Summoned to the country residence of Darkness guitarist Dan Hawkins, Classic Rock expected to be greeted on the doorstep by a man wearing a silver sequinned catsuit, and restraining a pet panther on a leash. But the reality was substantially different. We knock on the door of Dan’s Norfolk farmhouse and it opens to reveal… a scruffy roadie eating a bacon sarnie.
“The band members are all in there,” he grumbles, gesturing toward what we hope will turn out to be a glittering fairy grotto just inside. In actuality we step forward and enter a typical country kitchen, complete with Aga and ceiling beams, pots and pans dangling from them. Very heavy, very Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
The bucolic image is completed by an old-fashioned clothes mangle in a corner and paintings of roosters hanging on the walls. There’s also a small blackboard chalked with the legend ‘Lawn Racing Lap Record’, accompanied by a list of names. Dan is the current winner with a lap-time of one minute, three seconds.
There’s a huge pine table in the centre of the kitchen. Dan’s brother, Justin, is sitting slumped in a chair reading the 3am Girls’ gossip page in the Daily Mirror. The Darkness frontman’s hair is lank and greasy, and his chin is unshaven. He’s wearing a colourful chunky cardigan of the type favoured by people who herd sheep in the Andes.
I remark on the Lawn Racing Lap Record chart and our conversation somehow shifts on to the subject of automobiles. (Probably because Justin recently appeared on BBC TV’s Top Gear where he was the Star In A Reasonably Priced Car, thrashing a workaday Suzuki Liana around a circuit in the fastest possible time.)
“They even featured me in Top Gear’s Best Of show,” Justin beams. “In fact, I had to buy a car myself the other day. I tried Lexus – or Lexii, as Alan Partridge says in the plural – but they seem to be only made for small Japanese people. I’ve got a growing family, so in the end I plumped for a Mercedes-Benz. I liked the heated seats.”
We’re joined by The Darkness’s new bass player, Richie Edwards, the replacement for Frankie Poullain. Richie’s wearing a T-shirt from the 1981 Castle Donington Monsters Of Rock festival, featuring AC/DC, Whitesnake, Blue Öyster Cult, Slade, Blackfoot and More. You can tell immediately it’s authentic and not a Top Shop replica. What was probably once a Medium has shrunk over the years to an Extra Small, and it hugs Edwards’s body like a superhero suit. The T-shirt’s original black has become a mottled grey – something that can only be achieved via endless bombardment inside a washing machine.
Drummer Ed Graham arrives and finally we’re joined by Dan Hawkins, who ushers us outside to show us his pond filled with carp the size of small sharks. There’s a picnic table nearby, upon which is perched a giant hookah of the type favoured by mad-eyed opium warlords.
“That’s not our bong,” Dan stresses. “It was there when I bought the place. Honest.”
He shows us into a ramshackle barn, which has been converted into The Darkness’s rehearsal studio (“My dad did it for me – he’s a builder”). Then we move into an adjacent study complete with Darkness memorabilia on the shelves.
“I didn’t put all that in here,” Dan protests again, indicating gold and platinum discs and various photos of the band together with their new record producer, the legendary Roy Thomas Baker. “My girlfriend is responsible for all that. I’m not a big one for trophies.”
Justin – much taller than you might imagine, and with the beginnings of a beer gut hanging over the waistband of his jeans – lumbers in and grabs a phone. He places a call to the studio that’s designing the cover to The Darkness’s latest album, One Way Ticket To Hell… And Back.
“Make sure you get the right shade of purple smoke!” he barks. “Otherwise there’ll be hell to pay!”
It’s all so unexpected, seeing The Darkness as something other than star-spangled, featherboa’d, crotch-thrusting, high-pitched, over the top, in your face, sparkle-cheeked, glam’n’roll cartoon characters. It ain’t quite Vic & Bob doing Slade on vacation, but it’s pretty damn close.
