The world is in a cataclysmic state. The Middle East is a powder keg ready to explode. The lunatics have taken over the asylum in Washington, Moscow and Pyongyang. The global thermostat is busted, the ice caps are melting, and we’d all best start inflating our rubber water wings and learn how to paddle.
The Darkness are furious at this state of affairs. So furious, in fact, that they’ve channelled their rage into a track on their new album Pinewood Smile. The song in question focuses its anger on the crumbling transport infrastructure of this once-great nation. Its title? Southern Trains.
“Me and Dan were up in London for some of the writing process and it was the most dreadful experience,” says the band’s frontman Justin Hawkins. “There was so much arse-clownery involved. We managed to get seats, then the carriage filled up until it was packed. Dan was trying to eat his burrito with some commuter’s bum literally in his face. And the place just stank.”
Such hot-button concerns are reflected in the song’s verité lyrics: ‘It’s a journey into pure despair… I can smell piss and shit in the air.’ So is it a metaphor for geo-political turmoil?
“No,” says Hawkins. “It’s just about how shit Southern Trains are.”
No matter what’s going on outside your window, the world is a better place with The Darkness in it. Pinewood Smile is the quartet’s third album since their 2011 reunion and, like their best records, it fizzes with an alchemical mix of large-testicled chutzpah, arch self-deprecation and blockbusting tunes.
“The last album [2015’s The Last Of Our Kind] had a backs-to-the-wall vibe,” says bassist Frankie Poullain, a man unafraid to rock a triple denim jacket/trousers/waistcoat ensemble in private or public. “There were problems with Ed [former drummer Ed Graham]. That was tough and traumatic for everyone.”
“This one is fronts-to-the-wall,” beams Justin, himself sporting a natty checked suit. “Before, we were just cowering in corners of the showers, now we’re top dogs. We’re offering our arses to people.”
With that vivid image seared in everyone’s brains, it’s time for The Darkness to hit record store-cum-hipsters’ hangout Rough Trade East in the heart of London’s trendy Shoreditch district for Classic Rock’s Record Shop Challenge. There’s the promise of £50 of guilt-free spending money to get them through the door, although the prospect of flicking through some racks of proper old-school is lure enough.
“I want to find either of the two first Dread Zeppelin albums,” Justin jokes, referring to the long-forgotten 90s comedy rock band whose shtick involved reggae-style Led Zeppelin covers sung by an overweight Elvis impersonator. “I sold my original copies back home. The shop shut down and the building’s been empty for years, but I think those records are still in the window.”
Instantly, they split up. Dan Hawkins, rock-solid guitarist and Justin’s younger brother, gravitates to a wall of vinyl featuring a tediously predictable array of ‘Albums You Must Listen To Or Your Dog Will Die’-type LPs featuring the usual suspects: the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Marvin Gaye’s soul classic What’s Goin’ On, The Beatles’ Revolver. Ignoring these, he picks up a copy of The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend by cult soul man Baby Huey, released posthumously in 1971.
“What the fuck is this?” he says, indicating the portrait of the heroically Afro’d, 350lb singer on the cover. “And what the fuck is he wearing on the back? Is that a mu-mu? That’s fucking amazing. I’ve bought loads of records just because of the cover. In fact we sometimes buy stuff just to look at the outfits.”
Growing up, Dan and Justin bought their records from Andy’s Records and Our Price in their home town Lowestoft. “The bargain bin was a good place to find new music,”says Dan. “You know you’ve made it when you see one of your own albums in there next to The Best Of Michael Jackson.”
Dan has his sights on something by 60s crooner-turned-avant garde eardrum-botherer Scott Walker. “When I moved to London, I worked as a receptionist in a reprographics company, and one of the guys in charge used to play Scott Walker and Patti Smith all day. It just reminds me of moving to London.” He spots a Walker compilation CD. “This looks good. And only £6.99. Bargain.”
A few aisles along, Frankie is flicking through the ‘Soundtracks’ section. “I like this stuff,” he says. “Initially it was all the Sergio Leone stuff when I was younger, but I’m starting to get into Phillip Glass. I like his violin concerto. It’s a powerful piece of music.”
Frankie’s fondness for the orchestral isn’t surprising. His father was a classical violinist who won a scholarship at the Guildhall School Of Music, played in the BBC Symphony Orchestra and helped found respected Scottish chamber music collective the Edinburgh Quartet. “Then he drank too much and fucked it all up,” Frankie says unsentimentally.
But it’s the early 70s that is the bassist’s favourite era: David Bowie, Lou Reed, Neil Young. Away from the ‘Soundtracks’ section, he picks up a vinyl copy of Neil Young’s On The Beach, the Canadian’s bleak, edgy 1974 masterpiece.
“This is his comedown album,” he says. “He’s angry, pissed off, doing loads of coke, his voice is all cracked. There were so many interesting records at that time. Everyone was fucked up. People were on a trip in the late 60s but it wasn’t sustainable. It was based on people thinking that human nature is capable of more than it actually is. It’s not. Humans are flawed creatures. All those people were basically on a massive comedown.”
If The Darkness have a comedown record, it’s their second album, 2005’s One Way Ticket To Hell… And Back. Poullain views it with little fondness – unsurprising, given that he left the band while they were making it.
