Nowhere has the difference between music fans in the US and those in the UK been sharper than in regard to The Darkness–the UK glam rockers whose 2003 debut, Permission to Land, went quadruple platinum in the UK. Among the staggering number of awards that album collected, its third single, “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” was deemed “The Best Rock Song of the Noughties” by Classic Rock magazine.
In the US, that song didn’t even make the year-end top 100 for 2003. Sure, we heard the excitement building across the Atlantic and we watched the UK tabloids go ga ga over vocalist Justin Hawkins’ meat suit and prodigious appetite for the Epicurean life. We heard the music, too–mainstream US radio flung “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” into heavy rotation but the American media failed to embrace the band with even a fraction of the enthusiasm of their British counterparts.
So what gave?
Forever occupied with looks, American audiences balked at the band’s over-the-top image, from its cartoonishly sinister name to singer Justin Hawkins’ sea-parting falsetto. Of course, Hawkins’ spandex jump suits, with their generous view of all things frontal, did nothing to point Americans towards the music, and therein lies the disconnect. Beyond the meat suits and admittedly lighthearted approach to lyricism, the music of The Darkness is thoroughly hard-charging stuff–as potent and as catchy as anything splattering the US airwaves now or when Permission to Land first hit the charts. With a sound owing as much to AC/DC and Thin Lizzy as to Queen (the band’s more obvious influence), The Darkness could never have captured the adoration of snobby UK music fans if their music were not one hundred percent authentic. Songs like “Get Your Hands Off My Woman” and “Black Shuck” boast pulverizing chord progressions and paint-peeling solos that stand up to any rock coming from either shore in the past twenty years.
With Permission to Land blowing up in several countries, the band toured the ever-loving shit out of the continent as both headliners and as support for bands like Metallica, and their efforts paid off handsomely. By 2004, The Darkness (including Justin’s brother Dan Hawkins on guitar, Frankie Poullain on bass and drummer Ed Graham) sat comfortably atop the rock hierarchy. Even American audiences came around after the band’s wildly successful US tour that year. Critics heaped mountains of accolades on the band and by the end of 2004 they could hardly brush their teeth without picking up an award for best song, best album or best band.
It was all downhill from there.
In 2005 the band released their follow-up, One Way Ticket to Hell… And Back, to mixed reviews that reflected the media’s high expectations more than the actual music. Though that album went on to achieve platinum status, its failure to reach the manic heights of the debut led many to doubt the band’s staying power.
The prognosis turned from “serious” to “fatal” when Justin entered rehab and then left the band in 2006. The Darkness carried on without him, eventually changing their name to “Stone Gods” a year later. It looked like ABBA had a better chance of reforming until March, 2011, when the original Darkness lineup suddenly announced that they would reunite to play the 2011 Download Festival.
The response at Download was massive. Not only were existing fans ecstatic, but a new generation of fans eagerly jumped on board. Word that The Darkness were heading into the studio to record a new album only stoked the flames higher.
The Darkness have ridden hard through the balance of 2011, playing gigs from Europe to Japan, including a string of sold-out dates in the UK. Premiering new songs such as “Cannonball” and “Out of This World,” the group has re-ignited the fever it once spread. In fact, the buzz now surrounding the band is bigger than it was in 2003. With Justin clean and sober, old wounds healed and a single-minded eagerness to earn back the respect of their fans, the band are taking nothing for granted. Having seen how easily fame and fortune can dissipate into the ether, The Darkness are approaching their tertiary effort with all-or-nothing urgency.
TNB Music was recently invited to participate in a teleconference with Justin and Dan Hawkins to discuss the new album and their ambitious plans for 2012. Of their auspicious comeback, Justin says, “I feel like we have to fight for it. It’s gloves off time. It’s time to get (our) hands dirty and it’s time to change people’s idea of what we’re doing. It’s going to be hard work and I’m aware of that. That’s what I’m excited about getting my teeth into now.”
In this sense, they are the anti-Oasis. They do not spout boorish proclamations of their own greatness, nor do they presume to return at the heights they once reached–not yet at least. Quite the opposite, The Darkness are hell-bent on letting the music stand on its own.
“When we first kicked off, we weren’t doing it to become huge (and) we weren’t doing it because we were ambitious,” says Justin. “We were doing it because we were genuinely loving the music and that was the only ambition we had. That’s what fired out of the cannon and what everybody latched onto. I think that went away because we became ambitious and we decided that we wanted to maintain what we had achieved. And we started playing a game. We did it the wrong way. So now we’re back to square one where it’s just music, you know?”
Justin, he of the chest-baring, skin-tight cat suit fame, now speaks with a quiet sincerity that underscores just how seriously he is approaching this opportunity. Gone are the wanton hubris and outlandish banter. When egged on by one reporter to say something outrageous, Justin simply chuckles and deflects. When asked about their intimate gig at London’s 100 Club, which was by all accounts a resounding success, he downplays the performance, stating, “I think we made the mistake of doing like a fan club show to a media audience. We gambled basically and we played the new stuff to the media. And also I wore an unusually skinny lycra outfit, which made me kind of… I suppose it made things easier really, because I was less worried about the material and more worried about my genitalia being on display. (laughs) I always feel like the chaos and the terror is what brings out the best in us.”
Of the forthcoming album, due in early 2012, Justin says the band has “nine of the required songs done, all finished, all sounding shining and good. We’ve got about two weeks of recording in January and bits of it are already going off to be mixed even as we speak, so it’s kind of nearly finished now.”
Says Dan, “We’re trying to get back to the more organic rock sound of The Darkness, hence we’re doing a joint production with Nick Taylor, the engineer who’s worked with us a lot. Rather than going through a big name producer we decided to do it ourselves, as per the first record, and kind of take a minimal approach across the board–apart from when we go really over the top. So I guess it’s following the first record instead of the second.”
For Darkness fans and rock lovers in general, this is fantastic news. If their as-yet-untitled new album approaches the brilliance of their debut, then the band has set the table for the “Comeback of the Decade.”
The band announced a North American tour in February, kicking off in Toronto and ending in San Francisco. As soon as the news hit, the sell outs began and new dates have already been added–in New York City, the Irving Plaza show on Feb. 4 sold out so quickly that another was added on the 6th.
The last time The Darkness toured the US was 2004 and Justin is excited to reconnect with fans here–especially one particular fan in San Diego. “Our fondest memories of audiences are from the States. I mean, there’s one time in San Diego when someone sent their eleven year old child onto the stage, and we hung with him a bit and then put him out on a crowd surf to the back of the auditorium and then home again. And I’m kind of hoping that he’ll be there, actually. I wonder how old he’ll be now. He’ll probably be a teenager.”
In the meantime, Justin is ready to hit the road and get to work. “The excitement part of it is that’s what we’re born to do.” With a new album and world tour on tap, there will be no shortage of excitement for The Darkness in 2012.
TNB Music Editor
THE DARKNESS 2012 North American Tour:
|Sat||2/4||New York, NY||Irving Plaza|
|Wed||2/8||Washington, D.C.||9:30 CLUB|
|Fri||2/10||Detroit, MI||St. Andrew’s Hall|
|Sun||2/12||Minneapolis, MN||First Avenue|
|Fri||2/17||Las Vegas, NV||House of Blues|
|Sat||2/18||Phoenix , AZ||Celebrity Theatre|
|Sun||2/19||Los Angeles, CA||House of Blues|
|Tue||2/21||San Francisco, CA||Fillmore|