“Gimme a D!,” Justin Hawkins implores the40,000-strong crowd at the Leeds Festival. “Gimme anarkness!”
Onthis late-August afternoon, in a sprawling park nearly 200 miles northof London, Hawkins spends the next 35 minutes darting across the stage,blond mane flying, striking rock-god poses and attempting Diamond Davesplits off the drum riser. He’s doing all he can to win anynonbelievers over to his band’s peculiar and thrilling brand ofhyperbolic pop metal. A feathered boa and guitar drape over his bare,sinewy torso; his shiny white flares, previously hidden under a stripedunitard, are laced up the sides, revealing some skin and the fact thathe’s going commando. It’s only near the end of his band’s triumphantset that he notices a rip in the seat and races backstage for a pieceof black gaffer’s tape. At the moment, the Darkness are undoubtedly theU.K.’s biggest and cheekiest rock band. Just not that cheeky.
Afew hours earlier, in their dressing room, the four band members aretalking about a different application for tape: Staind’s crew hasfashioned arrows on the temporary buildings so that Aaron Lewis and Co.can find their trailer. “And people say we’re like Spinal Tap,” saysmantis-like guitarist Dan Hawkins, 26. His brother, Justin, 28, sitsshirtless on an adjoining couch, smoking a Marlboro and picking at thelabel on a Smirnoff Ice. “That’s universally, patently, losing touchwith reality,” Justin says. “It’s something that we all strive for. Oneday, we’ll wake up and be the biggest assholes you’ve ever met.”
He’s kidding, of course. After all, this is a guy who hashis first name tattooed on his left arm, with a lightning bolt in placeof the S. On his right arm, over the lasered remnants of a Celticarmband, are pinkish flowers (orchids, he thinks) that snake around tohis chest, encroaching on the nipple that isn’t pierced. Inky flamesshoot out from the top of his jeans, threatening to ignite his happytrail.
Then there are the scrapped album titles: Short Fat Cock and Thank You, This Will Suffice for Me. Now If You Please, Have Sex With My Friend.Which means the Darkness have got to be a joke, right? Not necessarily.”Our music is really smart,” says Dan, “but really stupid.”
“It’s smart but retains its puerility,” Justin elaborates.”Because smart is often lumped in with cynical, people start to worryabout it being an ironic gesture. But it isn’t.”
“We’re not taking the piss,” Dan insists. “And why wouldanyone bother wanting to find out if we were? If you like it, you likeit.”
Apparently, many people love it. The Darkness’ self-financed debut, Permission to Land(which Atlantic released here in September), had by summer’s end soldmore than 600,000 copies in the U.K., after debuting at No. 2 in July.The week following Leeds, it hit No. 1, the first British debut to doso since Coldplay’s Parachutes in 2000. It’s a feat the bandmanaged pretty much on their own, by releasing a few indie singles andgigging constantly. Word of mouth spread about their unapologeticallyretro cock rock and flamboyant theatrics, with all eyes on Justin’sskintight catsuits and all ears on his falsetto — a glorious,ludicrous instrument around which no chandelier is safe.
As several generations of smartasses — from Sparks, theTubes, ?and Cheap Trick to Redd Kross, Urge Overkill, and Electric Six– have proved, it’s possible to rock hard, and with style, whilesurrounded by quotation marks. The tradition began in the early ’70s,when rock’s stadium showmen, classically minded proggers, and sensitivesinger/songwriters were all striving way too hard for authenticity.Suddenly, insincerity and sarcasm became viable alternatives, and newbands dared listeners to take their frivolity seriously. Trashingaccepted notions of rock stardom, they camped things up onstage, withsuch fashion statements as the Hitler mustache of Sparks’ Ron Mael andthe accountant chic of Cheap Trick’s Bun E. Carlos. “In the ’70s,” saysCheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, “I would see guitar players makingthese facial contortions and posing — and they’re only tuning. So if we’re gonna be ridiculous, let’s go for it.”
While New York City mock-metallurgists Satanicide are alsocurrently revisiting the era of Spandex and bullet belts (with more ofa whoopee cushion, less of a wink), post-Darkness bands like KidSymphony have begun sprouting in the U.K. The Darkness themselves mayprotest the “ironic” tag — perhaps a bit too much — but they doprofess an affinity for like-minded contemporaries Turbonegro and TenBenson. “[Ten Benson is] the spirit of British music,” says Darknessbassist and “elder statesman” Frankie Poullain, 32, sporting anoversize headband and leatherman mustache. “Eccentricity, a bit ofhumor — that’s what made a lot of ’70s bands really interesting.”
With its explicit nods to ’70s and ’80s favorites Boston, Rick Springfield, and 10cc, among many others, Permission to Land is the freshest-sounding, most fundamentally derivative rock record inyears — a euphoric antidote to baggy-panted tantrums and overlyearnest emo. Album opener “Black Shuck” hooks a monster AC/DC riff ontohobbit-rock lyrics about a mythological hellhound ravaging the Suffolkcountryside. The infectious “Growing on Me” is quite probably aboutgenital warts (“And you’re all over me / But I don’t want anyone toknow / That you’re attached to me / That’s how you’ve grown”), whilethe soaring power ballad “Holding My Own” is most definitely abouthaving a wank. On the jaunty mid-tempo “Friday Night,” Justin tries towoo an old classroom crush by reciting a litany of extracurricularactivities — badminton, bridge club, needlework — they once enjoyed.And, yes, he sings the phrase “extracurricular activities.”
