x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Reigning champions

Ahead of a hotly anticipated Abu Dhabi Grand Prix appearance, we trace Kings of Leon's road to stardom

Kings of Leon will take to the stage in Abu Dhabi as part of the programme of events surrounding the city's inaugural Grand Prix.
Kings of Leon will take to the stage in Abu Dhabi as part of the programme of events surrounding the city's inaugural Grand Prix.

Some might say that the very idea of Kings of Leon being invited to entertain the crowds at an event like Abu Dhabi's inaugural grand prix - alongside such artists as Beyoncé, Aerosmith and Jamiroquai - would have been unthinkable a few years ago. However, they would be wrong. Sticky floored rock venues and muddy festival tents may have been where this Tennessee four-piece has spent much of its career, and a territory that many of the band's contemporaries still roam, but grand ambition has always been one of their defining characteristics.

Four albums released in just six years, each more popular than the last, and a touring schedule relentless enough to make many bands consider early retirement have made Kings of Leon one of the decade's biggest success stories. The group's journey begins in America's Deep South. The three Followill brothers, Caleb (vocals), Nathan (drums) and Jared (bass), were all, literally, sons of a preacher man. Roaming from state to state, the boys rarely settled anywhere for long enough to receive the musical education that many other teenagers would get. But when their father resigned from the church and divorced his wife in the late Nineties, the brothers relocated to Nashville and quickly embraced the music and lifestyle they had previously been denied.

It wasn't long before the band began to draw interest from RCA Records and, in need of a lead guitarist, "kidnapped" their cousin Matthew from his hometown in Mississippi in order for him to join them. Soon after appearing on the pages of music magazines in early 2003, with full-face beards, cowboy boots and impossibly skinny jeans, came Kings of Leon's first international release, the Holy Roller Novocaine EP. Although not a big seller, the record's gritty Southern-fried sound earned the band a significant amount of exposure ahead of its debut later that year.

Hot on the heels of The Strokes, The White Stripes and other vintage-sounding guitar bands, Kings of Leon became one of indie rock's most talked-about groups, thanks to the triumphant release of the debut album Youth and Young Manhood. It was lauded as "one of the best debut albums of the last 10 years" by the British music magazine NME and the band gained a devoted following in the UK. Singles such as California Waiting and Molly's Chambers became overnight dance-floor favourites, no doubt contributing to the band later being picked to tour in support of The Strokes and U2.

Kings of Leon also managed to inspire a number of detractors, though. Some began to question whether the band, with its elaborate image, was just an example of style over substance and false rumours began to circulate of the group being a record-company creation. Only 15 months after Youth and Young Manhood came Aha Shake Heartbreak. This album featured the same stripped-down production, scrappy guitars and drowsy vocals as its predecessor and contained dance-floor-friendly tracks such as the singles The Bucket and Four Kicks. After a warm critical reception, tours with Bob Dylan and Pearl Jam followed.

The band's longest wait between albums, almost two and a half years, was broken in March 2007. Kings of Leon graced the covers of music magazines the world over, now sporting shorter haircuts and distinctly less facial hair, in support of Because of the Times. Although instantly recognisable, thanks largely to Caleb's Southern drawl, this recording had a very different flavour to its predecessors. Gone were the jangly guitars and stomping drums, in came lopping bass lines and a production job that would have suited Joshua Tree-era U2. Critics agreed that the album, which featured the singles On Call and Charmer, was not only the band's most mature, but also its darkest.

Entertainment Weekly described Because of the Times as "an epic widescreen movie of a CD and the band's best to date," however many of the hipper music titles began to forsake Kings of Leon, believing the outfit to be pursuing a more mainstream sound. If that third album revealed the band's ambitions as stadium-sized artists, the fourth achieved it. Despite hitting shelves toward the end of 2008, Only By the Night was the biggest seller of the year globally. It also finally scored a top-five placing on the Billboard 200 in the US, a market where the band had previously been somewhat overlooked.

The album featured Kings of Leon's most grown-up clutch of songs, including singles such as Sex on Fire and Use Somebody, complete with effects-laden keyboards and thunderous choruses - a far cry from the Southern twang of earlier releases. As a result, the last year has seen the band playing its biggest shows yet, of which Abu Dhabi will be just one. Now all those years in student hangouts and grubby rock clubs appear to be paying off. Unremitting recording and touring, teamed with an undeniable ability to create crowd-pleasing rock songs, has earned this band a space on the world stage.

ogood@thenational.ae