“Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy, and alcohol!” Josh Homme incessantly repeated this recipe — topped off with a dusting of “C-c-c-c-c-cocaine!” — to kick off Queens Of The Stone Age’s second album. The music behind Homme’s refrain was as dunderheadeded as it comes: a rock band mostly banging on one note ad nauseam, briefly interrupted by a guitar solo that sounds like electrocution must feel, all of it building to a louder version of the same monolithic barrage. It was called “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer.” The joke was puerile, but there were levels to it. The music was basic, but it ripped. These guys knew how to make an entrance.
Really, the whole album proved that. Rated R, released 20 years ago this week, was where Queens Of The Stone Age as we know them properly began. Their 1998 self-titled debut had more in common with Kyuss, Homme’s legendary pre-QOTSA stoner-doom outfit, than the discography Queens have since accumulated. This record set a new template: more versatile, playful, dynamic. Queens Of The Stone Age would be more than so-called desert rock. They would boogie and jangle, shriek and flail, drone and glow. They would pop in the catchy sense and explode in the violent sense. They’d be a hell of a lot of fun, even when they sounded like they were about to snap.
Rated R plays like a drug-fueled party with all its assorted ups and downs. More specifically, it’s like a movie (rated R, obviously) that traces a handful of characters through one crazy night of rocking out, zoning out, freaking out, and generally going all-out. Homme established this vibe by inviting a bunch of buddies into the fold. Most prominently, batshit Kyuss bassist Nick Oliveri, who styled himself like Flea’s sinister cousin, became Homme’s new right-hand man. On Rated R, Oliveri screamed his way through a pair of volatile outbursts called “Quick And To The Pointless” and “Tension Head” after showing off his gravelly singing skills on the psych ballad “Auto Pilot.” He was a key factor in the QOTSA equation at the time, the band’s only other permanent member during their prime before being dismissed for abusive behavior that cast his livewire act in a different light.
Oliveri was far from the only addition to the entourage. Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan, who later signed on as a full-time member, contributed his suave growl to the luxuriant “In The Fade.” None other than iconic Judas Priest howler Rob Halford chipped in backing vocals for “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer.” Other guests included hardcore legend Peter Stahl of Scream, bassist Mike Johnson of Dinosaur Jr./Caustic Resin/Snakepit fame, Wendy Rae Fowler of We Fell To Earth, Lanegan’s Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin, and Rancho De La Luna founder Dave Catching on a range of instruments including keyboards and lap steel. The list goes on and on.
Queens were less a band than a collective headed up by Homme. The project could rapidly cycle through personnel and genre depending on the whims of the moment, but he was clearly the ringleader and star of the show. Beyond his creative direction, Homme’s muscular, manicured baritone was never far from the center of the action, particularly throughout Rated R’s adventurous first half. “Feel Good Hit Of The Summer” segued directly into the propulsively groovy “The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret,” a highlight and an obvious single even if it now feels like a dry run for Songs Of The Deaf’s thunderous “No One Knows.”
Homme’s songs tended to knock you off balance, anchored by his crooning, bellowing vocal performance but switching up rhythms with pizzazz: the noisy, deconstructed stutter-step “Leg Of Lamb,” the epic bongo-led acid trip “Better Living Through Chemistry,” the punchy pop-rock hallucination “Monsters In The Parasol.” Illicit substances were always implied if not stated outright. Alternately airborne and quicksand-slow, closing track “I Think I Lost My Headache” sounds like a descent into madness even before it morphs into a wave of discordant blaring horns. Even the acoustic instrumental “Lightning Song” feels like a comedown.
It was almost like Homme, who never much cared for the “stoner rock” descriptor, was showing off just how much he and his pals could do. They were successful on all counts. Rated R is the rock equivalent of a basketball team nailing shots from all over the court when they should by all rights be incapacitated by nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy, and alcohol. (Call them the c-c-c-c-c-cocaine circus?) At 12 songs and 42 minutes, it’s too concise to rightly be called an odyssey, but few hard rock bands would even attempt such a suite, particularly at a time when the genre was creatively on the wane. (Reviewing the deluxe edition 10 years later, Pitchfork called Rated R “one of the last great modern hard rock records,” a designation that’s hard to dispute if we’re talking hard rock as a mainstream proposition.)
Most fans would identify 2002’s Songs For The Deaf, on which Dave Grohl delivered some of his most punishing drumming ever, as Queens Of The Stone Age’s finest hour. It’s indisputably a landmark album, one that expands Rated R’s framework into something bigger, bolder, and altogether louder. It rules. But I’d argue Rated R is just as good. Before Homme gave us his mammoth blockbuster, he delivered a whirlwind tour through his imagination that reminds us popcorn movies don’t always have to drag on forever or run up a gargantuan special effects budget. Two decades later, Rated R remains vivid, visceral, and endlessly entertaining despite its breezy runtime — and it still goes down far smoother than that cocktail of drugs Homme rattles off up front.