-shirt that read “Fingers crossed for the new guy.” Tough spot for him, drumming that way.