Kings of Leon have a backstory so steeped in rock mythology that it almost sounds made up. The Followill brothers — Nathan, Caleb and Jared — are sons of a preacher man who were raised on the road throughout the South, traveling from one Pentecostal church to the next. After being shattered by a divorce, the brothers were transformed by illicit substances and the stoner music of Led Zeppelin. Soon, they were a rough and ready band, enjoying the pleasures of the road while playing grinding, garage-y jams tinged with Southern rock and gothic lyrics. By the end of the 2000s, they were famous.
The Followills grew up watching their father Leon, a Pentecostal minister, instill the fear of God in parishioners across the South. Forbidden to listen to secular music, they spent their early childhoods being home-schooled, watching church choirs and occasionally banging on drums during services. The boys' fates as followers of fundamentalist Christianity seemed sealed until 1997, when Leon Followill resigned from the church and divorced his wife. The divorce rocked the Followills' world, and afterwards, the Nathan and Caleb moved to Nashville, hoping to break into the music business. They quickly ran into Nashville songwriter and former new waver Angelo Petraglia, who turned the brothers on to the secular music of the Rolling Stones and Johnny Cash.
Kings of Leon, named for their father, were born in 2000 when youngest brother Jared and a cousin, Matthew Followill, joined Nathan and Caleb in Nashville. Jared, who had briefly attended public school, had learned about the music of the Pixies and Velvet Underground. The boys began woodshedding, and by 2002 Kings of Leon had interest from nine labels. A bidding war ensued, and the band ultimately signed with RCA Records.
The group's debut EP, Holy Roller Novocaine, and LP, Youth and Young Manhood (Number 113), both produced by Petraglia and Ethan Johns (son of Led Zeppelin and Who producer Glyn Johns), were released in 2003. The band's retro-chic look and blend of Southern boogie and gritty garage rock inspired comparisons to both Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Strokes. The British press hailed the Kings as the second coming of rock & roll; according to The Guardian, they were "the kind of authentic, hairy rebels the Rolling Stones longed to be." But the band failed to make much of an impact in the United States, where reviews were generally lukewarm and the modern rock audience generally disinterested. In the U.S., their debut sold only 100,000 copies, compared with the 750,000 copies it moved abroad.
The group's highly anticipated second album, Aha Shake Heartbreak (Number 55, 2005), released in November 2004 in the UK, debuted at Number Three on the British charts. Kings added more newer sounds, including an angular guitar attack that recalled British art-punk band Wire, to their raw Southern aesthetic. A tour supporting U2 upped the band's profile in the U.S., and in late 2006, just before the release of Kings' third album, the band opened for Bob Dylan at a handful of shows. Because of the Times (Number 25), released in April 2007, found the Kings moving even further away from their short songs with immediate hooks, but the general sound and substance remained the same, with lyrics about pregnant girlfriends and black Camaros. The British love affair with the band continued, and the album debuted at Number One in the UK. In 2008 Caleb Followill admitted to struggling with anorexia.
Also in 2008, the Kings released Only by the Night (Number Four). With a slicker pop sound, the album drew mixed reviews but y cracked the Top Ten in the U.S. and topped the British charts for the second time in as many years. The band also found success on the U.S. singles chart when the album's second single, "Use Somebody," a plaintive ballad that showed off Caleb Followill's increasingly ragged croon, reached Number Four. They picked up their first Grammy for Only by the Night's first single, "Sex on Fire," in 2009.
Joel Hoard contributed to this article.
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