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Kings Of Leon And Rock’s Last Gasp In The Mainstream

For the Kings Of Leon, the myth about them was always more exciting than the real thing. The idea of who they were and where they came from was the selling point before the actual music.

By now, you know the story: Caleb, Nathan, and Jared Followill, three sons of a Pentecostal preacher, who spent their sheltered childhoods traveling around the Deep South from church to church, break free from that life to find sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. They form a band called Kings Of Leon with their cousin Matt, and find early critical acclaim, despite half the band being barely old enough to drive.

In the early days, the band found more success in the UK than on US soil. Overseas, fans ate up everything KOL had to offer: the image, the story, and the music. Here were these scraggly lookin’ dudes in tight-ass jeans from the US South who, while they weren’t getting hammered and fighting with each other, played jangly, deep-fried-Strokes Southern boogie. They were somewhat of an outlier in the garage-rock revival of those days.

Their first two albums — Youth And Young Manhood and Aha Shake Heartbreak — still hold up today (“Four Kicks” rips), and in sticking with the Strokes comparison, they’re also probably the two best of their discography. On the outside it played rough, but underneath these whiskey-soaked Southern rock romps were confident rock ‘n’ roll anthems, hidden behind Caleb’s shit-scorched vocal delivery and the sparse production of it all. It didn’t take long before these songs got the attention of big guns like Elvis Costello and Eddie Vedder. Even Bob Dylan invited them on tour after hearing KOL’s questionably titled “Trani,” which he called a “hell of a song.”

And then they met Bono.

Leave it to the Irish band that idolizes the idea of Americana to change the way an actual American band approaches their music. In 2005, Kings Of Leon opened for U2 on their Vertigo tour. I saw them on that tour. While it’s hard for any opening band to match the grandeur of a U2 show, Kings Of Leon seemed particularly small and out of their element in an arena setting. Bono is a different kind of preacher than what they were used to, who waxes poetic about the “Church Of Rock ‘N’ Roll” (or whatever) rather than the Pentecostal church. U2 have always been the benchmark for how grand music can be, and at the time, there were few things bigger than a U2 show. Their music reaches beyond the rafters, while the Kings Of Leon’s barely reached the end of the bar in those days. Surely, watching this band do their thing night after night had to leave an impression on the Followills, because for whatever reason after that tour, Kings Of Leon changed their narrative.

On Because Of The Times, the first album the band released after that tour, Kings Of Leon sounded like a different band. The music was spacious, darker, and bigger. The Followills were borrowing from the Pixies, My Morning Jacket, and U2, and for the first time, it felt like they were making music that wanted to reach the rafters, even if they weren’t quite there yet. They were onto something, and even America was beginning to catch on. In press photos, they were slowly ditching their mustaches and stupid haircuts (the jeans remained). In short, they began to morph into the polished band they always truly were.

This is where Only By The Night comes in.

Only By The Night — released 10 years ago today — is the album that finally excised Kings Of Leon from the fabled lore of their past. Not many years had passed since their first record, but they were a long ways away from their Southern rock roots. Looking back, this was arguably their first truly authentic album. This is the record they always wanted to make, but were too drunk and stubborn to make it. This time around, with the taste of success on the tips of their tongues, Kings Of Leon set out to make a big, dumb rock record in the vein of their heroes within the classic rock pantheon, only they were never really in on the joke.

It’s an album that swings for the home run but accidentally rounds the bases on errors. At the very least, the anthems are no longer hidden, the vocals are cleaned up, and the guitars and rhythm are precise. The first two songs are ginormous and undeniable. “Closer” is a statement, one that takes the dark sound the band explored on the previous record and pushes it forward. “Crawl” is the token Led Zeppelin pursed-lips stomper. It’s also their political rallying cry, I guess? (Something about the “red, white, and abused”… man, 2008 feels like centuries ago.) It’s a front-loaded record whose head is too big for its body, and Only By The Night plummets after the impossible heights of its first quarter.

