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From 1998’s self-titled debut to Era Vulgaris and beyond, we rank Queens Of The Stone Age’s finest tunes.
When seminal Palm Desert outfit Kyuss called it a day in 1995, few would have predicted that towering, red-headed guitarist Josh Homme would pivot to form one of the most popular and influential bands of the next 25 years. Effectively a one-man show at its outset, Queens Of The Stone Age was originally dubbed Gamma Ray, but the German power-metallers of the same name forced a change. Reworking a nickname given by legendary producer Nick Goss (‘Kings Of The Stone Age’) into something less aggressively macho, the eventual QOTSA moniker would be emblematic of the sex and swagger with which they would take over the world.
“Rock should be heavy enough for the boys and sweet enough for the girls,” Josh explained in interviews early on. “That way everyone's happy and it's more of a party.”
Staying true to the collaborative nature of the scene that spawned them, there’s been something of a revolving-door membership around Josh, with luminaries like Kyuss bandmate and Mondo Generator-frontman Nick Oliveri, Nirvana / Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, Screaming Trees legend Mark Lanegan and great keyboardist Natasha Shneider coming and going. Particular credit should go to guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, though, who’s been a constant since 2002 and has done much to maintain focus on their sense of effortlessly thrusting cool. QOTSA’s unwavering cool factor is the one constant across this low-slung Top 20: that inimitable aura of knowing they’re the very best at what they do without ever really appearing to give a damn…
Featuring the dream team of Josh Homme, Dave Grohl, Mark Lanegan and Nick Oliveri, the third Queens Of The Stone Age LP was jam-packed with bangers that could easily tower over the catalogues of lesser bands. Third single First It Giveth fits that bill. Playing on an extract from The Book Of Job (“The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away”), its lyrics are a bittersweet examination of how drugs can be an inspirational force for musicians, but how they eventually negate that influence and leave said musicians too washed-out to actually perform. Its music video – a compilation of live clips from the time – lives long in the memory for its footage of scary Nick onstage in the nude.
That the third track on QOTSA’s self-titled debut – with its echoes of The Stooges’ louche classic, I Wanna Be Your Dog – had been around for years was an indication of its importance in Josh’s vision for himself in music. Originally dropped on the 1996 Gamma Ray EP, then again on 1996’s Kyuss / Queens Of The Stone Age split, its final form feels exceptionally alive with scratchy restlessness and contrarian cool.
‘I want God to come and take me home,’ Josh sings on the funereal, piano-led third single from 2013’s …Like Clockwork, harking back to a near-death experience that changed his perspective on the world. Going in for a routine knee surgery in 2010, there was no reason for the frontman to be afraid, but on finding out that his heart had momentarily stopped on the operating table – thanks to years of touring and drug abuse – he was knocked into a darker place, ruminating on the fragility of life and how suddenly one can stumble off the mortal coil. The understated insidiousness, splashes of acidic synth and conclusive declaration of ‘I'm alive – hooray!’ suggest he still found some wry amusement in the troubling ordeal.
Originally recorded on Desert Sessions Vol. 9 with English singer-songwriter PJ Harvey on backing vocals, Make It Wit Chu was resurrected for QOTSA’s fifth LP Era Vulgaris, quickly gaining a reputation as one of the sexiest, sultriest songs in an already sensuous canon. A self-confessed commitment-phobe, Josh wanted to express his infatuation and commitment to making it work with then-girlfriend (now-ex-wife) Brody Dalle. Time and tide might’ve taken their toll on that relationship, but the funky, sun-beaten grooves on show here are the sort that will surely live forever.
Coming on like a wavy surf-rock deep cut from some lost Quentin Tarantino soundtrack album, there’s a curiously timeless quality to 2002’s brilliant Another Love Song. With Nick on lead vocals (proving he was capable of far more than his barked contributions elsewhere) and featuring e-bow, organ, and tremolo-loaded lead guitar, it felt like a tantalising departure from QOTSA norms and a perfect addition to Songs For The Deaf’s mixtape-alike station-hopping concept. Those sticky, romantic lyrics, however (‘Now the time has come to leave this love that's left you dry / No need to work this out now ’cause you know there's no reason why’) were very much on brand.
