I still remember what it was like being at secondary school in 2000. Nu-metal, nu-metal, everywhere, as far as the eye can see. Hordes of students in ‘Hybrid Theory’ hoodies, yelling Papa Roach lyrics behind the bike sheds, guffawing their way down the corridors convinced that the scat-referencing title of Limp Bizkit’s ‘Chocolate Starfish And The Hotdog Flavoured Water’ was so droll that Fred Durst was essentially Oscar Wilde in a baseball cap. It was, to be frank, fucking terrible. A world in which Staind are one of the biggest bands on the planet is a terrifying, terrifying place.
All of which is why I’ll forever be thankful to Queens Of The Stone Age’s ‘Rated R’. In Taxi Driver, a film full of the same sleaze and black humour Josh Homme seems to seeps from every pore, Robert De Niro’s psychotic Travis Bickle predicts a coming revolution, threatening: “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” I don’t think that Bickle, a demented chap who takes dates to watch porn movies and eventually shoots up a brothel, is a man to be admired. I also don’t think that making music I think is a bit rubbish or wearing oversized shorts on stage is really enough to constitute being called scum. But ‘Rated R’, released in 2000, sounded back then like an avenging angel: a rampaging thunderclap of an album free of any of that time in rock’s prevailing whinging angst, ready to lead a great purge and re-establish a ground zero.
What stands out about ‘Rated R’, even now, is how debauched and deranged it all sounds: just compare, say, the teenage mope of Linkin Park’s ‘Crawling’ or angry charge of Papa Roach’s ‘Last Resort’ to the devilish ‘Feel Good Hit Of The Summer’, which zooms along on a dirty, chugging riff and has Josh Homme yabbering “Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, Ecstasy and alcohol… C-c-c-cocaine” on a crazed loop. Drug-quaffing might not always be fun – take the Nick Oliveri-sung ‘Tension Head’, a grotty world of substance abuse that finds him howling “I feel so fuckin’ sick” – but there’s a danger, and a spark, that still sucks you in even now. Elsewhere, on the blissful, lazy ‘Auto Pilot’, sung by Goatsnake’s Pete Stah, it’s like they’re kissing the sky: “I wanna fly, I wanna ride with you,” he drawls, and you want to be right there with him.
What’s worth bearing in mind, too, is that ‘Rated R’ was QOTSA’s major label debut. Sometimes, when heaps of cash are being flown and record executives are starting to interfere with the process, bands can stop pushing the envelope. Here, though, Homme and co take things in weirder, more warped directions than their 1998 self-titled debut, which was released on independent label Loosegroove. ‘Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret’ is all threatening, disarming menace, built around the eerie chime of a vibraphone and a sleazy desert-rock riff; ‘Leg Of Lamb’ is a wonky, fuzzy and off-kilter beast that chafes strangely, and brilliantly, with Homme singing “I’m a sinner, ring my bell”; ‘Better Living Through Chemistry’ sounds like it’s been summoned from the hellmouth, with its twisted, spooky riff that growls and grows into something unstoppable. QOTSA’s secret weapon, Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan, pops up on the creepy, almost R&B-like drone of ‘In The Fade’, his voice sounding like thick, dangerous treacle in contrast with Homme’s honeyed croon.
These just aren’t great songs: they’re smart, sly and ambitious songs, too, looking beyond the norm to take in dark psychedelia, sun-blasted grunge and desert rock for something that still sounds fresh a decade-and-a-half on. ‘Rated R’ didn’t just ‘make’ Queens Of The Stone Age, it made all around it better, too: the kings of nu-metal were dead, so long live the Queens.