Spotlight Special: The Killers - Hot Fuss

Ten years on, reflections on the beginnings of a pop behemoth…

The first sound was a synthesizer; the second, the whirring of descending helicopter rotor blades. It was an invasion of a kind: Brandon Flowers’ maudlin vocal and the inflammatory, leading bassline of ‘Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine’, the lead track from Las Vegas foursome The Killers’ iconic debut record, ‘Hot Fuss’, an album now celebrating its 10th birthday.

I listened to those opening seconds spew from my Volkswagen’s aftermarket CD player, driving home from the record store where I purchased ‘Hot Fuss’ at the urging of a local alternative radio DJ in my hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. It was June 2004, just days after the record’s commercial release. Island Records sent ‘Somebody Told Me’, arguably the LP’s third best song, to alternative radio as the lead single in the US that June, either unaware or uncertain of what later became the absolute truth: ‘Mr. Brightside’ was the best mainstream rock song released that year.

By September of 2004, ‘Mr. Brightside’ would be everywhere. But for this frozen moment, four minutes into their debut record, like the rest of the country, I didn’t know ‘Mr. Brightside’ either. Flipping over the CD case and seeing the one song I knew – ‘Somebody Told Me’ – sitting at track four, I thought: this album is promising. It was June, college had just let for the summer and I stared down a series of increasingly dilated days, time that I hoped might be soundtracked by this new band. The anachronism of this paragraph only begins to tell the story of The Killers, the past decade and the fate of their best record.

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‘Mr. Brightside’

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The opening four songs – ‘Jenny…’, ‘Mr. Brightside’, ‘Smile Like You Mean It’ and ‘Somebody Told Me’ – proved so mammoth that I called my friend Noah from the parking lot outside of my summer housing. I arrived there and left the car on, stereo slamming through the very excellent track five, ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’, as I yelled something along the lines of “You have to hear this band, this is the best band ever!” into the phone.

Youth is nothing if not prone to exaggeration, and yet it didn’t feel untrue. He was driving to Connecticut the following afternoon, and I handed him the CD to listen on the way. He called from the road having the same experience I did: this was awesome, and seemingly no one knew about it yet. The Killers were about to explode. The first five songs were infectious, and better yet, the band was on tour.

Scheduled to play a now-defunct venue, The Call, in Providence’s jewellery district, The Killers would descend like those audible helicopters at the outset of ‘Hot Fuss’ on our home come the middle of August – two months away. Tickets sold for six dollars. We bought as many as could be reasonably afforded as broke college kids, like buying stock in a company you know will be worth something later on. People would just need to hear the record; they would have the same experience we did; then these tickets and this experience would all be worth so much more.

We financially and emotionally leveraged ourselves on the outcome of this show. Of the venue’s 100 or so tickets, we held around 25. The intervening days between our June conversion experience and the August show filled with increasingly poor choices and ripping synthesizers: rum and cola in two-litre proportions, a Red Sox season that looked profoundly middling then, and ‘Hot Fuss’ on repeat.

The UK already experienced something like this, falling for ‘Mr. Brightside’ during the autumn of 2003. The band may have released demos out of studios in Las Vegas and LA, but American labels passed on The Killers, with Lizard King Records signing the band to a UK deal in the summer of 2003. The success of ‘Mr. Brightside’ abroad encouraged Island/Def Jam to sign the band in the US, making it all the more bizarre that the label delayed sending the song to radio in the summer of 2004.

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‘Smile Like You Mean It’

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By the time American listeners arrived to ‘Hot Fuss’ in the summer and autumn of 2004, it was hard to believe labels ever balked at the band. Growing popularity – millions of people putting ‘Hot Fuss’ in their car stereos and marvelling over the hooks filling the album’s first half – would, however, not solve the problem of The Killers and ‘Hot Fuss’.

The difficulty began with critics. The second half of the album was mediocre, and, of course, synth-rock and post-punk already had original gangsters: Echo & The Bunnymen, Joy Division and their successor act, New Order. The Killers had even taken their name from a fictional band of good-looking, post-adolescents appearing in the video for New Order’s 2001 single ‘Crystal’. It didn’t get more transparently derivative.

I liked to believe that The Killers had somehow borrowed their name from the 2002 Mountain Goats song, ‘The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton’, where the characters debate naming their metal band Satan’s Fingers, The Killers, or The Hospital Bombers. That song’s closing lyrics, “Hail Satan,” may as well have been the reaction of certain rock critics about ‘Hot Fuss’: a sort of fun record that wilted under any kind of critical treatment.

