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Queens Of The Stone Age Made A Rock Radio Utopia On ‘Songs For The Deaf’

On October 24, 2019

In 1980, the Ramones asked us “Do You Remember Rock ’n’ Roll Radio?” For as fast, loud, and loose as they played rock ’n’ roll, the Ramones were also traditionalists pining for mono 45s and bubblegum pop. But they weren’t alone: screaming for rock to return to is former glory on the radio has been around as long as the music itself. Reactionary? It sure ain’t always forward-thinking. Songs for the Deaf, the third album from the California rock band Queens of the Stone Age, came out one year before the Darkness’ Permission to Land, a paean to ’70s glam rock built on an attractive, if unsustainable, foundation of cheekiness, and it also came out around the rise of the New New York, where the Strokes were trying their damnedest to get Max’s Kansas City a new lease. Andrew W.K. made the best hair metal album with I Get Wet in… 2001, a decade after grunge allegedly made rock good again. (Grunge revived metal, but that’s another piece.) Which is to say: There was a lot of “rock revival” going on in the early 2000s. Queens front man Josh Homme could rock a leather jacket better than most of the aforementioned rockers of varying substance, but that’s not exactly the point. They were a lot more aware that nostalgia is a world-builder than their peers, and in building Songs for the Deaf as a trip through a mythical rock radio ecosystem, Queens created a rollicking journey that radio could only dream of providing.

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Songs for the Deaf is the best rock record about eternal recurrence. There is a path with a definite start and a little less definite end, and along the way there’s acres of familiar terrain, signs of rock as it were in the past, as it always is. Loosely, it’s a concept record about driving from Los Angeles to the Joshua Tree with only a radio to entertain you. No tapes, no CDs, aux cables weren’t really a thing then. Bad U-Haul, worn down truck with 150k on it, they don’t say. The radio is meant to guide us through all the different ways Deaf rocks us, yet there’s more to it.

Queens recognized the artifice of rock radio’s glory days — commercial radio sucked then, it really fucking sucked in 2002, and in 2019, radio stations are Facebook pages where memes go to die and sometimes they put music on the airwaves. Queens didn’t bother to ask “what if radio was good,” hell, they take the piss out of it by naming stations KLON (short for KLONE radio) and KRDL (Kurdle 109, “we spoil music”). They’re about the ride, bumps and all. You enter a stock minivan only to have Queens blast “You Think I Ain't Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire,” an aggressive refutation of not bashing everything in sight, and your commute gets ruined into a criss-crossing rock journey. “Gimme some more,” you sing with Nick Oliveri, who handles lead vocals on this song, and you want some more, you want it all, you want it now. “No One Knows” was refreshing to hear on the actual radio because it was a damn fine single. It’s only a communion wafer for the weirdness ahead. By the end of the journey, you may have never been in a vehicle at all.

Like most rock utopias, it only exists in the minds of its creators. Deaf is way more honest about it, and a lot more fun too. If your aim is to create a fictional world, take some liberties! Don’t shore up a false sense of integrity. It’s also a rebellion against the intense curation of life. Just go where the radio takes you, through Spanish language stations and death metal-exclusive stations (maybe the biggest fantasy of all here), and end up back in not exactly the womb, but station WOMB. Nothing can ever really be that free. It’s just nice to think it can.

Dave Grohl drums like an absolute motherfucker here. No dispute. That’s one of the two things you always read about this album. Grohl’s presence, more importantly, is a blessing to another group of punks who made the big time, like his own ascent with Nirvana. Torch passing is one of the better rock ’n’ roll traditions, one that really should happen more often and with enthusiasm. His inspired performance is the ultimate co-sign. Queens weren’t disaffected kids from the Pacific Northwest, though, they were desert vagabonds who brought generators to jam in the desert, free from L.A.’s pretense. Queens was a conscious shift away from the stoner metal that Homme made his name initially with Kyuss (Oliveri also played with the group for a couple albums). That never really left, not just because Homme can’t not be nice with the guitar.

