Kings of Leon’s ‘Only By The Night’ at 10: how ‘Sex On Fire’ ripped the soul out of the band

The Nashville group's fourth album made them one of the biggest bands in the world, but it came at a hefty price, says Thomas Smith

“I’m gonna go backstage for a second. I’m gonna vomit,” drawled Caleb Followill onstage in Dallas, Texas in August 2010. “I’m gonna drink some beer, and for the record, I’m not drunk”.

As warned, he skulked off stage and didn’t return. Missing their lead singer, the remaining members of Kings of Leon – brothers Jared and Nathan and cousin Matthew Followill – tried to appease the angry crowd to little avail.

Soon after, it became abundantly clear that all was not well in this rock ‘n’ roll clan. “There are internal sicknesses and problems that have needed to be addressed… I can’t lie,” bassist Jared said on Twitter after the event. “There are problems in our band bigger than not drinking enough Gatorade.”

The group swiftly cancelled their remaining tour dates for the foreseeable future. Not for the first time, the Nashville rockers teetered on the edge of implosion. This time they’d never really make it back.

Kings of Leon’s fourth album ‘Only By The Night’, released 10 years ago today (Sep 19), was the moment it all seemed to change. Their previous three albums, ‘Youth & Young Manhood’, ‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’ and ‘Because Of The Times’, sold a nearly 2 million copies combined here in the UK, but Kings Of Leon made a leap on ‘Only By The Night’. They went from being the indie kids’ cool little secret, to being bonafide rock/pop crossovers – a rare accomplishment this side of the millennium.

‘Only By The Night’ sold 2.6m copies here, a further 2.5m in the US and now a reported 6.2m worldwide.

It was bolstered by lead single ‘Sex On Fire’, their first proper ‘hit’ and a Number One here in the UK, where it became part of the Holy Trinity of Indie Disco Bangers, alongside The Killers’ ‘Mr Brightside’ and Arctic Monkeys’ ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’.

You know the one.

Success seemed calculated: ‘Only By The Night’ appeared to be the band’s pitch to become the next U2, written with the intention of being played in stadiums on a nightly basis.

A highlight, ‘Crawl’, builds on the creepy magic of 2007’s ‘Charmer’, while ‘Closer’ has a claustrophobic but ambitious air about it. But soppy pop ballads like ‘Revelry’, ‘Manhattan’ and ‘Use Somebody’ proved to be what the album is remembered for, though. It was where some fans decided Kings Of Leon had “sold out” and forgotten their roots. Even Razorlight frontman Johnny Borrell had seen enough, describing ‘Sex On Fire’ as “basically the apex, death and afterlife of landfill indie all in one go”. Whether they’d meant it or not, ‘Only By The Night’ pushed them into a space where there was no returning from.

They didn’t see it this way. In 2010, Caleb was forced to face up to accusations that the band had lost their way. “Every­one talks about indie this and indie that, but would you really want to be one of those indie bands that makes two albums and disappears? That’s just sad,” he told Rolling Stone.

“‘Sex On Fire’ was the apex, death and afterlife of landfill indie all in one go” – Johnny Borrell

The sprawling ‘Only By The Night’ tour, which kicked off with a Glastonbury headline set in June 2008, saw them take in arenas all across the planet, including four shows at London’s o2 Arena. Soon, it became memorable for all the wrong reasons. Being a commercially successful act will inevitably alter the fanbase – new fans may not dig the older, rawer material while the originals resent the new mainstream direction. At the time, ‘Only By The Night’ songs would get a rousing response, while niche cuts from early albums became beer-buying breaks.

At Reading Festival in August 2009, after a non-stop period of touring, the band snapped. “We hope you guys warm up”, Caleb told the crowd as they reached the end of their set, dismayed at the response to older songs. “Reading? What the f**k? Zero love for the Kings,” said drummer Nathan on Twitter after the show. “I know it was cold but holy sh*t, y’all were frozen.”

The band would later apologise for their behaviour. In fact, they got invited back to headline Reading & Leeds earlier this year.

The morale on tour continued to plummet, not least when the band were forced to abandon a show in St Louis in July 2010, on account on being pelted with shit by pigeons in the rafters of the stage. When bassist Jared was hit in the mouth the band abandoned the show completely, unfairly becoming a laughing stock on the internet. A month later, Caleb’s onstage meltdown forced them off the road indefinitely.

It’s hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for Kings Of Leon. They’d gone from being one of the biggest cult bands on the planet to briefly being the biggest band on the planet, and they weren’t totally into it.

“There was definitely an internal struggle – you couldn’t even say ‘radio airplay’ without Caleb getting angry,” Jared told Metro in 2013. “We’d been called sell-outs after ‘Sex On Fire’. He didn’t want people to think that was all we’d tried to do.”

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Making a hit record is hard, but it’s even harder to do it twice in a row. ‘Come Around Sundown’, their 2010 album was proof of this. It was billed both as a back-to-their-roots affair, all while trying to bottle that elusive magic all over again. ‘Radioactive’ and ‘Pyro’ shot for the stars, while songs like ‘The Immortals’ and ‘Birthday’ marched back towards their Nashville roots.

‘Come Around Sundown’ was a commercial success (Number One in 11 countries), but received a mauling from fans and critics. Writing for NME, Luke Lewis gave it 5/10 in a damning review. “It’s not a leftfield swerve. It’s a stately modern rock album that’s so desperate to prove its own authenticity it forgets to be remotely moving.” It turns out that the band didn’t even enjoy the recording process. ‘You put so much pressure on yourself after that – to at least maintain that momentum you’ve got going—and we really had a shitty time in the studio trying to do that,” Nathan told Rolling Stone years later.

“We got called sell-outs after ‘Sex On Fire’” – Jared Followill

The band rejoined the road at the end of 2010 but things had changed by then. Their live shows became robotic and cold and they spent as little time together as possible. “The bigger we got, we got our own cars and did our own thing and would only see each other for the hour and a half before the show,” Jared told NME in 2016. “We went too far in the other direction. If you’re not gonna be friends and family then you can’t really be a band – or we can’t be this band.”

A huge act losing their edge isn’t unusual. By the time they’d graduated to festival headliners and stadium occupiers, they’d been a band for over a decade, and partied just as hard as bands like The Strokes did without being swallowed whole by their own hype. Blood was the bind that tied them together all this time, but they careered off a creative cliff after ‘Only By The Night’.

Their sixth and seventh albums, 2013’s woeful ‘Mechanical Bull’, and equally forgettable 2016 record ‘WALLS’ showcased a band with no idea where to turn. ‘Don’t Matter To Me’ was a cringe-worthy attempt at reproducing the intensity of early singles like ‘Molly’s Chambers’, while ‘WALLS’ served up generic stinkers like ‘Eyes On You’ and ‘Find Me’.

“I feel like we floated through a few albums maybe,” Matthew told NME prior to the release of ‘WALLS’. “We went through the paces and just did what we knew worked and it was fine. But there was a definite feeling of, ‘OK, we should make a change.’” That change didn’t come on ‘WALLS’ and their window to reclaiming that space now seems glued firmly shut.

Speaking to Evening Standard in 2017, the band seemed to hint that they’ve accepted where they’re at as a band. “At this point we’re not really looking over our shoulders any more. As long as we don’t f*** it up, we have some longevity in us,” Caleb said.

‘Only By The Night’ gave Kings Of Leon a taste of the success they always craved, but at considerable cost. Their hollow headlining set at Reading & Leeds Festival last month was proof that both the world and the band have checked out for good. The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, but this fire is barely smouldering by this point.