So, have we shattered enough illusions for you, already? If not, there are more revelations on the way…
The Darkness haven’t been in* Classic Rock* much. We ran a short introductory feature on them in issue 49, and that – apart from the odd review here and there – has been pretty much it. As we assemble for our interview outside in the garden in the unseasonable October sunshine, Dan Hawkins – who is very much the business brain of the band – muses: “We used to think, how can The Darkness be considered a classic rock band if we’ve only had one album out? I think it’s a bit of a weird concept to have new bands in your magazine, anyway. But having said that, I definitely thought we should be in there for the second album. Particularly as we brought in Roy Thomas Baker as producer. It all fits.”
To their credit, The Darkness seem blissfully unaware of the turmoil they have caused in the Classic Rock office over the past couple of years. As their 2003 debut album Permission To Land stormed off the shelves, the spandex-clad rockers were praised by many for bringing a dose of good ol’ guitar-flagellating fun back to a British music scene that had been dominated by humourless and sour-faced bands for a decade or more. But we at Classic Rock were unduly suspicious. After all, we’d been there, done that and seen David Lee Roth nut the mirrorball. Like grumpy old men with ear trumpets in the throes of Alzheimer’s, we felt rather cynical and crotchety about The Darkness. Moreover, we couldn’t quite decide whether they were taking the piss or not.
Doubts still linger. Listening to a preview copy of the band’s admittedly storming second album, the aforementioned One Way Ticket To Hell… And Back, our feelings were best summed up by the comment: “This is great, but is it okay to like it?”
Richie Edwards – the guy in the tatty Monsters Of Rock T-shirt, remember – pipes up: “Of course it bloody is. I’m just an aging rocker, really.”
“In a way we all are,” agrees Dan. “It’s not like we’re 19 years old or anything. It’s not like we’ve rifled through someone’s record collection and said: ‘Oh yeah, let’s form a band that looks and sounds like this.’ It’s taken us 10 years of being ageing rockers to fucking have a chance to do it. We’ve come up against this suspicion, as you call it, in every aspect of the band. People are always asking us: ‘Are you for real, or are you just having a laugh?’”
We ask: what, in your experience, do dyed-in-the-wool British headbangers think of The Darkness?
Justin: “They get it, I find. It’s the people who read the NME and think they’re dyed-in-the-wool headbangers because they own a Black Sabbath record and they’ve seen Ozzy on the telly… they’re the people who don’t get it.”
Richie: “The first time I saw this band, before I started working with them [he used to be Dan’s guitar tech], I didn’t think they were anything other than a bunch of guys who loved rock music, and were a great rock group. I didn’t see it as any kind of piss take. And I’m from the west midlands – the home of Sabbath and Priest and all that. I’m the biggest rock fan I know, really.”
For Justin, the problem isn’t with The Darkness’s fans, it’s with people in the music press who write “inanities” (his word) about the band. Throughout our interview he casts mistrustful glances at a piece of paper we have in front of us, upon which we’ve made a few notes about the new One Way Ticket… album. It’s as if he fully expects to see we’ve scrawled ‘The Darkness are crap’ or ‘This song sucks’ or something…
“People who write for the* NME* don’t know what the fuck they’re on about,” Justin rages. “That’s not a rock paper. Not at all. As I say, dyed-in-the-wool headbangers spotted us for what we are – that’s a proper rock band – and the NME writers and readers who suddenly decided they wanted to get into rock just didn’t get it all.”
Surprisingly, The Darkness have a very old-fashioned approach to rock’n’roll music. Referring to the importance of album No.2, Dan trots out the tried and trusted cliché: “I felt a lot of pressure to make a really good record for the fans, really.” Yet you get the impression that this isn’t just some kind of bog-standard, preordained interview-speak. He really does believe it.
Dan continues: “When you reach the level we did on the first album, there’s no escape. No one’s going to forgive you if you make a shit second album. As far as your fans go, they’re all hoping and praying that you come up with the goods. They risk everything to have the name of the band they believe in on their T-shirt, and it you make a shit album then suddenly that T-shirt becomes totally uncool.”
Those comments conjure up visions of 70s rockers with Rush patches on their denim jackets, queuing up outside Newcastle City Hall…
“Yeah, definitely,” Dan concurs. “It’s a badge, isn’t it? A badge people wear with pride.”
