Reading Festival: The Birth Of The Queens Of The Stone Age

This weekend sees Queens of the Stone Age play Reading and Leeds. Here in an extract from his excellent book on the band, Joel McIver recounts their early days of rock & roll madness.

Pictures by Shot2Bits

With the lush environment of the desert and the nearby Joshua Tree national park, which offers visitors the chance to see some of the most awe-inspiring natural beauty in America, tourism in Palm Desert boomed and the area is now a popular retirement destination for ageing Los Angelenos who want to spend their autumn years in the countryside. There are casinos, convention centres, celebrity tennis tournaments and plenty to do if you’re of a certain age and disposition.

But Palm Desert has an underbelly, of course, and it’s this dark, amorphous but vivid zone that we want to explore in this book. Unimpressed by the locale’s cheery tourist face – the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies musical revue, musicals at The Annenberg Theater in the Palm Springs Desert Museum and the McCallum Theatre for the Performing Arts – a generation of bored teenagers grew up with nothing to do in the 1960s and 70s. Just as they do in every hick-town on earth, the kids turned towards music as a means of escape and self-expression – but in the case of Palm Desert, the disaffected youth had a major advantage: they could escape to some of the most spectacular open spaces the planet has to offer.

By the mid-80s, there was a flourishing ‘generator-party’ scene, where groups of teenagers would drive out of town to a secluded spot where only the moon and the sand could be seen, fire up diesel-powered generators, play music and settle in for a night of drugs – mostly home-made speed (or ‘meth’/methamphetamine) – booze and sex. Local bands would bring amplification and lights, and play unhindered by restrictions of volume or curfew. As it had for LA boy Jim Morrison two decades earlier, the desert became a playground for experimentation of all kinds, where miracles could occur and the universe would give up its secrets if the music and the hallucinogens did their job properly.

The first generator party that Homme and his drummer friend Brant Bjork – 16 and 18 years old at the time – attended featured Yawning Man. As Bjork later recalled: "Yawning Man was the greatest band I’ve ever seen. We saw them many times at their generator parties. We had been trying to get into the punk scene that didn’t even exist anymore. We were into Black Flag, Minor Threat, Misfits. But when we finally tapped into the local scene, it’s Yawning Man, and they’re playing this really stone-y music. It wasn’t militant like Black Flag. It was very drugged, very mystical. But we got into it."

He explained: "You’d get to the location, be up there partying, and then the Lallis would show up in their van, all mellow, drag out their shit and set up. It was more like something in the 60s than some gnarly punk scene. Everyone’s just tripping, and they’re just playing away for hours."

Bjork and a bass-playing friend named Chris Cockrell were inspired by the Yawning Man shows to form a band, with the drummer roping in Homme on guitar, who he knew from the occasional previous jam session. John Garcia was also persuaded to become the band’s singer, and they named themselves Katzenjammer.

Despite their love of extreme music, none of the musicians were particularly extreme people. As Bjork recalled, "School was fine. Sure, I got bored there like everyone does, but I didn’t have any terrible experiences like some people do". The drummer, who had known Josh since childhood, described him as "one of the funniest guys I’ve ever known. He was a tall guy, and he had red hair, so he stood out, and he kinda had to live up to that. Clever dude, great musician, had his shit together". Garcia explained, "I was a normal kid in high school, smoking pot behind the bleachers, doing that type of shit. We all played football. We weren’t jocks." But when it came to music, he added, "We just wanted to get in there and fuck people up!"

"People say, I got into music for the girls," said Josh much later. "But I didn’t realise that until later. I got into music because I loved it, and it was like chasing shit in your head, and everyone else in our scene was the same way. Once it was like, let’s be different, it became, well, how can we be different, really? You hear your favourite song and you say, that makes me feel so good. Now what if no-one else played it, so I had to? In the desert, it was about having to make your own thing, and being isolated enough to do it without anyone fucking with you."

This mission was made much easier by the recruitment of Nick Oliveri on rhythm guitar, who was drafted into the band a while after Katzenjammer had first formed. Homme was responsible for bringing him in, having got to know him in 1984, two years after he had arrived from LA. At this stage, as Oliveri later recalled, Katzenjammer were truly forgettable, attempting to emulate the music they liked best – American punk bands like Black Flag and The Descendants, as well as others signed to the cult punk label SST – with little or no success. "We were literally in like eighth and ninth grade, and Josh was in seventh or something," sighed Nick much later on. However, Oliveri’s arrival did consolidate the band to a degree – he was ‘a legend at school’, explained Bjork: a guy with long hair who fought and drank and smoked weed – which gave the band a touch of cool. As Homme put it: "Nick played guitar and when John left after a rehearsal one day, he sang. He sang better than John, but we didn’t have the balls to kick him out… But we did have the balls to keep Nick in."

Although Oliveri was decidedly a metal kid, Josh explained later that he avoided the scene like the plague as a kid: "Punk rock kicked me in the balls. I’ve never been into metal. I’ve never felt a part of it. I always get dragged in – we want you to be in the metal scene! And I’m always like, I don’t wanna be in the metal scene!"

Bjork recalled of Oliveri: "Nick was the guy wearing Vans, jeans, Ozzy shirt, flannel, hair down to the middle of his back. Smokin’ cigarettes, doin’ blow. Just partying. He’s been going like that since the early 80s! He’s a radical. Josh and Nick couldn’t have been more opposite, really. But equally interesting… Growing up, Nick was definitely the free spirit, he came from the tough side of the tracks, and we were all buddies and he was always just a couple of steps ahead of us… I mean Nick, he just can’t be stopped!"

Homme added: "Nick was the guy in high school that I drank with in the parking lot before school. We used to play for hours and hours. SST bands like Black Flag, SWA and The Minutemen were the only bands that would play in my home town. So that shoved the do-it-yourself thing in our faces." Oliveri was the most metal-aware member of their circle, as he recalled: "When I was a kid, I really liked Ozzy Osbourne’s music a lot and I still do. I like some early Judas Priest. I love Slayer: to this day, I think they’re awesome, man. That band never, ever change what their vision was musically. And consistently they’ve sold records and they’re not concerned about getting on the radio. They have very dedicated fans and they don’t have to, you know what I mean?"

To buy Joel’s book No One Knows: The Queens Of The Stone Age Story visit Amazon.

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