In 2003 I was flown to Athens in Georgia, REM’s hometown, to write a piece about a new band – I guess downloading hadn’t really eaten into record company profits back then.
In fact the band I went out to see weren’t even headlining that night, a dirge-ful bunch of no-hopers topped the bill, leaving the bearded band I’d been dispatched to see playing to a bunch of uninterested students from the University Of Georgia.
It was their loss. With a fizzing energy, looks like they’d just walked out of the set of Almost Famous and a lead singer who sounded like Mick Jagger on moonshine, there was clearly something about this Tennessee band of brothers.
However, despite noting their early potential, I’ll admit to being surprised as anyone when seven years later that same band played a gig in London’s Hyde Park in front of 60,000 screaming fans.
Though that’s always been the Followill clan’s charm. They’re full of surprises – be it the evolution from rough kids (‘Youth And Young Manhood’) to serious rockers (‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’), or their transformation from the seven minute jams of ‘Knocked Up’ to getting everyone, including your mum, to sing along to ‘Sex On Fire’.
You can read a full blow by blow account of the Kings Of Leon’s Hyde Park show in this week’s NME, but in the meantime it’s time to ask if Kings Of Leon can surprise again as they work towards finishing their fifth album.
Fortunately at Hyde Park they gave us a few hints – four in fact, new songs currently going under the working titles ‘Radioactive’, ‘Southbound’, ‘Immortals’ and ‘Mary’. Fan footage from the show has been pulled from YouTube, though you can find versions of some of the tracks on Vimeo.
Even frontman Caleb Followill realised it’s early to make a fully-formed judgement, acknowledging he didn’t think their record company would “want us to play a bunch of new songs but I think, ‘Fuck it’ – we’re going to do it!”
To my ears, while there was plenty of anthemic potential, there was also traces of solo John Lennon, Big Country and Pixies (whose ‘Where Is My Mind?’ they actually covered).
It all suggests that, while they’ll still have the chops to keep the big audiences punching the sky, they will be space for a few, thought-provoking surprises on the way.
In fact, even while ‘Sex Is On Fire’ was taking up residence on the airwaves, Caleb was telling us last year that he plans to shake it up, explaining: “Actually right now we’re writing pretty fast songs and some pretty hard rocking songs. And then a lot of the slower songs that we’re writing, structurally, they’re really different and really unique from anything out there. I mean a lot of them don’t even have a chorus. It feels so good.”
Obviously having broken through with ‘Only By The Night’ and that mammoth step up at Glastonbury 2008, I’m not predicting Kings Of Leon are going to be handing in their stadium rock AAAs any time soon.
But if there’s a band who can manage the balance between big and not boring, that band from all those years ago in Georgia have the potential to surprise again.