The Darkness insists their uniquely wacky take on rock is affectionate, not sly or sardonic. But what about their much-vaunted sense of irony? Or should that be spelled ‘parody’?
Justin: “There’s been lots of bands through the years who have done rock music with a humorous narrative. I can give you millions of examples. I’ll start off with Van Halen, and you can move on to Queen, I suppose. The list is endless, trust me. But as you know yourself, there’s tons of humour in rock music – that’s one of the best things about it.”
Dan: “It takes balls to be playful.”
Justin: “There’s nothing dour or inward-looking about rock music. It’s all about being extensions of yourselves and expressing whatever it is you want to say in a bombastic fashion. If you’re tackling a difficult subject then it’s a rock band’s job slam it on the table and say: ‘That’s what I’m fucking talking about!’ Whereas it’s for people like James Blunt to whittle around the subject and dance lightly, being quite cryptic, so everyone thinks he’s deep. Nobody wants to be deep. The only thing that should be deep is our money resource. And the container that our backstage rider is brought to us in.”
Notwithstanding their formation in the hick seaside town of Lowestoft as long ago as 1998, The Darkness have come a very long way in an extremely short space of time. And they’ve impinged themselves upon several generations in the process. When I mentioned to my 78-year-old mother that I was going to interview The Darkness, she said: “Oh, I’ve heard of them.” But my 19-year-old son sniffed: “Bah –they’re a pop band, aren’t they?” While my youngest son, who is 15, knew their song I Believe In A Thing Called Love and precious little else.
Ed Graham: “The age range of our fans has always surprised us. People in their 60s have been known to come along to our shows, and there also are a lot of quite young kids. Father and son combos, that sort of thing.”
Justin nods not-so-subtly in Classic Rock’s direction: “There’s people who are almost tainted by their knowledge of music, of what’s gone down in the past and all that stuff. It’s almost like they know too much – and it’s those people who have the cynical kind of approach to what The Darkness do. Whereas the kids see us as being something that’s fresh and different. They just get what they need to from us.”
The Darkness may not be trainspotters – in other words, a band that’s obsessed by the minutiae of rock’n’roll history – but they’ve very much clued into what their fans like, and what they demand. During the course of our time with Justin, Dan, Richie and Ed, various gaps in their rock knowledge showed up: they didn’t know Jack Douglas produced Van Halen, for example. They didn’t know Sammy Hagar used to be called the Red Rocker and wrote a song called I Can’t Drive 55. They looked baffled when we started extolling the virtues of Thor (understandably, you might say). And they didn’t know Rush recorded a song called I Think I’m Going Bald on their third album, Caress Of Steel – but we’ll deal with the follicly challenged issues elsewhere.
There again, why should The Darkness be berated for not being connoisseurs of rock trivia? This is a band whose reference point starts with Def Leppard, after all. “When we toured with Leppard in the early days I used to go out front and watch them,” enthuses Justin. “I was blown away because they were constantly moving, and filling each other’s space. They did that relentlessly throughout their set, and imposed themselves on the audience. By the end of the tour we’d managed to nick that from them. They’re so well crafted.”
Earlier, Dan mentioned the appointment of Roy Thomas Baker as record producer as being a pivotal classic rock moment in The Darkness’s career. Baker – famed for his audacious sonic approach with Queen, Journey and The Cars, to name but three – was always their first choice.
Justin sings Baker’s praises: “He’s the daddy. We also met Mutt Lange because the record company were trying to force us to work with him. But we wanted to make a great album, not a big hit album necessarily. Just a great album.”
Dan: “Roy’s commitment to The Darkness shone through – he really, really gave a shit from day one.”
Justin: “More than me a lot of times.”
Incredibly, the total running time for One Way Ticket To Hell… And Back is only just over 35 minutes.
“That’s right – 18 minutes on the first side and 17 minutes on the second,” agrees Justin.
Hang on a minute – compact discs don’t have sides, surely?