But let’s talk about the real reasons we’re even discussing this album today: “Sex On Fire,” and “Use Somebody.” These two songs were fucking HUGE! The rest of the album is just a vessel for these behemoths.

“Sex On Fire” was the first official single for the album, even though Caleb originally thought the song was terrible and the band almost ditched it altogether. It’s an infectious, rousing anthem with a soaring chorus that seems surgically built to send fists and beer in the air. The song reached #1 in the UK and helped the band finally gain significant popularity in the US by reaching #56 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock charts. They even had Beyoncé’s respect, whose steamy Glastonbury performance of the song gave a whole new meaning to the word “fire.”

It’s the perfect song to use as the first single to a highly anticipated album, and for all the Strokes comparisons in their early days, they never had a song like this. In fact, not many bands do. Yet, on Only By The Night, Kings Of Leon had TWO of them.

The next song on the album would prove to be even bigger than its predecessor. “Use Somebody,” the second single released from Only By The Night, was Kings Of Leon’s golden ticket to the top. It is the mother of all rock power ballads, released at a time when only bands named Coldplay were allowed to make songs this unabashedly sappy. It’s hard to believe that the same band who wrote a song like “Soft” (only three years prior) could produce a song like this.

It’s a grand ballad taken from a U2 or Bryan Adams playbook. Who couldn’t relate to the universal feeling of yearning for a love that may or may not be reciprocated? “Use Somebody” hit directly at the heart of human connection in the form of a goopy sing-a-long, and to that, the public responded. The song became the band’s mainstream breakthrough. Peaking at number 4 on the Hot 100, “Use Somebody” gave Kings Of Leon their first top five hit, and it spent 57 weeks on the chart. It became just the fourth song in history to top the Mainstream Top 40, Adult Top 40, Alternative Songs, and Triple A charts. It was a monster, and it eventually earned the band THREE Grammy’s in 2010, including one for Record of the Year.

Suddenly, the Kings Of Leon were the biggest band on the planet. Their shows grew larger, and their fan base grew wider. They had to save “Sex On Fire” and “Use Somebody” for the end of their sets so the majority of people at their shows wouldn’t head for the exits early. “Use Somebody” was absolutely inescapable. Like a nagging toothache, the incessant “whoa-oahs” followed you wherever you went. Shopping malls, grocery stores, minivan stereos, sporting events, doctors’ offices… nowhere was safe. YouTube and music blogs became saturated with bands covering the damned thing. Paramore covered it. Kelly Clarkson covered it. Matisyahu (remember him?) covered it. Motherfucking Bat For Lashes covered it. And even today, bands are STILL playing it!

For a band like Kings Of Leon, the success of “Use Somebody” was unprecedented, and it might be a while before a song like this dominates the charts again. There hasn’t been a band in the traditional set-up of guitar, bass, and drums that has cracked the Top 100 since “Use Somebody” owned the charts. Sure, there have been bands like Portugal The Man to break out from left field to the top of the mainstream charts, but these types of hits rely on pop, dance, and hip-hop beats and tendencies. They’re club hits disguised as rock songs. For better or for worse, Kings Of Leon never really tried to be like that. In recent years, bands like Coldplay, Maroon 5, or say, Panic! At the Disco who used to rely on rock (in the general sense of the word) have all but ditched the guitars for the latest pop trends on their most recent records. Newer mainstream “rock” bands to have honest-to-God hits like Imagine Dragons or I don’t know, Walk The Moon I guess (man, I am so out of touch… no, it’s the children who are wrong) never had a meat-and-potatoes rock formula to begin with. The time for an old-fashioned rock record to make its way onto pop charts has come and gone.

In the end, Only By The Night sold more than eight million copies, a helluva feat for a modern day rock band, and in hindsight, “Sex On Fire” and “Use Somebody” represent rock’s last gasp in the mainstream. The Kings Of Leon have since released a few decent songs here and there (“Supersoaker” is still a jam), but try as they might, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever reach the heights they found in 2008-2009. But hey, it beats being the Strokes.