Re-evaluating The Darkness
As The Darkness return with a new album and UK tour, Shaun Ponsonby takes another look at one of the bands of his youth and wonders whether they are the band we need in these tumultuous times.
Does Humour Belong In Music? That was the question asked by Frank Zappa with the title of his 1985 live album. All too often, the answer that question seems to be a disappointing “no”.
Well, that’s the answer from critics anyway. People who consider themselves “serious” about music tend not to have a sense of humour about music. It’s an odd stance to take, as if fun and humour aren’t valid enough human experiences to express through song.
Take a look at the regular critical maulings Queen received since 1973; a band who often clearly made music with a nudge and a wink. Their 1978 album Jazz received an infamously nasty review in Rolling Stone magazine, as if Bicycle Race was supposed to be taken as seriously as Dark Side of the Moon.
Or what about Meat Loaf? Bat Out of Hell literally ends with Meat’s character in a motorcycle accident so horrendous that he is lying, tangled in the wreckage when he realises his torso has been ripped open, his heart has come flying out of his chest and he watches it still beating on the ground as he takes his final breaths. He’s always received scathing reviews, but anyone listening to this and taking it totally seriously, not realising that it is supposed to be funny – especially when coupled with the unorthodox image of Meat Loaf himself – is frankly an idiot.
In more recent times, no band has suffered more from people’s bizarre inability to understand this phenomenon than The Darkness.
It’s easy to forget now, but for a period of around 18 months, The Darkness were probably the biggest band in the country. Formed in Lowestoft by former jingle writer Justin Hawkins and his Thin Lizzy t-shirt wearing brother Dan, in the pre-Myspace days they built their reputation as an electrifying live act, even selling out London’s 2,000 capacity Astoria Theatre before they had a record deal.
Despite the obvious following, nobody was clamouring to sign them. A&R man Nick Raphael was one of only two people wanting to snap them up, and as he told HitQuarters; “The business as a whole thought they were uncool. In fact, people were saying that they were a joke and that they weren’t real.”
This maybe shouldn’t be surprising. Rock & roll in this country was in limbo, somewhere between the last laddish dredges that destroyed Britpop, and the uninspired indie landfill it would eventually inspire. It was either Thom Yorke or Kelly Jones; you were a bit dull and pretentious or a regular Joe with a guitar. As it is now, rock stars are no more. Rappers have been the rock stars since the early 90s. They’re the fun ones, the dangerous ones, the excessive ones, the controversial ones.
Furthermore, the industry didn’t seem to want a larger than life rock star. The last incarnation of this was hair metal, one of the more (probably unfairly) derided eras of rock music. Grunge, we were told, is what saved the day. Thank God for Nirvana! Isn’t that right, Steve?
But, in retrospect, it feels more like grunge was a full stop, rather than a new lease of life. Since then, there have been so few innovations in a genre that used to become restless if it went more than two years without something new.
As Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth has often said about the effect grunge had on personalities such as himself; “Fun wasn’t fun anymore”. Since then, a flamboyant and visually theatrical band coming forward tends to be wholly written off as a total novelty, particularly if they come with a sense of humour about themselves. Be angsty, damnit. Be angsty NOW.
There is an irony to this. Rock & roll was built on novelty songs. Are you going to sit there and tell me that Rock Around The Clock wasn’t a novelty song? Or Chubby Checker’s The Twist? There are a plethora of dance songs in early rock & roll that helped built the genre and snobbish publications harp on about the social and musical impact of them for any and all of their anniversaries.
Despite being more-well known for their earnest output, the rock community in America seemed to be clinging on a bit, at least visually. Looking back at all the bands I recall seeing on Scuzz or Kerrang! TV, it was Blink-182 or Sum 41 who were most popular; pop-punk with a cheeky sense of humour, though this seemed to lend more to a band like The Replacements than they did Cheap Trick . They were still full of teenage angst, and undoubtedly set the stage for the emo approach a year or two later.
Of course, the industry were wrong in the short term. When The Darkness released their debut album, Permission To Land, in 2003 it took everyone by surprise. It entered the UK charts at number two, eventually climbing to number one for four weeks and sold over 1.5 million copies in the UK alone. Melvyn Bragg followed them across America for an episode of The South Bank Show. There were TV specials, they won three BRITS in one night, sales of cat suits exploded and Justin Hawkins had tabloid feuds with Bono, Noel Gallagher, Pete Doherty and Lemmy.
How, exactly, did a classic rock album by a band from Suffolk whose singer wore a cat suit and humorously sang in falsetto about subjects like masturbation (Holding My Own) and heroin (Giving Up) become the must have album for the first half of the decade?
Well, that’s a two-pronged answer.
First of all, they presented it well. As we speak, we’re looking at the hype surrounding Greta Van Fleet, a sub-Led Zeppelin unironically being touted as the future of music by aging baby boomers who miss the 70s. The Darkness didn’t wear their heart on their sleeve. There was a campiness to it. They knew it was all a bit silly, and they possessed a Carry On sense of humour that could only come from a British group. It’s all there on Permission To Land, fully realised in all its glory.