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Pitchfork gave the record a 5.2, with Johnny Loftus crushing the band in his last line: “‘Hot Fuss’ is not hardcore; it’s hard evidence that it’s tough to focus on making great rock when you’re preoccupied with cultivating an image.” The devil rode in on bedazzled synthesizers. The devil wore a crushed velvet jacket. Hail Satan.

Our apocalypse began and ended in a parking lot. The summer of 2004 culminated in August across from The Call waiting for The Killers to play. We didn’t have jobs in any conventional sense, so we began pre-gaming in the late afternoon, on anaesthesia-sized doses of alcohol and scalping the tickets purchased in June. The market shifted as we thought it might: The six dollar ticket now went for $25, a small fortune to us, money that would later pay for a bunch of army green ‘Hot Fuss’ T-shirts.

It wasn’t an event to everyone; we had strong-armed a few friends into coming under the edict that they would certainly, seriously, regret missing this. They had been ambivalent, though the show made converts of them all. Standing in the fading sunshine of that August afternoon, the band soundchecked inside with ‘Smile Like You Mean It’, the first time I heard a Killers song at anything above car stereo volume. A stupid, wry grin spread across our faces as Noah and I turned to each other saying, “This is going to be awesome.” It was a bad college movie with this as its final party scene.

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‘Somebody Told Me’

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Dollar Bud Lights fuelled the rest of the night, ending in a longitudinal hang-out with the band. Flowers was predictably, maybe intentionally, aloof, but still signed a bunch of stuff for us, including the back of a ticket stub that he inscribed in bibliographic style, “Flowers, Brandon”. I peppered bassist Mark Stoermer with questions about the band, but even this reached a strange conclusion after I complimented him on the bassline on ‘Jenny Was A Friend of Mine’. He replied, “Yeah, actually, Brandon wrote that,” before turning his attention to a modestly attractive 20-something girl who held more promise.

Drummer Ronnie Vannucci engaged us generously. All of us goofy and magnanimous, we bought him beers by the fist-full and told him over and over what a great record the band made, and how excited we were to meet them. Cementing his credentials, Vannucci remembered us the next summer when we caught up with him outside a different venue, this one with more than a thousand seats, also in Providence. He blithely commented on the band’s new success: “It’s all MTV, man,” trailing off before gesturing to the sea of teenage girls in our vicinity.

This was when it got difficult. By this point in 2005, I had listened to ‘Hot Fuss’ hundreds of times and seen the band three, each at an increasingly large venue – chasing that feeling I had in the summer of 2004, but never finding it. I knew The Killers weren’t the most original band, but I swore my allegiance on the basis of my early aesthetic experiences with them. I would stand by them despite what the critics said. I could defend their derivative qualities. But it wasn’t the critics that worried me – it was their popularity. Whatever happened in the confines of my Volkswagen Jetta or in the 60 days between hearing ‘Hot Fuss’ and seeing the band live, whatever happened for me in the second row of that show, it was now everyone’s to share. The personal inexorably became the public.

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As the contrarian culture police arrived to declare The Killers lame, a product of their popularity, I grappled with my relationship with the band. Could I continue to love them purely, or would I compartmentalise them with bands like Coldplay, that I both liked and publically ripped myself for liking? Would I coat myself in the modern armour of irony? Alternatively, was an organic relationship possible with a band selling seven million copies of their record?

The six-dollar show became a good story to tell, but it granted no special claim over the band. More often than not, that story sounded dickish, the type of anecdote told by people who tried disempowering others with earliness, with cultural relevance. I hadn’t moved to New York yet, but I was already trying out the language of the bourgeois: “That place is over… It was cool last year… Yeah, that band was cool a while ago… We saw them for six dollars.” It was all the same.

A nation of music listeners didn’t seem to care about this internal angst from which I suffered. I now held small property rights to a publically held entity. Still, I swore not to turn on the band for becoming popular – after all, wasn’t this what I wanted when I was spitting the ‘Hot Fuss’ gospel to anyone who would listen? It was the first in a series of complex poses in which I found myself as a modern music fan and later as a critic.

