"The label said ‘What do you want to do next, lads?’ and we laughingly said, ‘Christmas song!’": Justin Hawkins on the creation of The Darkness' festive classic

The Darkness promoting Christmas Time (Don't Let The Bells End) in 2003
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The Darkness were on the crest of a wave as 2003 drew to a close. In the space of 12 months, the Lowestoft rockers had gone from much-loved cult concern on the London circuit to one of the biggest-selling acts of the year, their debut Permission To Land going to Number One and selling in the multi-millions. There was only one way to see out this triumphant year and that was by crowning it with their very own Christmas song. Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End) was released in December 2003 – 20 years ago this month – and last year, frontman Justin Hawkins told The New Cue all about its creation.

“We hadn’t been signed to Atlantic very long and the relationship was really fresh and exciting, we were just best friends really,” Hawkins explained. “I remember Max Lousada, who was second in command at Atlantic, said to us, ‘What do you want to do next, lads?’ and we laughingly said, ‘Christmas song!’ expecting them to shoot it down but then they went, ‘Yeah, alright, cool.’”

Handing the band a list of producers, engineers and studios they could take their pick from, the quartet chose Canadian rock royalty Bob Ezrin to man the mixing desk, also enlisting feted engineer and mixer Cenzo Townshend and pinpointing Abbey Road as the spot where they wanted to record. “Basically, it was like a best of really in terms of the three elements of it,” recounted Hawkins.

All they had to do now was actually write a Christmas song. “We’d usually acoustically develop things after we’ve riffed them out and come up with something stupid in a room. Then we were back in the rehearsal studio and Bob Ezrin came down and had a listen,” remembered Hawkins. “I think he suggested a key change and helped me with the lyrics a little bit. It was cool because I would never think to do a repeat line. I never do stuff like that, so in the second verse, there’s a bit where it finishes with hurts on two lines, just to double down on the hurt, and I would normally try and rhyme it with shirt, or Burt, so that was a brilliant piece of input and it really helped me as a songwriter and that was Bob Ezrin. Once he was happy, he just went off and that was it. We didn’t see him until we were back in Abbey Road.”

Working with Ezrin was a hoot, Hawkins explained, saying that despite the fact he’d produced some of their favourite records and was considered one of the world’s top producers, he was really just a great laugh. “I think the people that you meet along the way who really are in the upper echelons of this trade, people like him, they don’t take themselves that seriously, they’re not po-faced, they’re not like, ‘Oh, I’ve done this and I’ve done that,’ they’re not like that,” Hawkins said. “He’s actually just like one of us, just a bloke you can just have a laugh with.”

That sense of fun is evident in the song The Darkness emerged with, a silly and brilliantly ridiculous addition to their catalogue, a track so high-spirited that not even the fact Gary Jules’ sombre reworking of Mad World beat it to Number One. “I remember the chart battle being something that everybody else was talking about and we didn’t care about at all, couldn’t care less,” Hawkins shrugged. “I was on holiday in France… couldn’t give a shit, and then on the Wednesday, which was the midweek charts day, I got a phone call saying, ‘You know what, there’s a possibility it might go to Number One, you’re going to be required to do some promo, come back to England.’ So I did and I wish I hadn’t bothered. I really do. It didn’t make any difference. We were in the lead on the Wednesday, I came back and did some promo and then we lost. What does that tell you?! Stay on holiday, take the moments, enjoy the time.”

A few years later, Hawkins ran into Jules in an airport and the singer-songwriter was apologetic about beating them to the top of the charts. “I was like, ‘what are you apologising for? Congratulations, who cares?!’. He was a nice guy and it was a great song. But the thing about Christmas songs is, as opposed to any other type of song that’s number one at Christmas, it’s always gonna come back. I think every year now it seems to be Number One in the Rock Charts at least and that’s enough of a totemistic screenshot to be able to impress my mum, so that’s alright innit?”. It certainly is. Watch the video to Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End) below:

Niall Doherty

Niall Doherty is a writer and editor whose work can be found in Classic Rock, The Guardian, Music Week, FourFourTwo, on Apple Music and more. Formerly the Deputy Editor of Q magazine, he co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former Q colleagues Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. He is also Reviews Editor at Record Collector. Over the years, he's interviewed some of the world's biggest stars, including Elton John, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Robert Plant and more. Radiohead was only for eight minutes but he still counts it.