Deaf’s freewheeling spirit owes a lot to Desert Sessions, Homme’s rotating cast of friends, allies, and other folks interested in mutually assured destruction of formalities. Nearly everything was covered in these mammoth jams, from space rock to punk to stoner rock to space punk to oddball pop. “Millionaire,” a king among rockers, began as a cut on Desert Sessions Volumes 5 & 6. It’s a lot dancier thanks to Brant Bjork’s shuffling drums, and Yawning Man’s Mario Lalli doesn’t sound as hardened as Olivieri. Homme originally played bass on it, and he knew it was too good to keep in obscurity. Deaf goes through a lot of territory, yet it never feels disjointed or out of place. It’s almost impossible to maintain consistency and diversity, and honestly, the latter is overrated if you don’t know what you’re doing. Deaf is a desert trip more streamlined, without losing exploratory riches. Homme’s been punk his own way, taking to the desert to guide him wherever his impulses go. It’s worked out pretty well, to say the least.

With all this punk talk, it’s time to address one of Deaf’s most integral components, and its most volatile and thorny: Nick Oliveri. Oliveri is the exact dude you’d want to yell on a raucous, punk rawk song, and exactly not the type of dude you’d really want to hang around with. He sings on many of Deaf’s more uptempo songs, like “Millionaire” and the record’s most outwardly violent song, “Six Shooter.” Homme may be the leader of Queens, but he knew how to delegate vocal responsibilities. Do you want his smooth voice screaming “Fuck this road / Well, fuck you, too / I’ll fuckin’ kill your best friend / What you fuckin' gonna do,” or do you want someone who was in Dwarves to do that? (Dwarves’ vocalist Blag Dahlia is the radio rock jock in KLON, imploring “I need a saga. What’s the saga?” Who knew a scoundrel could do a normie so well?) Oliveri was that unhinged spark, and he proved too unhinged for Homme, who kicked him out in 2004 following accusations that he beat his girlfriend. That wouldn’t be the last time Oliveri had issues with domestic abuse: he was arrested for it in 2011 when a SWAT team came to his residence. There’s been some guest appearances here and there this decade, maybe ill-advised; Oliveri will definitely never be a part of the band again.

His last performance as a leading man, the spaghetti western punk track “Another Love Song,” encapsulates both Oliveri’s tragic appeal and Deaf’s reinvention of rock standards. It’s an old rock song that doesn’t really sound like any other old rock song; there’s been many songs about failed loves and none of them resemble this. You’ve heard it a hundred times and you haven’t even heard it before. Its twang is unsettling, only rivaled by the oddly plainspoken resignation in Oliveri’s voice. It’s like he knows he’s doomed to be a piece of shit forever and has accepted it. He ain’t the first abuser to sing a love song, and he certainly won’t be the last. Queens made good records without him, and yet there’s no denying his absence is felt, even if it’s ultimately for the best.

Deaf wasn’t just the end of Oliveri’s quick heyday. Songs for the Deaf feels like the last important rock record. It’s a record that shows how much doesn’t change even when everything changes, though it’s the last record of its kind. It wasn’t the end for Queens — this is what made them one of the biggest rock groups of the 2000s, and one of the few still-dependable names in mainstream rock. But has there been a hard rock record as imaginative, as diverse and not dispersed, as just simply vicious and fun as this? Something that could challenge what a rock record can be, while not entirely dispensing or denying a gaze toward the past? A record that was tough and assertive but not all that macho? It’s of its time, yet it’s also clearly signaling the end of an era. Only one thing to do: grab your keys and go.

Profile Picture of Andy O'Connor
Andy O'Connor

Andy O’Connor heads SPIN’s monthly metal column, Blast Rites, and also has bylines in Pitchfork, Vice, Decibel, Texas Monthly and Bandcamp Daily, among others. He lives in Austin, Texas. 

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