“We take our songwriting and performance seriously,” saysPoullain. “You could say it’s a reaction against how, ever sincegrunge, rock has been so downbeat, so freakin’ up its own arse.” Notsurprisingly, the Darkness have little interest in mainstream rockthese days. “Justin and I have never been into punk,” Dan offers. “Andthat nu-metal thing is like 50 percent punk. I’ve never been angryenough, I suppose.”
“And those emo bands really try and force you to feelsomething,” says Justin. “They’re so one-dimensional: ‘This is how wefeel. You have to feel like this as well.'”
“And,” Dan adds, “you can’t tell the crew from the band.”
Drawing inspiration from the upbeat likes of Thin Lizzy, VanHalen, Aerosmith, and Def Leppard, the Darkness could never be mistakenfor roadies (well, maybe the drummer could). Justin, who has dubbed theband “the straight Queen,” even thanks Whitesnake’s David Coverdale inthe liner notes. “He is one of my heroes,” Justin says between smokerings. “He came up to me [at a gig] and said, ‘You must be the singer,you flash bastard.’ I thought, ‘Pot. Kettle. Black.'”
Soon, there’s a knock on the door. It’s soundman PedroFerreira — who also produced, engineered, and mixed Permission to Land– informing the band that it’s time for a TV interview. “Fuckinghell,” cracks Justin, as he gets up to find a T-shirt. “What a bunch ofleeches.”
Outside, before he commandeers a buggy that will transportthe guys to a nearby grassy guest area, Justin looks down at his Pumaboxing boots disapprovingly and says, “A band at our level shouldn’thave to walk around with laces loose.”
He’s kidding, of course.
The Darkness formed in early 2000 from the ruins of Empire, aprog-rock outfit that featured Scotsman Poullain, formeradvertising-jingle writer Justin, and ex-teen soccer star Dan. EdGraham, a recovering goth and schoolmate of the Hawkins brothers fromLowestoft, Britain’s most easterly port city, joined in on drums. “Itwas obvious from the start that we had something special,” says26-year-old Graham, whose quiet reserve is belied by the embroideredcouple having sex on his shirt. “Probably in Justin’s showmanship.”
Justin honed that skill in clubs before audiences of fiveand on sold-out arena bills with the Rolling Stones. But it was a gigsupporting Disturbed in London that proved to be the toughest test.”Our booking agent is a slightly mischievous chap,” says Poullain. “Hethrew Disturbed in there to see how we’d react. [The crowd] were afterour blood. Justin got hit with a can in his face, but we carried on.That taught us the importance of defiance.” And how did the headlinersreact? “Disturbed were the least friendly people we ever met. Disturbedis a very appropriate name for them.”
As much as the Darkness savor the attention they’re gettingat home (including a nomination for the prestigious Mercury MusicPrize), making it in the U.S. is “the most important thing,” saysPoullain, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together in a universalgesture. “But seriously, it’s because rock’n’roll is American, despitewhat the English think. Pop is English. Beatles melody — it’s allabout mothers and grannies and young screaming girls liking it. Rock isblues-based, innit? Rednecks punching the air, fat greasy rock chicks.”
But how do you sell this kind of cleverness in the States,where intentionally funny rock rarely succeeds past “Weird Al” noveltyor Tenacious D cult? “That’s really the question,” says MadelynScarpulla, Atlantic’s senior director of marketing. “I initiallythought that this was something so niche and so British. It was fun ina rock’n’roll way that wouldn’t necessarily take the path that someother very serious rock bands do. But pretty much anyone who enjoys arock star will enjoy this band.”
Back in the dressing room after their set, the guys arerelaxed ?and eager to begin the night’s drinking. All agree thattoday’s performance was stronger than the previous afternoon’s at thehigher-profile Reading Festival, and they were especially touched bythe crowd’s chants of “We love you, Darkness.”
Despite their satisfaction, they still covet the resources,including pyrotechnics, afforded the superstars for whom they’veopened. “A lot of bands put on a stage show just to impress people,”says Dan. “You have a huge amount of people, and you have to havesomething for them to look at. We can [do that and] still remainhumanly interesting. I think we can be the biggest touring band in theworld and still give everyone in the place a good time. That’s ourrightful place: playing the biggest shows that have ever been seen.”
Metallica’s recent Summer Sanitarium tour reportedlyrequired 250 people and nearly 90 vehicles. Will the Darkness ever getthat big? “I think it will happen,” Dan says, matter-of-factly. “Itwill happen very quickly, as well.”
“I think we’ll have a batch of stand-ins to do interviewslike this because we’ll be too busy,” adds Justin, grinning. “Put itthis way: In a year’s time, when we’ve got 85 trucks, there’ll be sixdummy trucks. It’s all about perception. If we can’t beat Metallica,we’ll certainly pretend to.” This time, you get the feeling he’s notkidding.?