The opening track to 2017’s Villains expands from its throbbing introductory beat out over six minutes of synth-stained, eminently danceable sound. Exploding just after the 100-second mark into an outrageously funky, disco-indebted beat, the fingerprints of renowned British-American DJ and producer Mark Ronson (Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, Adele) were clear to see, with Josh himself noting that Mark and Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk was a major influence. Fascinatingly, Feet Don’t Fail Me is actually a leftover from the frontman’s collaboration with Iggy Pop for 2016’s Post Pop Depression. Waste not, want not…
The title to the second single from Era Vulgaris is a reference to a bad hand in the game of poker – and the need sometimes to bluff oneself out of a bad situation. All machine-like gritty riffs and roguish swagger, it’s an ode to dishonesty that manages to feel irresistibly happy-go-lucky without descending into sleaze, and was pivotal in shunting Queens back onto the dirt path after the often overbearing melodrama of 2005’s Lullabies To Paralyze. Paul Minor’s outstanding music video – featuring beautiful women in fast cars smashing bad guys around Joshua Tree – was shamelessly indebted to Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse entry Death Proof of the same year.
Before Rated R, Josh has admitted that his lyrics were tightly guarded and often impenetrable on purpose to avoid having to bare himself to the world. On the second album, however, he “wore the feather boa” and gave fans a closer look at what exactly was going on inside his head. Brilliantly, this included Monsters In The Parasol: a first-person account of tripping balls on LSD and, er, seeing a monster in a parasol. Powered by route-one stoner-rock riffs and delivering even its most absurdist lyrics (‘Paul's sister is an alien, oh well / I seen some things I thought I never saw / Covered in hair’) in brilliant deadpan, it’s a leftfield narcotic delight.
Thematically, the third and final single from Lullabies To Paralyze works on a couple of different levels. On the face of it, it’s a continuation of the album’s dark aesthetic, with its commentary on the cruelty and misogyny of real-world witch trials fitting well into that corrupted fairytale theme. Beneath that, though, it was a metaphor for the hostility and perceived persecution that Josh experienced from fans after sacking Nick from the band. The juddering nursery rhyme-esque composition has proven weirdly unforgettable over the years since, with ZZ Top legend Billy Gibbons of all people layering on pounding lead guitar and raspy backing vocals.
The fourth track from …Like Clockwork was never released as an official single, but such was the weight of strange sex and strutting predatory attitude that fans have gravitated towards it ever since, firmly ensuring live favourite status. From that wilfully odd title and layer after layer of dreamy atmospherics to those Lady Marmalade-meets-Shaun Cassidy lyrics, Josh is clearly off the leash. He brings some famous friends along on the prowl, too, with Dave Grohl back on drums (and ‘ooh-la-la’s) as well as Mark Lanegan, Nick Oliveri and Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner on gang vocals. Who let the dogs out?
The chemistry between the core Queens trio on Songs For The Deaf – Josh Homme, Nick Oliveri and Dave Grohl – was evident right from the album’s ragged opening track. A simple driving beat, pointed six strings pierce through, then the pounding bassline kicks into gear and we’re really in business. From the fuzzy riffs and bursts of handclap percussion to that audacious fake-out ending at the 2:40 mark, this is the sound of a band high on their own confidence. It’s the contrast between Nick’s ragged vocals (‘Metal heavy, soft at the core / Gimme toro, gimme some more’) and Josh’s smoother croon that really lets fans know they’re in for an album above and beyond.
Mark Lanegan joined up alongside Nick Oliveri for QOTSA’s Interscope Records debut, Rated R, in 2000, adding another vocal option and substantially increasing the band’s three-way dynamic range. Powerful anti-suicide plea of In The Fade was arguably his greatest contribution. Delivering his lines in an earthy baritone that contrasted sharply with Josh’s more haunted falsetto, they brought to life a reckoning on hopelessness and tragedy unlike any other. ‘Ain't gon' worry, just live till you die / Wanna drown with nowhere to fall into the arms of someone / There's nothin' to save, that I know / You live till you die.’ Bittersweet beauty.
“Here is something for you to drop to your knees for and worship…” announces the mysterious DJ as Songs For The Deaf topples over into song number 13: its sort-of title-track. And she’s not kidding. A strange, five-minute masterwork constructed of layer upon layer of pulsating bass, pounding drums, ear-rattling feedback, duelling vocals and sheer demonic intensity, it is probably the most daringly dense and heavy QOTSA have ever sounded. Veering from the abrasive malevolence of the verses (‘The blind can go get fucked / Lie beside the ditch / This halo round my neck / Has torn out every stitch’) to an oddball chorus that flirts with catchiness (‘And I got what was / I want to take what's left’), this Song For The Deaf is genuinely hard to get your ears around – and all the better for it.
