Kings Of Leon’s Debut At 10…

One of the biggest bands in this here musical world of ours, Nashville's Kings Of Leon, will release album number six, ‘Mechanical Bull’, in September. This summer also marks the 10th anniversary of the Followill foursome’s mainstream emergence proper: debut set ‘Youth & Young Manhood’ was issued Stateside on August 19th 2003, having seen the light of day in the UK the previous month. Clash casts its mind back a solid decade…

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Kings Of Leon, ‘Molly’s Chambers’, from ‘Youth & Young Manhood’

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There was a point in 2003 when it looked like the curious back-story of Kings Of Leon and its myriad myths would crush the group before anyone had really got a chance to hear their music. The weight of intrigue surrounding the Followills – hardly eased by the titillated music press, who rinsed the ‘itinerant-preacher-father’ story for every grubby headline – nonetheless beheld an enigma that provoked interest but was eventually eclipsed by their new destiny.

Their first release, the ‘Holy Roller Novocaine’ EP, arrived in February 2003 amidst a decidedly fruitful period for guitar music. The Strokes shaped the direction of the early-‘00s sound when they retired post-Britpop blandness and the threat of US nu-metal dominance in favour of urgent slices of excitement direct from New York City (via Swiss boarding schools). In their wake followed a clutch of signings from labels who thought that their gritty, punk-influenced shaggy-haired charges could similarly seize the zeitgeist just as Julian Casablancas and company had.

Compare NME’s end of year charts in 2001 and 2002: in the former, albums by Turin Breaks, Kings Of Convenience and Travis pepper a yawn-inducing shmindie list – Starsailor’s ‘Love Is Here’ made number five, FFS – while in the latter, The Von Bondies, The Hives, The Datsuns and The Vines all tried desperately to jump on that garage-rock bandwagon.

So what made Kings Of Leon stand out from the crowd? Well, let’s get the trivialities out of the way first: they were (and still are) damn good-looking boys. I mean, making-boyfriends-jealous good looking. Even when just 17-years-old, Jared could make a front row faint with a shake of his hair. And Caleb’s facial hair? Fuggedaboutit.

But the main ingredient, I think anyway, that elevated the Kings above their peers was the inherent thread of Southern charm that was woven throughout their sound and attitude.

They looked down-home, drawled in interviews, and infused all their worldly musical influences with a distinctly indigenous feeling – from their Nashville base, they channelled the rock / country / blues fusion that has stirred down Tennessee way since Elvis first curled his lip. They were as vibrant and punky as The Strokes, but less intimidating, less arrogant, and less isolated. KOL were fun, ballsy, suggestive and sexy.

‘Youth & Young Manhood’, their debut album, is now 10 years old. Though its creators have evolved their sound to render it almost unrecognisable to some, it hasn’t aged a day. It’s still vital, still electrifying.

The first five seconds of ‘Youth…’ opener ‘Red Morning Light’ are thrilling: a jagged, descending Ramones-like guitar riff lets you know this is going to be a relentless ride. You can hold on tight, but by the time Caleb’s scream heralds a shrill, insistent guitar solo at 1:25, you’ve abandoned all restraint and surrendered to their lure.

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Kings Of Leon, ‘Red Morning Light’, from ‘Youth & Young Manhood’

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And then they barely let up. Sure, ‘Trani’ is a slow, scuzzy waltz, but it builds to such a serrated peak that you barely realise the change of pace. So it’s almost 30 minutes before the comparative calm of ‘Dusty’, and then, after one more song (two if you include the ‘hidden’ track ‘Talihina Sky’), it’s all over. In just 46 minutes, Kings Of Leon had staked their claim as your new favourite band, and were tipped for indie royalty.

Thematically, the boys knew where to strike.  Like all good rock ‘n’ roll, sex is flagrant throughout (“I’ve come to lay you down / Uncover your head and submit to me,” Caleb pleads in ‘Holy Roller Novocaine’), which naturally appeals. But its bawdy, adolescent, wham-bam-thank-you-m’am posturing suggests more of a knee-trembler behind the barn than any erotic silk sheets and flowers action.

In addition though, and what gives the songwriting real sustenance, are the twists of pure Southern gothic that lace their tales. Shades of William Faulkner’s darkly warped visions are evident (“Eyes are gonna roll back / I’m here to kill,” we’re warned in ‘Genius’), while ‘Joe’s Head’ attests to their proficiency with a murder ballad: “‘Well,’ he said, ‘Fred I just killed a man / Caught him laying with my girlfriend / Now they’re both dead’,” would fit well amid Johnny Cash’s more sinister cuts. It’s a clever skill, and the band’s relationship with folk songs passed from generation to generation, gaining true significance in the Deep South, suggests they’re part of a rich vein of music that could forever be timeless.

In the years since ‘Youth & Young Manhood’, the band has changed quite considerably. 2004’s second album ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’ was clearly affected by their encounters of the past year, and demonstrated a more mature outlook – their debut had effectively stalled in the US, so the UK’s embrace and adoration of the band meant expanded horizons through new people, new places and new experiences.

‘Aha…’ was sharper and more atmospheric, and developed into 2007’s ‘Because Of The Times’ (Clash review) – a highly accomplished album of moodily deft experimental rock, which stands as the pinnacle of Kings Of Leon mk.1. For everything changed in 2008, when ‘Only By The Night’ provided the group with ‘Sex On Fire’, the chiming anthem that scaled their stadium ambitions, delivering level of success light years from the wide-eyed strutting optimism they enjoyed in 2003.

While 2010’s ‘Come Around Sundown’ (Clash review) couldn’t yield a hit to match ‘Sex On Fire’, it didn’t fail to diminish the group’s popularity – they could still sell out Hyde Park, but unfortunately the majority of punters now waited impatiently to hear the only song they knew. The resulting dichotomy KOL face – pleasing their loyal long-standing fans while appeasing a newly acquired public – will surely have influenced sixth album ‘Mechanical Bull’. It’ll have all the captivating elements that ‘Youth & Young Manhood’ introduced, just on a much grander, and more astute, scale.

Ten years on, the strength and appeal of ‘Youth & Young Manhood’ has outlived and outgrown the rumours surrounding it, the beards grown during it, and the peers that tried to compete with it. The Kings will probably never again make an album as guileless, vivacious and brilliantly frantic – because they can’t. This, as the title suggests, is a perfect snapshot of youth, and while the Followills and all of us fall prey to time and accept the responsibilities that it brings, we can only look upon this record and remember our own wilder times.

Words: Simon Harper

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Kings Of Leon, ‘Wasted Time’, from ‘Youth & Young Manhood’

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‘Mechanical Bull’ is released on September 23rd. Find more Kings Of Leon content on Clash here

Like this sort of feature? Read similar retrospectives on Radiohead’s ‘Hail To The Thief’, The Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Siamese Dream’, and Lauryn Hill’s ‘The Miseducation Of…’.

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