The famously sweary Get Your Hands Off My Woman sees Hawkins get aggressive with a man in a nightclub who has his hands all over Justin’s girlfriend. In a surprisingly feminist lyric, he proclaims “I’ve got no right to lay claim to her frame, she’s not my possession”, before screaming “you cunt” in his face. But he sings this rant in the most feminine sounding falsetto you’ve likely ever heard. Surely this was by design, and intended to raise a smirk from the listener.
There’s also something jarring about the obvious arena rock sound being juxtaposed with explicit references to East Anglia. When Whitesnake’s David Coverdale left Yorkshire, moved to America and gave himself a poodle haired makeover in the late 80s, he sang about Bad Boys and slidin’ it in. He categorically did not sing about the Yorkshire Dales and Kes. The Darkness, meanwhile, match the chugging AC/DC-inspired riff of Black Shuck with the story of a mythical giant dog that supposedly haunts the area and “takes another fatal swipe at the Blytheburgh Church Door”.
Then there were the videos. I Believe In a Thing Called Love is the most famous. We’ve all seen it a million times, but it’s worth reading what actually happens in that video on the page.
It starts on the spaceship from the front cover of Permission To Land. We go inside to a room lit in pink where Justin gets out of a heart shaped bath. We’re led to believe he is naked and the space between his belly button and his thighs are pixelated. He is met by a giant cuddly, furry alien who tantalisingly dries him off. It is just about the gayest thing that this raging homosexual has seen in a hard rock music video.
It cuts to Hawkins – looking a bit older and goofier than most young, sexy rock stars – seductively lying on a bed in one of his trademark cat suits, with a window into outer space visible behind him. The band enter playing their instruments from separate automatic doors in time for the chorus. Each clearly projects a separate persona, something rock bands had seemingly felt was beneath them in more recent times, maybe due to it becoming more of a boyband thing. But this had been a secret to success dating all the way back to The Beatles, who contrary to popular belief were signed because of their personalities, not their music.
Dan Hawkins was first, shredding guitar and head banging. He was clearly supposed to be the classic guitar hero. The drummer, Ed Graham, was next. Dressed more casually than the others, he was the laid back one. Then finally bassist Frankie Poullain comes close to stealing the show; robotic, unmovable, stern and just staring at the camera.
As the chorus ends, Justin’s guitar floats down from above him for the first of three guitar solos – yes, three. In 2003, The Darkness got the public to buy a song with three guitar solos in it. He plays the solo as the bed spins, before vanishing.
He reappears on a distant planet for verse two, now wearing something of a bridal headband. He struts forward singing, “I wanna kiss you every minute, every hour, every day”, before being met by a giant alien. He looks directly into the camera for the line “You got me in a spin, but everything is A-okay”, walking a perfect tightrope between over the top camp and subtle deadpan. He picks up a giant rock and throws it at the alien.
Returning to the ship, he sings the next chorus whilst moving in slow motion towards the camera, something which every boyband seemed to do in the late 90s and early 00s. He shrieks “guitar!”, using some baloney as a microphone. Dan plays the next solo in front of a comically large backdrop of Marshall amps before power sliding into a room on fire. When it returns to Justin, there is a naked, female devil blocking our view of him.
The final chorus is classic stadium rock clap along and foot stomp. Poullain and Dan Hawkins, as they often did, evoke Malcolm Young and Cliff Williams from AC/DC. We’re in the spaceship’s control room. Justin is cavorting above the rest of them. He sings the final line and blows a kiss into the camera a la Paul Stanley from KISS.
For the final guitar solo, they are attacked by a giant squid-like life form. It seems only the power of ROCK can save them. And, indeed, it does. Justin gives a thumbs up. The video ends.
It is absolutely batshit crazy, and hysterically funny. It has nothing to do with the romantic lyrics of the song, but that is what makes it work. The absolute nonsense of it was both The Darkness’ masterstroke, and what would ultimately become their downfall – and that wasn’t necessarily their fault.
Because strip away the falsetto, and the silly jokes, and the crazy videos, and you still had great songs. What they did was make rock & roll pop music again. I mean real, accessible pop, not pop by proxy. Proper power pop. Friday Night – the single that should have been – is about as brilliant a pop song as you could hope to write. Their stage act was the kind of arena spectacle that became non-existent in rock & roll, but still thrived with huge pop acts.
The record’s appeal was across the board. Going to see them on their massive 2004 arena tour, which played multiple sold out nights at the biggest venues up and down the country in just under a month, it was striking to see Metallica fans mixing with Britney Spears fans, and with Razorlight fans, and Busted fans, and older Queen and Madonna fans. Indie, metal, pop, young, old, men, women and children. Everybody bought that record. If it was just because the videos were funny, that wouldn’t have happened.