Following the career high of Songs For The Deaf and the recruitment of new collaborators Troy Van Leeuwen and Joey Castillo, Lullabies To Paralyze saw QOTSA struggling to meet almost impossible expectations, but lead single Little Sister was a hell of a place to start. Inspired by the 1961 Elvis Presley single of the same name, yet loaded with far more 21st century innuendo (‘Hey little sister, can I come inside, dear?’), its stabbing riffs and thudding jam block (a plastic cowbell) re-hooked listeners right out of the gate. In a show of outrageous talent and raw chemistry, it was apparently recorded in one take, too.
There was a dark, meditative woundedness bleeding through broad tracts of 2013’s …Like Clockwork, but fourth single Smooth Sailing felt like an outrageous statement of self-confidence. ‘I got bruises and hickies / Stitches and scars,’ Josh declares at one point, spitting over some massive blues licks and canyon-sized funk grooves. ‘Got my own theme music / It plays wherever I are.’ A few verses later he’s stroking that OTT braggadocio further still: ‘I blow my load / Over the status quo / Here we go!’ Perhaps it’s an observation on the ridiculousness of rock star ego. Perhaps not. Either way, it’s an absolute blast. Hiro Murai’s music video – where Josh enjoys a really wild night with some Japanese salary men – is a devilishly debauched classic.
‘Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy, and alcohol / Cuh-cuh-cuh-cuh-cocaine!’ With just eight words, Queens Of The Stone Age crafted one of the catchiest and most instantly-recognisable rock songs of the modern era. The second single from Rated R saw the band accused of glorifying illegal drug use (in fairness, they absolutely were), with U.S. mega-chain Walmart refusing to even stock the album unless the track was removed. Powered by a juddering rhythm-section and Josh’s elated vocals, though, and with legions of new fans suddenly on their side, QOTSA’s Feel Good Hit Of The Summer stubbornly refused to be brought down.
If Songs For The Deaf was visualised by the band as a concept album where the listener flicked between radio stations on the drive from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree, then Go With The Flow must’ve coincided with the moment we leave the city and hit the open road. An ode to making the most of every second you’re given in life, it shifts into top gear instantly and stays there for the duration, with the sheer momentum adding conviction to lyrics as strident as, ‘I want something good to die for / To make it beautiful to live.’ The red, white and black music video by UK collective Shynola was another iconic flourish.
If you ask Josh, there’s a very real chance he’ll tell you that the first track on Queens Of The Stone Age’s self-titled 1998 debut is the finest song he’s ever written. We can’t quite agree, but there is an immediacy and strange infectiousness to Regular John that feels every bit as inspired today as it did at the tail-end of the 20th century. ‘Open up your eyes / Open up your room / Open up your arms,’ begs the weirdly woozy chorus, while wave after wave of fuzzy, machine-regulated riffs drives us constantly towards the glowing horizon. One of stoner rock’s great underrated masterpieces.
In contrast, absolutely fucking everyone has heard the lead single from Songs For The Deaf. Josh had apparently been toying with the base idea for years before it properly clicked, but when it finally did it would catapult his band to superstardom. Dropping on music TV in late 2002, fans were taken by the crazily catchy jauntiness of it all, by Dave’s thunderous drums, and by Dean Karr / Michel Gondry’s high-concept video where a deer gets its revenge on a group of hunters. Almost two decades down the line it’s still a fan-favourite and rock club staple, thanks to its outsider attitude, a brilliant rhythmic focus and lightning-in-a-bottle interplay between a group of the finest musicians of their generation at the top of their game. Would QOTSA ever have gotten where they are today without this all-time banger? No one knows…
No One Knows might’ve been the point Queens Of The Stone Age smashed into the mainstream, but we’d argue their previous lead single The Lost Art Of Keeping A Secret was better proof of their sonic dexterity and peerless ability to walk a line between sinister and sensuous. Arriving at a time when heavy music was still dominated by nu-metal, they were dealing in familiar themes of infatuation and betrayal, rage and wrath, but their noir-ish understatement – more bite than bark – meant QOTSA felt like a band from another era. In their audacious composition, too, with glassy xylophones swinging over rumbling bass, and that iconic falsetto chorus (‘Whatever you do / Don't tell anyone’) duelling with fiery riffs, there was no sense of clinging to populist trend or desert rock formula. John Pirozzi’s strikingly Lynchian music video poured on another layer of midnight-in-the-middle-of-nowhere cool.
The Kerrang! Chart
The ultimate new music countdown – every Friday!
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