“He gave me a bunch of pills... I could barely move my arm, so I could only play high up on the neck, and the first thing I did was that riff. I don't remember when I sang 'sex on fire'": The story of Kings of Leon's global smash

Kings of Leon
(Image credit: Getty Images)

For some groups their first hit is the big one, the albatross they have carry around for the rest of their careers, lives even. Others are lucky to enjoy a more gradual trajectory. Take Kings Of Leon, for example.

After signing to RCA in 2002, the Followill brothers, Caleb, Nathan, Jared and their cousin Matthew, had been for their first few years, essentially, a music press band. There was a good back story – the brothers’ father was a Pentacostal minister: they were, literally, sons of a preacher man.

Kings of Leon

Kings of Leon in 2003 (Image credit: Getty Images)

Their 2003 debut album Youth And Young Manhood garnered positive reviews for its distinctive Southern take on the then-current garage rock sound. There was much talk of them being ‘the Southern Strokes’, and like the skinny-jeaned New Yorkers, the Followills, with their flowing just-stepped-out-of-the 1970s hair, were good looking and young; Bassist Jared was a mere 16 when that first album is released.

Youth And Young Manhood was followed Aha Shake Heartbreak in 2004 and Because Of The Times in 2007. The latter reached Number One in the UK, but though they had built a following over here, there was no indication that the Kings were going to end up being anything more than just another moderately successful indie rock band (of which there were a fair few in 2007).

That was before Sex On Fire. The track with the questionable, cringe-y title that ended up changing everything for Kings Of Leon.

Main songwriter Caleb Followill had first come up with the distinctive guitar riff whilst laid up at home in Nashville. He was recovering from shoulder surgery, after an injury sustained (reputedly) in an altercation with one of his brothers. "My doctor had said, 'You can't play guitar for eight weeks,' he told Entertainment in 2016.

I know that I was joking. I remember the guys going, 'That's it!' I was like, 'Oh boy…'

Caleb Followill

“He gave me a bunch of pills, and then I took my sling off that night. I could barely move my arm, so I could only play high up on the neck, and the first thing I did was that opening riff. I don't remember exactly when I said [the lyric] 'sex on fire,' but I know that I was joking. I remember the guys going, 'That's it!' I was like, 'Oh boy…'”

Caleb had stumbled upon something. “I just had this melody and I didn’t know what to say,” he explained later to the NME. “I thought it was terrible, but the rest of the band were like, ‘it’s good, it’s got a hook.’ I was like, ‘fuck off!’ but I ended up writing it.”

In an interview with Australian Radio station Triple J in 2010, drummer Nathan revealed that the band had tried out several different lyrics. ‘Socks on fire’, ‘snatch on fire’ and (oh yes) ‘cocks on fire’ were all used before it arrived at its final iteration.

“You know if it (a song) starts with a melody you just keep playing it over and over...and just throw in any lyrics that fit the verbal flow. It was actually going to be ‘Set Us on Fire’, but one of the sound mixers in the studio walked in as we were playing and said, ‘Sex on Fire', huh? And it just kind of became a running joke, and we stuck with it.”

When it came to recording the Only By The Night album they decided to stay close to home, at Blackbird, the same Nashville studio The White Stripes had cut what turned out to be their swansong, Icky Thump, the previous year.

After three albums with Ethan Johns, the band decided it was time for a change. They stuck with Angelo Petraglia, who’d worked with the band since its inception, but elevated alongside him to the producer’s chair was their long-time engineer Jacquire King.

The producers and band had already agreed that they wanted a fresh approach, as King revealed in a 2008 interview with Sound On Sound: “We were experimenting with sound on the new record, instead of just going for energised, magic performances, as we'd done with the previous record we did together. We were still looking for that, but we also wanted broader textures and more layering of sounds.”

