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FEATURE: Kings of Leon: Did They Sell Out To 'The Man'?

Monday, 15 March 2010 Written by Daniel Lynch
FEATURE: Kings of Leon: Did They Sell Out To 'The Man'?

If it ainít broke, donít fix it. Seven simple words I wish somebody had drilled into the heads of the Kings of Leon prior to their last two albums. I would count myself as one of a minority of people who loved the first two albums. Their rawness, Calebís indistinguishable vocals; it was good old rock ní roll in a new, exciting format. It was this format that earned them their current status. It was the first two albums that propelled them from festival tents to main stages. Most importantly, it was the first two albums that created a devoted fan base.

So what prompted the change in direction? All of a sudden they had short hair. Lo and behold, we could actually hear the lyrics clearly and they were rising through the charts. This is not the Kings of Leon of Aha Shake Heartbreak, or Youth and Young Manhood. What you see and hear now is conformity, commercialism and the obvious influence of, for want of a better phrase, ĎThe Man,í that was blissfully absent in the early days.

The band, particularly guitarist Matthew, cites U2 as a major influence on their new sound. Anybody calling themselves a musician who draws primary influence from Bono and the Edge (not so much a guitarist as a sonic engineer, as he described himself in ĎThis Might Get Loudí) needs to seriously re-examine their values. Since when could a rock and roll band not play in a stadium? Who says you need wishy washy, effects laden guitars and anthem like qualities to every song just to play in a stadium? Poppycock!

As a now disillusioned KOL fan, I find it somewhat ironic that the two songs off the most recent albums that achieved most chart success were those that most resembled earlier material. ĎSex on Fire,í now synonymous with the band, seems to transcend both eras of the band, but retains a chorus too catchy and mainstream to really be compared along side earlier material. Granted the more recent albums have made the band millions, and propelled them to fame. But at what cost?

Did the band of ASH and YYM envisage then what they would be playing now? Would they have laughed the idea off as selling out? Itís fair to say the band are probably happy doing what they now do, but I would question their motives. Raw, unadulterated music was created with no inhibitions, no pressure from record companies and sales execs. Now, they have to worry about money, what will sell?

This is, without question, an issue plaguing many, if not all bands these days. Kings of Leon are a remarkable example due to a huge change in direction, in style and appearance, but they arenít the only band who may have fallen victim to the need, not the desire, to sell out.

Compare Museís latest offering with their first few albums. Many hardcore Muse fans cringe at the sound of the newer material. Listen to the relatively radio friendly ĎUprising,í and then to the chaotically abrasive ĎCitizen Erasedí or anything else off ĎShowbizí or ĎOrigin of Symmetry.í Worlds apart. Unlike Kings of Leon however, Muse seemed to have found the balance between mainstream appeal and their roots in the ĎAbsolutioní and ĎBlack Holes and Revolutionsí years, only to have fallen off the wrong side into 2009s ĎResistance.í Ironically titled if my estimation of events is anything more than cynical desperation.

Meanwhile the transformation of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers from funk/punk/rock rebels into neatly groomed, clothed (socks on feet this time), chart topping, soft rock poofs has, at the very least, disgusted their original followers. Admittedly, the band of the mid 80s were young, inexperienced and soon to go through the trauma of the death of a member, and the recovery from several drug addictions. This however, was almost a decade before the soft rock offerings of Californication and By The Way. With only glimpses of the chaos of their mid-80ís spark apparent in the more recent material it was obvious the Chilis were headed the wrong way. 2006ís Stadium Arcadium appears to have been the final nail in the coffin for the Chili Peppers of old. Despite being well received among music press and selling well, the bandís original fan base must be disillusioned with the progression the band has made, be it negative or otherwise. Unlike the likes of Kings of Leon, this seems to have been a mostly natural development, or dilution of their music. Whether the intention was to sell records is questionable, but it is certain that by embarking on a more mainstream sound the Red Hot Chili Peppers opened themselves to a much wider, and thus profitable, market.

These are but a few instances of musicians faced with the dilemma of selling records or playing the music they began with and loved playing. There is an argument of course for developing musically and not allowing a band to stagnate, but hell, the Quo have been playing the same three chords for 40years and barring some RSI itís done them no harm whatsoever!

These are bands who have the luxury of recording contracts, a global market and management who take care of the grunt work, leaving the bands to focus on the musical side of things. But, what about the legions of bands without these advantages? Over the next few weeks Iíll be having a look at the processes unsigned bands go through to get their music from the practice room on to CD and into the public consciousness. Then following the chain through the promoters, recording engineers, in venue sound engineers, and eventually management to discover the struggle a band must go through in order to release their music onto a global market.

Watch this space.

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