“I don’t really like the way it sounds,” he says. “It’s too overproduced for me. It sounds like there’s a lack of real energy and there’s no euphoria on there. The euphoric element is what I think makes The Darkness special. We’ve got that back.”
All three original members put this down in part to new drummer Rufus Taylor, who stepped in when his predecessor, Emily Dolan Davies, left less than six months after she joined . “Rufus has brought more ambition,” Justin says of Taylor. “Before, it was, like, ‘We can’t do that.’ Now it’s a case of, ‘We can do this! And this! And that!’ Everything’s just more…” He searches for the right word. “…Rufusy? Roofy? You know what I mean.”
Rufus is the son of Queen drummer Roger Taylor, and has inherited both his old man’s blond-bombshell looks and his taste for 70s rock. Did he ever find himself saying: “Come on, dad, not Radio bloody Gaga again” on long car journeys?
“No, not really,” he says, politely deflecting the question. “He had every album ever released, ever. So growing up I was surrounded by everything from Led Zeppelin and T.Rex to crazy jazz stuff.”
What are you looking for today?
“I heard an amazing old disco/funk song on the radio the other day called Dance Dance Dance by Claudja Barry,” he says. “It came on the radio when we were all in the car on the way down to Cornwall. It was about five a.m. and we all just went completely silent. It was fucking awesome. I can’t find it anywhere – it’s not even on iTunes.”
Justin is also drawing a blank. “No sign of Dread Zeppelin,” he says. “Actually, I haven’t looked.” Instead he’s sifting through the racks of in search of an album by 70s funk goliaths the Gap Band. “You know that song You Dropped The Bomb On Me? [Begins singing it] I love that. Whenever I do bit a DJ-ing at a rock disco I always drop it in.”
Justin isn’t a fan of contemporary music. “In fact I reject it,” he says firmly. “Having said that, I’ve done a bit of writing for contemporary artists, but it can be soul destroying.” He wrote a song for American Idol winner/future Queen singer Adam Lambert’s debut solo album, and one for Meat Loaf’s Hang Cool Teddy Bear. Following that, he found himself being sent lists of artists looking for songs.
“What happens is that somebody gets a hit, like for example the Imagine Dragons band, and the next day you get an email saying: ‘Can you write a song that sounds like that?’ They’re looking for stuff that sounds like what’s in the chart last week, which is totally fucking pointless. So I just prefer to concentrate on writing really brilliant songs and trying to send them to people.”
Who would you like to write for?
“Dave Gahan. When I was young I bought a Depeche Mode ‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion’ T-shirt and I basically lived in it. He’s a great frontman – one of the best ever. I reckon his voice with some big riffs would be amazing.”
Have you reached out to him?
“Recently I have. But I haven’t heard back. He might read this and get in touch.” He beams. “Make my dreams come true, Classic Rock.”
We can’t promise that, but we can promise to settle the bill today. There’s definitely more than £50 worth of music laid out on the table in front of us as we convene in the Rough Trade East coffee bar. Dan agrees to sacrifice the Scott Walker CD and a copy of Lowell George’s solo album Thanks, I’ll Eat It Here that he’s picked up. “But look at that cover,” he says, indicating the latter’s garish illustrated cover, which looks like it’s been drawn by a 12-year-old on acid.
They’re still 15 quid over, but we’ll let them off. “Thank you,” says Justin. “You’re too kind.”
If a person’s life is reflected by their approach to record shopping, then The Darkness are nothing if not cavalier – something proven by the fact that they’ve spent the past few years making a documentary with filmmaker Simon Emmett, who hopped on board to record their triumphant comeback. Or, as with Justin and his Dread Zeppelin albums, that was the plan.
“We’re still waiting for the happy ending,” Justin says. “Or if not, the disastrous one. Either way we’ll know it when it comes.”
Pinewood Smile is released on October 6 via Cooking Vinyl Records
With £50 of Classic rock’s money to hand over at the till, here’s how the Darkness spent some of it.
Justin left without a Dread Zeppelin LP, and Dan had to put the Scott Walker CD he wanted back in the rack, but they each found something to brighten their day.
Justin Hawkins (vocals/guitar): Billy Green – Stone: Original Soundtrack Recording
“Basically, I don’t know what it is. I just love the artwork because it’s got a great big skull and some men on motorbikes on it. [Reads the info sticker] ‘Untravelled electronic swamp rock… Biker cult classic… Ozploitation movie…’ Ozploitation? What, like Australian exploitation? Oh, this is cool even if I don’t know what the fuck it is.”
Rufus Taylor (drums): T.Rex – A Crown Of Dark Swandown
“This was recorded at a rock festival in Cologne in 1970. I’m a big time T.Rex fan. [Inexplicable Caribbean accent] Me love it. But I don’t have any albums of theirs on vinyl.”
Frankie Poullain (bass): Neil Young – On The Beach
“It’s my favourite Neil Young album. There’s a lot of blues stuff on it. I love it because it’s less country, more blues. He’s talking about how pissed off with the world he is. It’s quite appropriate for now.”
Dan Hawkins (guitar): Laurence Tolhurst – Cured: The Tale Of Two Imaginary Boys
“He was in The Cure in the eighties. I’m a big fan of that era of The Cure, and I love the story of how he was sacked. I watched an interview with him years ago and he was talking about Robert Smith. I have never seen a man more pissed off.”