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‘All These Things That I’ve Done’

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Popularity made these bands pariahs, suggesting that the role of the attuned fan was to rear and raise an act from infancy, enjoying a band for six-to-12 months until everyone else (Who, the great unwashed? It was a despicable calculation, I know) got wind of them. Then the early-adopters would turn them over to world finally and dramatically, like those old videos of steamships leaving dry dock and slamming into the water for the first time. Is that what we were, the industrial riveters of culture, making these bands seaworthy for everyone else but ultimately wanting nothing to do with an ocean-going voyage on our own creation? We were destined to be the ship-builders left on the dock, though we hoped not.

But even as I stood by The Killers through the complex ups and downs of a strange career since ‘Hot Fuss’, I never really recovered from that first listen to their first record, or that first show. Just a few summers ago, I reviewed the band at New York’s Webster Hall, a venue that holds around 1,500. In line that night, I passed up an offer of 500 dollars for my spot at the show. While it certainly would have resulted in my firing from the publication for which I was reviewing the show, I refused for other reasons: some commitment to see the band, to recapture 2004, this time on the troubled ‘Battle Born’ tour.

Said album of 2012 was immaculately produced, rife with huge hooks, and arguably the band’s best songwriting since ‘Hot Fuss’. I felt nothing for it. It wasn’t just that I was older and more removed; I had lost the battle against the band’s popularity and myself. I left before the encore finished. I couldn’t stand being around all those people. Worse, this was a “small club show” for them now. I wouldn’t try to run into Flowers or even the kind Vannucci after the show. I finally began turning on the band I swore to protect.

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The night before The Killers arrived in Providence in 2004, they played the same set to a sold-out Bowery Ballroom, the iconic venue on New York’s Lower East Side. After I moved to New York, I tried to think what it would have been like to be a little older, a little smarter, to have been a critic for that show. Would I have allowed myself the same unrestrained experience as I had as a college student?

It seemed experience and age sentenced to worship criticism, small things and bands with limited ambitions. Popularity was death; the mainstream where good bands went to change badly, to bathe in the cruellest impulses of the last stages of a capitalist binge in the record business. Money and fame warped everything. And if, on the off chance, one of these little bands became popular, it was best to pack your emotional baggage and head for the exits. No one would care if you saw Passion Pit at Pianos in the Lower East Side. No one cared that you saw The Killers for six dollars.

Perhaps the terrors of personal possession were obvious from the start. One of the worst songs on ‘Hot Fuss’, ‘Andy, You’re A Star’, the sixth track, was about a high-school stalker. One of three songs on ‘Hot Fuss’ about murder, Flowers muses over the value and terror of personal fixation, singing the title lyric, “Andy, you’re a star in nobody’s eyes but mine,” summing the fractious meditation on obsession. It could well be about that night in August of 2004. To keep these things to ourselves, to try to horde them, is also death of a kind. The band knew it too.

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‘Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll’

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On the UK version of ‘Hot Fuss’, the label replaced ‘Change Your Mind’ with ‘Glamorous Indie Rock & Roll’, the most cringeworthy of all the band’s songs. Whether the deployment of “Glamorous” in the title was ironic couldn’t be reasoned out; Flowers never gave easily to irony. Towards the end of the song, Flowers sings, “Let’s make it, yeah, let’s cause a scene,” the philosophy of a big commercial band laid bare on a major-label release. As much as Flowers contended it was “indie rock and roll for me”, these were the words of a poser who knew well enough trading credibility for fame was not only modern, it was shrewd. How his fans handled this arbitration was a separate matter.

Over the years I have had similar experiences with a few different bands. Seeing Airborne Toxic Event, Mumford & Sons, Vampire Weekend, Grouplove or Passion Pit in small rooms, only to later watch them explode into a million hearts. Popularity changes your relationship to a band, undeniably, no matter how much you might insist that the music remains the same or that you had always been rooting for the band to make money and reach fans. As a critic – and by 2014, everyone counts as a critic – this is even more complex: you promote and abet the wider love that will destroy your original private affections.

Like watching a girl you’ve lionised for her beauty and purity make out with a bunch of people at a party, the fixation with purity in rock music is forever a losing battle. Maybe you helped bring her to that party, but maybe, in the words of Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig’s iconic meditation on maturation, ‘Step’, “The truth is she doesn’t need me to protect her”. The Killers wanted me to love them, not save them. And from who? Discourse on ‘the pure’ is almost always useless. We are all unclean in the end, and this was never personal.

I first heard The Killers on the radio. I was as guilty as anyone else. The intimacy of ‘Hot Fuss’ was always a fiction. Watching a band make love to millions of fans over 10 years is graphic, too. It’s also the point.

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Words: Geoff Nelson (follow on Twitter)

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