“*One Way Ticket… *was always conceived as a vinyl album,” reveals Dan, further emphasising The Darkness’s old school approach. “You might not know that Permission To Land was also a big seller on vinyl as well as CD. With the new record we tried to do it as close to our favourite classic albums as possible. Timings, the track listing, ending each side with a ballad, everything. There was a reason why things worked so well back in the old days. We’ll probably get people saying: ‘Shit, 10 tracks, it’s a bloody short album.’ But I’ll say: ‘Okay, I’ll go out and grab five of the best rock albums of all time. Tell me how many tracks are on those.’ It’s all about quality, not quantity.”
A lot of record buyers are used to having their CDs packed with at least an hour’s worth of music. Doing a vinyl album on CD might be a ‘knowing’ thing to do, but will mainstream punters get it?
Justin: “They only gave CDs that storage capacity based on one of Beethoven’s symphonies. It was 74 minutes long, so they thought that’s the longest you’ll ever need a CD to be. So it was music that dictated technology, really – it’s usually the other way around.
“Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms was the album that heralded the birth of the CD. My dad’s got a copy of that on vinyl but it also worked fantastically on CD. Dire Straits didn’t change the way they approached the album just because it was going to be on CD. Brothers In Arms defined the CD generation but it’s a vinyl record, essentially”.
When One Way Ticket… comes out on vinyl, will it have a glorious gatefold sleeve?
Justin: “Of course. That’s the whole point. It’s absolutely the whole point.”
Dan: “The entire record was built for vinyl – artwork and everything. The artwork is massive and it’s designed to look amazing.”
Justin: “It is a gatefold – that’s why it’s called One Way Ticket To Hell… And Back. It’s like Blondes Have More Fun… Or Do They?”
With Roy Thomas Baker on board, some people predicted The Darkness would throw caution to the pop-rock wind and create a dense and challenging second album. Much like Queen did with *Queen II *– which, with mad tracks like *Ogre Battle *and The March Of The Black Queen, was as far away from Keep Yourself Alive and *Liar *than anyone ever thought possible at the time (1974).
The suspicion that The Darkness were going to go totally bonkers seemed to be borne out on last year’s arena tour of the UK when the band previewed some determinedly off-kilter new songs, including the mad-as-hell English Country Garden. In the event One Way Ticket… is a somewhat schizophrenic album. It rollicks along with four straightforward rockers (One Way Ticket, Knockers, Is It Just Me?, Dinner Lady Arms) and a ballad (Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time), which effectively comprise ‘side one’, before a distinct mood swing occurs for the more far-reaching and ambitious ‘side two’.
Justin, referring to Queen II: “That’s one of Roy’s, isn’t it? That’s his favourite Queen album. We’ve done half and half, haven’t we? We’ve done dense and challenging together with pop rock, ha-ha! But the dense and challenging ones aren’t likely to get covered in pubs. Well, not accurately.”
Dan: “We all feel there’s something magical about the new album. I can still pick holes in the first record. But for some reason this thing just took on a life of its own. Even in the mixing stage it changed into a completely different kind of beast, really.”
Justin: “Permission To Land cost us 20 grand – that’s including the mastering. We didn’t have a big record label behind us or anything like that when we started recording it. But then the bidding war began, and we were laughing. With* One Way *Ticket… we had the luxury of time and money to do exactly what we wanted. You say there’s some ambitious stuff on side two – but then again side one does kick off with the sound of pan flutes. Which you don’t hear very often on a straightforward rock album.”
Dan: “There was a hell of a lot of pressure, particularly when we hadn’t written a song for so long. We tried to fit writing time into our schedules. We were in Australia, I think, when we saw we had two days off – so we actually booked ourselves into a studio with our backline to try and do some writing. We knew we had a new album coming up but there wasn’t time to stop and think about it. So when we finally did stop it was a case of, ‘Fucking hell, what do we do now?’
“I found myself walking past an Ivor Novello Songwriter Of The Year award thinking, ‘It was a year-and-a half ago when I last wrote a song’, and wondering if I could still do it.”
The day after our interview, Justin tells us, he is being fitted for a prosthetic Devil’s mask for The Darkness’s latest video. So it sounds like the band’s visual extravaganzas are going to continue in the usual endearingly ridiculous fashion…
Justin: “Yes. In fact, they’re going to get worse.”