I knew instantly, ‘Everyone’s gonna hear this and they’re not gonna listen to the rest of the album

Caleb Followill

Even before they started work on the record, King knew that Sex On Fire had potential. “We’d hung out together last year (2007) and of course you start talking about the record and about the songs. Caleb would get out an acoustic or electric guitar and would show us some ideas that he had, including 'Sex On Fire'.

"Everyone felt that it was a great melody and song, and the band already has a reputation for singing about sex, so we encouraged him as much as we could. In any case, rock n’ roll has always been fairly explicit.”

On the track King pulled out a few tricks to give Jared’s bass some thickness: "I put an AMS delay and a Cooper Time Cube just to give it a little bit more ambience. The latter is something made by Urei. It's a tiny box with a speaker at one end and a mic at the other, and you get 11–14 milliseconds of weird, hollow, echoey delay/reverb. It gives a nice early reflection type of texture. Because the delay is so short, it also gives a chorus–filter like effect.”

Then onto the guitars – Caleb’s trusty Gibson ES325, which he’d used since the band’s first EP and Matthew’s Epiphone Sheraton. "We had five or six guitar amplifiers available for each guitar, and we picked the ones that were most appropriate for the song. Angelo and I would listen to the guitar parts and mix and match amplifiers.

"Sometimes we'd put reverb on one amp and a delay on another, or effect pedals on both. The synth–like reverb you can hear on the guitar (on Sex On Fire) was done at Blackbird on an Eventide DSP4000 and added during the transfer to Pro Tools.”

Both producers and the band were happy with the results but Caleb still had to be cajoled into including it on Only By The Night. As he mentioned in a recent interview with the NME: “I didn’t want it on the album...

"I knew instantly, ‘Everyone’s gonna hear this and they’re not gonna listen to the rest of the album.”

Though the band knew they had a hit on their hands, few could have foreseen its impact. The Kings hadn’t breached the UK Top Ten with any of their ten previous singles but ‘Sex..’ went straight in at Number One in September 2008. And then just kept selling and selling, all through the autumn, into 2009 and beyond.

At the time of writing it has chalked up 127 weeks in the chart and gone five times platinum in the UK alone. And as with any monster track there have innumerable covers and remixes, from sundry X Factor wannabes to Nineties dance diva Tina Cousins, to a trance remix by Avicii.

In the US, whilst it never rose any higher than 56 in the Billboard chart, it was the key to finally breaking the band in their homeland. On the back of the single, the Only By The Night album went double platinum in the US and catapulted the band into the big league.

In an interview with Total Guitar in 2009, Caleb insisted there was no cunning involved. “When I wrote Sex On Fire, I didn’t feel as though it was a composition that would especially help us break through in the US. Sometimes the popularity of a song can take on ridiculous proportions.”

In common with many bands, the Followills ended up having a complicated relationship with their biggest song. In an interview with the Toronto Sun in 2009 Caleb was quoted that saying that Sex On Fire was “a piece of shit.”

Speaking to Rolling Stone later that year, Jared pointed out that “now it’s like people are looking for any reason to hate us. And I think that’s partly because people had to hear Sex on Fire and Use Somebody 8000 times a day. That would make anybody hate anything.” There were even rumours around this time that they were considering dropping it from their live set.

Since then the band have mellowed on the song. Come 2016 and Caleb revealed to Q that “I love ‘Sex On Fire’ at this point. It doesn’t matter where we play in the world, as soon as that starts, the place is gonna go nuts.”

Indeed. It’s the one song that’s nailed on every setlist and will be as long as Kings Of Leon are a functioning band. When they play Hyde Park this summer it’ll be Sex On Fire that will be bellowed by fans across Central London at twilight.

Back in 2009 when the band spoke to Total Guitar its author mused on its enduring appeal: “Everyone is trying to write songs about war, politics and crisis, and then there’s us with a song that has me shouting at the top of my lungs, ‘Sex is on fire’ That’s a bit of a different note, you know? There’s no message to it; it’s just about having a good time with a beautiful woman. That’s what people want to hear right now.”

And a decade and a half later, it still is.