Wrestling with fame with Kings of Leon

NEW YORK — The Kings of Leon took more than musical cues when they opened a concert tour for U2 a few years back. They learned that ambition isn't a dirty word.

That lesson is clearly evident on "Come Around Sundown," the rock band's first collection of music since the hits "Sex on Fire" and "Use Somebody" made them Grammy-winning stars. The album cover's palm trees recall the Eagles' "Hotel California" (16 million sold) and the music inside is epic and inviting.

"If the world is looking for a big band from our generation, we at least want to give it a shot," said 28-year-old singer Caleb Followill, one of three brothers and a cousin in the group named for his grandfather. "We'll put ourselves up there against anyone because we're very competitive and we're family. Yeah, we'll give it a shot. I'm not afraid to at least try."

The admission cuts against the grain of an ambivalence toward success that has run strong in the rock 'n' roll world — coinciding with its diminished influence as a force in popular culture — and the Kings' own wrestling with good fortune.

The Beatles and Elvis Presley never thought twice about wanting to be big stars. The attitude is different today, perhaps dating to Bruce Springsteen's pulling back from his "Born in the USA" stardom and, especially, the suspicion that Pearl Jam and Nirvana felt about popularity. An underground ethos took hold. Most rock artists prefer being part of a subculture and don't make the effort to break through to a wider audience, said Brian Hiatt, senior writer at Rolling Stone magazine.

"It has kind of messed with fans' heads and confused fans about what is acceptable and what is not," he said. The quality of work almost doesn't matter; many fans simply will dump a band when they become popular, he said.

For four albums, the Kings of Leon were underground darlings in the United States, with more mainstream appeal overseas. Things changed with the "Only by the Night" disc in 2008. Buoyed by the hit songs, it sold north of 6 million copies.

Kings of Leon were approached to have their music covered on the Fox television musical series "Glee" and turned down the opportunity.

Hiatt can see where the band is coming from.

"If you want to be a rock star, you have to keep your credibility," he said. "You need to be offending someone."

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