Dan: “It’s going to carry on. It’s certainly not going to stop. You have the Americans saying to us: ‘Oh, you should do a video of a gig, and people will get that you’re a real live band.’ We say: ‘Fuck that, if people want to see us live then they should come to a fucking show.’”
The secret to enjoying The Darkness is to consign scorn and scepticism to the dumpster and celebrate them for what they are: the latest in a long line of a genuinely eccentric, quintessentially English groups. From Freddie & The Dreamers, through The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, to early Pink Floyd, to Silverhead, to Sweet, to the Glitter Band, to The Heavy Metal Kids, to Queen… you name it.
“Yes, we are a very English group, aren’t we?” nods Dan.
Justin: “We’ve had these conversations before, not to journalists but among ourselves. When Frankie [Poullain] was in the band he wanted me to cynically globalise everything I was writing about. But I said no, we should be proud we’re from Lowestoft. We shouldn’t pretend we’re from Los Angeles. Everyone can relate to the issues of living in Lowestoft – because it’s all about humanity, you know. When people sing about Route 66 I’m sure they don’t worry too much. They don’t say: ‘Hang on, they don’t have a Route 66 in England, we’d better call it the A12.’ It’s part of being honest. If you’re going to specifically talk about a place, you might as well name it – and shame it. There’s no need to globalise everything just so you can crack America. That’s the very last of our concerns.”
So, you’re not worried about success in the US?
Justin: “No, not at all. It either happens or it doesn’t. We’re not going to break our necks and go to all the radio stations in the US and say: ‘Please will you play our records?’ Fuck all that. I really admire Oasis’s position on America – they don’t give a toss about it because they’re making so much money here in Britain. They don’t need to put up with the bullshit in the US.
“In America, if your record company doesn’t have a good relationship with the radio stations, you don’t get played on them. In this country, by and large, if the kids want to hear your record it’s the radio station’s responsibility to put it on their playlist. And they will, they have to, otherwise they’re going to go under. But the Americans don’t see that. They’ve got it completely fucking wrong. Until they learn that I’m not going to break my neck to do things their way.”
Justin strokes his unshaven chin and adjusts the sleeves of his Andean sheepherder’s cardigan.
“People just think about the catsuit and you immediately get dismissed by a lot of folk,” he complains. “Have we finished now? Be careful of the panther on your way out.”
We made up the last part of that quote, by the way…
THE BALD FACTS - Justin’s new-album highlights
Look beyond The Darkness’s typical effrontery and Roy Thomas Baker’s all encompassing production, and you’ll find the songs on the band’s new album One Way Ticket To Hell… And Back deal with some unusual and challenging subjects.
One Way Ticket is an anti-drugs ditty about cocaine (just listen to those delirious snorts at the beginning), while closing track Blind Man concerns a family member whose life fell apart after his wife died. He ended up dying of cancer.
One of our favourites is the endearingly titled, Def Leppard-influenced Dinner Lady Arms. “There’s a bit more to our songs than just the fucking aspect,” says Justin Hawkins.
“Subliminally we like to sneak in some subtlety – whether it be lyrically or whatever. Dinner Lady Arms is supposed to be a sweet story about an elderly couple. They get back together after having been apart for a long time. Even though that initial physical attraction isn’t there any more, they discover they have other things in common. Similar to The Beatles’ When I’m 64 – it’s a bit like that, I suppose.”
The new album also appears to have a preoccupation with impending hair loss…
Justin: “It’s just something to write about, isn’t it?”
Specifically there’s a track called Bald, which contains the first ever use of the word ‘follicle’ in a rock song.
Justin: “I’m not especially into heavy, epic tracks so I thought the funniest way to subvert it was to have a big cock rock song about going bald and losing your virility. I just thought it’d be hilarious. It’s a fear that a lot of men have, so hopefully a lot of people will identify with it.”
Justin Hawkins of The Darkness joined Alexander Milas of The Metal Hammer Magazine Show to talk about the making of their latest album, Last Of Our Kind.
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The above feature was originally published in Classic Rock magazine # 87.
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