It’s not like Spinal Tap, Steel Panther, or even Tenacious D where the jokes are the selling point. They are all actively trying to be stupid. The Darkness just don’t care if they do look stupid, and that’s an important distinction. They still gave it their all. You believe in it, because they believe in it. It goes beyond irony and somehow becomes genuinely good again.
What’s more, it’s the jokes are that made it palatable. In the age of Greta Van Fleet, it has become even clearer that The Darkness showed us how to do retro rock right. It is, actually, the same ingredient that makes retro soul work; humour, obvious pastiche and making us feel like we’re all in on it. I don’t recall anyone referring to The Darkness as the future of rock, the way that they do with Greta. Likewise, nobody called Sharon Jones the future of R&B. They navigated the novelty and were in control.
For a bit.
Because, of course, the problem when you walk that kind of tightrope is that the wider public either take you too seriously, or not seriously enough. That was why the phenomenal early success was unlikely to last.
By the time the follow-up, One Way Ticket To Hell…and Back was released in 2005, the novelty had worn off for the general public. Though it spawned two top ten singles in One Way Ticket and Is It Just Me?, the album itself only peaked at number 11, and the resulting tour undersold compared to the huge crowds they played to 18 months earlier.
The formula was pretty much the same, except in retrospect they probably did try too hard with the jokes and it tipped the balance. But, musically, we were straight away faced with an AC/DC sounding riff and Queen-like backing vocals (they even had Queen producer Roy Thomas-Baker on production duties), comical falsetto, and witty lyrics dealing with subjects ranging from Hawkins’ cocaine addiction (One Way Ticket), male pattern baldness (Bald) and elderly romance (Dinner Lady Arms). There was a power ballad (Seemed Like a Good Idea At The Time), power pop (Knockers). Everything that was there the first time around.
But, of course, adding to the joke starting to wear thin and Hawkins believing his own hype, by then we were already entering the dark days of indie landfill, Johnny Borrell and personality-free frontmen. Although they didn’t mess with the formula, they did mess with the set-up. Bassist Frankie Poullain left the group during the record process. As any pop group will tell you, once you start changing up group members, you start to lose your appeal. His replacement, Richie Edwards, didn’t command the same kind of focus on stage. The whole dynamic changed.
The final nail came when Justin Hawkins checked himself into rehab. When he re-emerged, he decided his time with The Darkness was over. He went off to form Hot Leg, whilst the rest of the band continued as the heavier Stone Gods. The latter got some decent reviews, if memory serves. But, for this writer, they were exactly the kind of alt rock dirge that turned the masses off rock & roll and made us need The Darkness in the first place.
They reconvened in 2011 and have maintained a consistent and respectable career ever since. Their next album, Easter Is Cancelled, will be released in October, with a UK tour following soon after.
Perhaps they were always supposed to be a cult band. But, given the misery we’re living in at the moment, they could also be the band we need right now.
Do you know who the biggest band of the early 70s were? As Britain were forced to face three day weeks, regular power cuts, rubbish pile ups and God knows what else, the public turned to Slade. They were an antidote to the misery. They looked ridiculous, they were heaps of fun and they backed it all up with genuinely great songs. Between 1971 and 1974 they had 12 consecutive top five hits, six of them were number one (and only one of them was a Christmas song).
This is a tradition that goes back centuries. In times of destitution, popular entertainment has traditionally swung to fantasy. This isn’t just true of the glam rock era, but the late 70s disco boom in the USA, straight out of Vietnam and Watergate and straight into recession. Hell, the 1929 Wall Street Crash was soundtracked by Leo Reisman’s Happy Days Are Here Again.
Perhaps it’s far-fetched, but in these miserable, tumultuous times, maybe The Darkness – or a band like them – could act as our antidote. Unpretentious, but hilarious. A place for us to do nothing, absolutely nothing at all, but have fun. They were always a formidable live act for that very reason and in Justin Hawkins, they still have a frontman capable of doing all of the most challenging aspects of his job with complete ease; equal parts Freddie Mercury, David Lee Roth and Frankie Howerd. You think effective, self-deprecating stage patter to thousands of people is easy? Pfft.
Fun is OK. There’s nothing wrong with it. We’re almost discouraged from liking bands that blow up our fantasies into giant inflatables, or want us to do nothing but dance and smile. But we need it.
A world where everyone is reaching for deep art sounds like a boring place to live and I want no part in it. In this writer’s eyes, it’s one of the things that has contributed to the death of rock. It just doesn’t look like fun anymore. I want artists who reach deep, but I also want people who will just make me smile. I’m fine with art with a capital “A“, but I also want a larger than life frontman playing a guitar solo in a jumpsuit whilst riding a giant white tiger over the audience’s head (yes, Justin did this). We need things to touch both our souls and arseholes.
Now that we’re long removed from the hype, The Darkness sound like not only one of the more entertaining bands of this century, but a little gem that it may be time to bring out of storage and let them have a Slade at Reading moment.
The Darkness play Liverpool’s O2 Academy on Wednesday 18th December 2019. Tickets are on sale on Friday 12th April.