The Power of Kings

At every stage in rock’s development, there is a chasm between the earnest, blue-collar hard hats and the clever, esoteric intellectuals. In the late ’60s, Creedence Clearwater Revival made great populist art but never earned the hipness credentials of their Bay-Area brethren the Grateful Dead. In the late ’70s, the Jam’s Paul Weller bristled at comparisons with Elvis Costello, because he had little use for Costello’s self-consciously smart wordplay when there was a working-class revolution being waged in England. In the early ’90s, Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain represented the divergent paths of maladjusted American white trash, with Rose heading straight for the strip bars and Cobain burying himself in his Meat Puppets and Vaselines records. And the twain never met, except for a screaming match at the 1992 MTV Video Awards between Rose and Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love.

Kings of Leon might enjoy some underground cachet, but they’re definitely not in the intellectual-hipster camp. This Nashville band is the product of three brothers — Caleb, Jared, and Nathan Followill — who followed their traveling-evangelist father Leon around the Deep South as he shared the good word with the masses. None of the brothers (who are joined in the Kings by cousin Matthew on lead guitar) listened to rock music until they were well into their teens, and lead singer Caleb has said that he’s only now beginning to catch up to the grunge era.

The band’s 2003 debut album, Youth and Young Manhood, earned cult interest in this country, but was a left-field blockbuster in England. The following year, the Kings toured with U2, a band they were not even allowed to listen to when they were growing up. In 2005, they upped the ante with Aha Shake Heartbreak, a gloriously decadent album that chronicles their misadventures in the rock-star carpool lane, often with a bewildering sense of despair. Through it all, the band rocks with an authority that reminds you of the classic-rock greats (the Stones, AC/DC), but also with a wild-ass abandon that keeps them from being pegged as old-school traditionalists.

Much of the fascination with the album centered on Caleb’s admirable/regrettable eagerness to share his own shortcomings, mocking his combover on “Milk,” and writing a groupie ode that presents him not as a super-stud fantasy object, but as an impotent loser: “I’d pop myself in your body / I’d come into your party / but I’m soft.”

In an interview with Australia’s Roo TV, Caleb defended his occasionally embarrassing candor in terms of the old division between rock’s intellectuals and anti-intellectuals.

“I wanted it to be so honest and pure,” he said of the band’s sophomore album. “All these artsy bands, all these fucking bands that went to nice schools and have rich parents, they all write songs that way. We never felt we were as smart as a lot of bands, so the only thing I could do was be honest. Don’t leave anything out. If you’re gonna sing about sex, you might as well sing about the nights you can’t get it up.”

Caleb is the band’s most striking figure, looking like a hungover, ponytailed Leonardo DiCaprio, and singing like a marble-mouthed, Southern Bon Scott. As the oldest of the musical Followills, he’s also the inevitable leader in a band that featured three teenagers when their debut EP, Holy Roller Novocaine, hit the stores in 2003.

The group’s no-frills approach has spurred some critics to proclaim them rock saviors who’ve combined the Strokes’ new-wave energy with Southern-rock grit, while others have derided them as derivative and obnoxious. Their most passionate testimonials can come from unlikely places, as when Elton John and John McEnroe took turns gushing about the band on McEnroe’s now-defunct CNBC talk show.

The band’s upcoming appearances in San Antonio and Austin are part of a song-testing tour for a new album, tentatively titled Because of the Times, which they plan to release in early 2007. As further proof of their first-tier status in the rock pantheon, they’ll also tour the states with Bob Dylan and open some dates for Pearl Jam in Australia.

It’s tempting to credit family ties for the band’s explosive chemistry, but if shared genes automatically resulted in a magical sound, we’d all be lining up to see Gunnar and Matthew Nelson, or dreaming that Wilson Phillips might reunite. Some might suggest that the secret to the Kings’ success is the fact that its members avoided rock music — and therefore rock clichés — as kids. Go back and listen to those old William Shatner and Sebastian Cabot albums of the ’60s if you think that an ignorance of the rock form is an asset when it comes time to make a rock record.

More likely, the Kings’ power comes from a determination to capture the intensity and un-ironic exultation behind the gospel music they heard growing up, and apply it to the raunchy tunes they’ve crafted. It doesn’t hurt that they’re constitutionally driven to out-work the competition.

In his interview with Roo TV, Caleb said: “We’re all family and we’re all very competitive. We want to be the best at whatever we do. We don’t think anyone should be better than us at anything.”


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