Kicking The Bucketby Dave Durbach / 01.11.2011
“Tell me, when the first show is over, will you still love me when I’m an incredibly humungoid giant star?”
“Will you still love me when I’m in my hanging-out-with-Ravi-Shankar phase?”
“Will you still love me when I’m in my carbohydrate, sequined-jumpsuit, young-girls-in-white-cotton-panties, waking-up-in-a-pool-of-my-own-vomit, bloated-purple-dead-on-a-toilet phase?”
Unfortunately real life seldom pans out as smoothly as in Wayne’s World. History has shown age to be far kinder to some than others. Axl Rose went from stick-thin rock god to washed out, corn-rowed deadbeat. Vanilla Ice fell from hip-hop royalty and Madonna’s boy-toy to being sponsored by Castle Light and performing in the East Rand. Britney turned from schoolgirl seductress to attention-grabbing party animal to chubby soccer mom. The inevitable decline is more rewarding than reality TV for making one feel good about oneself.
As far as many are concerned, the Kings Of Leon put out two great albums. Then they trimmed their hair, shaved their moustaches, started buying threads from a Tommy Hilfiger catalogue and got married to underwear models. They also found their formula to churn out hits sounding increasingly similar. The metamorphosis began with the tolerable Because Of The Times. After that came two bigger albums, a fistful of Grammys and the authorised documentary film. This next level success came largely on the back of a giant hit that will forever be begged for as a live encore – “Sex On Fire”, a song frontman Caleb Followill admitted to being “a piece of shit”, but nevertheless knows he must play to keep the fans happy.
“Sex On Fire” did for the Kings of Leon what “Californication” did for the Red Hot Chili Peppers – a legitimate reason for original fans to disown the band, and day zero for new fans who don’t want to know that the rock stars they worship have been putting out superior songs for years. For both bands, it opened the door to a new generation of screaming teenage girls. In their rise to superstardom, the Kings Of Leon have quickly shed their youthful charm. No longer fresh-faced teenagers, life on the road has taken its toll. Caleb in particular looks about 20 years older than he did when the band first emerged – bloated, bearded and balding.
With last year’s album Come Around Sundown, the band exploded almost to Coldplay and U2 proportions – both of whom also managed to bring their roadshows to Africa in recent months. And while teen fans might sneer at the comparison, all three bands offer the same peg on which their respective audiences, each a five-or-so year age gap apart, can hang the memories of their misspent youth.
The wheel keeps turning. On the first of August, over a year into their world tour for the not-so-new album, the band found themselves forced to cut short the home leg of the trip after Caleb wandered off stage in the middle a performance, saying he needed a beer, without returning. A short stint in rehab followed – amidst reasons like “extreme anxiety in front of large crowds,” “vocal issues” and “exhaustion”. But when it comes to million-dollar tours, the show must go on. A few weeks later and they’re back on the road, contractually bound to meet their tour dates, especially after already having cancelled their initial SA date in March.
And so it was that the Kings rolled into South Africa, en route from nine shows in Canada to eight shows (starting this week) in Australia – a suitable place for the ass-end of a world tour that started in Atlantic City on 5 June 2010. The band’s image has always been tied to life on the road – first growing up with their traveling evangelist pa, then bussing around middle America after first finding fame in the UK, and now – finally, perhaps – on this gigantic scale. For a band that started out as redneck indie darlings, it’s quite something to see 45 000 fans – predominantly but not exclusively white teenagers – flock to Soccer City.
Thankfully, the promoters used the opportunity to throw some local acts a bone. The Black Hotels took to the stage first and somehow managed to elicit a positive reaction out of the growing crowd, despite lacking the requisite spirit, looks or, in my humble opinion, skills. MK idols Die Heuwels Fantasties were also completely out of their depth, lacking even the Hotels’ song-writing abilities. The surprise package of the night was the band sandwiched between those two opening acts – Shadowclub, a watertight three-piece whose supercharged blues-punk hybrid blew the other two acts off the stage, and even gave the Kings a run for their money.
As this publication’s reprobate editor expressed after the Cape Town show, it’s easy to dismiss the spectacle in consumerist terms and hum-haw about how the youth of today are all generic MTV clones – not only in SA but anywhere in the world. But to witness so many of them get the chance to see their bestest band in their own backyard was at least a sign that SA is at long last starting to attract the acts that people want to see. It’s easy to hate on the rock-n-roll cliché that the Kings Of Leon have become, but they were here, and they still rocked all their old hits we loved “before they were big”. While many may lament them having “sold out”, the truth is that if they hadn’t swollen into elephantine, Grammy-winning arena rockers, they would never have made it here in the first place, so for that we can only be grateful.
Few rock bands have managed to turn the tables and follow commercial success with better albums that are more true to their roots – like Nirvana following Nevermind with In Utero or the Pixies signing off with the masterful Trompe Le Monde. One can’t put the brothers Followill in the same league, but at least they haven’t fizzled out into obscurity due to egos or disinterest, as most others do after a few albums. It’s particularly hard for a band who first makes its mark due to good looks and fashion sense – as they grow older, they learn that only memorable songs matter.
For those who didn’t want to see the Kings grow to this size, what alternative would they have wished for? For the band to still be running around in tight jeans and combovers, expecting time to stand still while they wallow in the global McHipster milieu, rather than striving to appeal to a wider audience? While bands like the Strokes – who the Kings were first compared to – may have retained their cooler-than-thou appeal, they’re still mincing around the same small pond. Most others have long since given up. The Kings Of Leon, meanwhile, bloated, jaded, formulaic and filthy rich as they may be, keep on trucking – and can still look forward to their sequined-jumpsuit, young-girls-in-white-cotton-panties, waking-up-in-a-pool-of-their-own-vomit, bloated-purple-dead-on-a-toilet glory days.
*All images © Dave Durbach.