Kings of Leon began with three brothers. Caleb, Nathan and Jared Followill grew up in Talihina, Oklahoma. For much of their childhood, they accompanied father Leon, a conservative Pentecostal preacher, throughout America’s South. During this time, they were rarely allowed to listen to secular music. Far from turning the three away, it fed their fascination.
After Leon quit preaching in 1997, the brothers relocated to Nashville in 1999. Recruiting cousin Matthew Followill, they formed a band. Naming themselves Kings of Leon, the four set their sights on country fame. After failing to land a record deal, the group’s musical interests began drifting away from country music and toward The Rolling Stones. After moving to New York and witnessing The White Stripes and The Strokes in action a year later, the four realized they too wanted to be rock stars.
Their debut EP Holy Roller Novocaine and first album Youth And Young Manhood arrived in 2003. Kings of Leon continued to evolve. Branching out musically with each release, they came to embrace a wide range of musical styles.
In 2008 Kings of Leon delivered the era-defining album Only By The Night. While later releases have failed to match Only By The Night’s blockbuster success, the Southern outfit cannot be faulted in terms of creative ambition. As most recent album When You See Yourself attests, the story is far from closed. What follows are 10 of the group’s essential tracks.
1.‘Sex on Fire’, Only By The Night (2008)
Why beat around the bush? Kings of Leon’s Grammy decorated ‘Sex on Fire’ is without question their best-known song. Epic and slow-building, this stadium anthem sprang from Caleb Followill’s drug-addled brain while recovering from a shoulder injury on prescription medication. Love, this song tells us, can be a painful and confusing thing. Yes, it is about sex.
No, we have never gotten a decisive answer as to exactly what the song’s chorus means, though Caleb once suggested it was written as a temporary filler that never got replaced.
2.‘Molly’s Chambers’, Holy Roller Novocaine (2003)
When Kings of Leon recorded Holy Roller Novocaine the group’s youngest member, Jared was only 15. The music video for ‘Molly’s Chambers’ reveals a band very much in the process of getting it together. (Look no further than Caleb’s questionably groomed moustache for the suggestion things required some additional fine-tuning.) While the studio recording of the group’s debut single may lack some of the impact of their later work, this simple garage rocker can certainly deliver live.
3.‘The Bucket’, Aha Shake Heartbreak (2005)
Another exceptional rocker from the band’s early years. The song was written from the fictional perspective of the group’s former manager Ken Levitan. A modest hit in the UK, ‘The Bucket’ is considered by many to have kickstarted the Kings of Leon’s career. According to Setlist.fm, it currently holds the record for the most played Kings of Leon song live. At the time of writing, the song has been performed by the band no less than 666 times.
4.‘On Call’, Because Of The Times (2007)
‘On Call’ is one of the most underrated singles in the Kings of Leon catalogue. Already, this 2007 single foreshadows much of the atmospheric and moody tone which came to define Only By The Night. The group later shared that after touring as an opening act for U2, Bob Dylan and Pearl Jam in 2006 they were inspired to pursue a grander and more ambitious sound. “We had just bought land in Tennessee with this old farmhouse,” Caleb, recounts of the song’s creation. “We would set up our amps on the front porch, so there were these wide, open spaces. From that, we started to play with reverb and more grandiose sounds.”
Caleb’s aching vocals and neurotic lyrics are amongst the most intense the group has ever produced.
5.‘Use Somebody’, Only By The Night (2008)
Only by The Night not only delivered ‘Sex on Fire’. It also presented the equally formidable ‘Use Somebody’. The band’s second Only by The Night hit single is another sketch of the complicated emotions love carries with it. In true Kings of Leon style, the music is upbeat yet melancholic, obsessive yet devotional. ‘Use Somebody’ was written by Caleb while recovering from a shoulder injury. Far removed from his Tennessee home he was feeling lonely. “In that moment,” he later recounted, “I became more honest with myself and allowed myself to be vulnerable in my writing. No longer trying to be a tough guy and admitting I need the people around me — mainly referring to Lily [my wife] — to get through it all. I wrote it in one sitting, very late.”
6.‘Pyro’, Come Around Sundown (2010)
The band’s fifth studio album Come Around Sundown had the unenviable task of following on from Only By The Night. Its lyrics were inspired by a documentary on The Ruby Ridge Incident, an 11-day siege that occurred in Idaho in 1992. After surrounding a remote rural farmhouse, Police engaged radical Christian outlaw Randy Weaver in a lethal gunfight. During the siege Weaver’s 14-year-old son Sammy Weaver and his mother Victoria Weaver were shot dead. Federal Marshall William Francis Degan was also killed. After watching a documentary on the siege, Caleb was inspired to write ‘Pyro’. The 2010 song takes the fictional perspective of Weaver’s son. In Caleb’s reality the 14-year-old escapes to take his revenge. In a feat befitting Batman nemesis The Joker, Sammy sets the world on fire.
7.‘WALLS’, WALLS (2013)
After Caleb walked offstage in 2011, Kings of Leon announced a self-imposed hiatus. In 2012 the group reconvened and in 2013 released their sixth album Mechanical Bull. In 2016 they followed on with WALLS. With their seventh studio album Kings of Leon introduced a softer and more introspective dimension of their sound. “We’re the kind of band that tries to change from album to album,” Caleb once told Rolling Stone. “We try to do things that we haven’t done before.
8.‘Waste A Moment’, WALLS (2016)
WALLS also delivered ‘Waste A Moment’. Which is, by the numbers, the group’s third most popular single. Gone is the gloom of previous albums. Reflecting the more settled lifestyles of this once–rowdy rock and roll outfit, the song acts as an uplifting coda to the love and confusion of the band’s mid-period material.
9.‘The Bandit’, When You See Yourself (2021)
Which brings us to the modern era. The group’s eighth album When You See Yourself arrived in March 2021. Expansive guitar tones do most of the work as Caleb launches into some truly stratospheric vocals.
10‘Closer’, Only By The Night (2008)
It’s hard to believe it has been more than a decade since Only By The Night arrived. Despite their personal squabbles, not to mention the ups and downs of Kings of Lenon’s career, the Followill clan remains committed to their music and each other. “The positives outweigh the negatives so much that I just can’t imagine not being in this band,” Jared informed SPIN earlier this year. “I wouldn’t want to start over with another band and tour. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.” Jarred, it seemed, was not alone in his sentiment. “As long as everyone’s there for the right reason,” Caleb added, “just wanting to make good music, [Kings of Leon] is something that I can see myself doing forever.”
Kings of Leon will bring the ‘When You See Yourself’ tour to Australia in March 2022.