The news that The Darkness are back and producing new music (you can download their new single for free here) will likely be met with mixed reactions. Always a ‘Marmite’ act, I don’t think anyone, least of all the band themselves, are expecting them to reproduce the multimillion selling success of their debut album Permission To Land. Equally, those naysayers who dismissed the band as a ‘joke’- and one that was in desperate search of a punchline- may be surprised at just how much The Darkness have already been welcomed back into the hearts, and ears, of many of the rock-loving public.
As a die hard fan and proud East Anglian I still look back fondly at the heady summer of 2003, when it seemed that the dream of locally sourced, sustainable rock had finally been realised. Sadly, a combination of personnel changes, public indifference to their second album, One Way Ticket To Hell…And Back, and Justin Hawkins’ well publicised drug problems proved that future to be less sustainable than some of us might have hoped.
Eventually, a newly clean and outrageously coiffured Justin Hawkins did manage to recreate some of the magic with his band Hot Leg; whose Red Light Fever album still merits a regular listen. He also continued to demonstrate an admirable commitment to both stagecraft and silliness by singing songs about chickens, cocktails and being ‘gay in the 80s’ while dressed from head to toe in tennis whites.
The two times I saw Hot Leg, in two of Edinburgh’s tiniest clubs, it was my first chance, as a long-term but late to the original party fan, to gain a sense of what watching this (post?)ironic hair-rock behemoth up close should be like. The absurdity of stadium-sized moves and music in a broom cupboard-sized room made me laugh and headbang all at the same time. Once you start playing actual stadiums some of the effect must inevitably be lost.
Returning to the clubs also seemed to give him the freedom to occasionally step away from frontman duties and show us what he can do as a musician. People often like to say backhandedly disparaging things about Justin Hawkins’ ‘way with a tune’, as if rock should always be devoid of melody. As anyone who has seen him play live will tell you, however, he’s also an incredible guitarist who knows his way around a riff and a deceptively powerful singer.
The rest of the band went a different way in the hiatus. Although they were first to offer the grieving fan some post-Darkness comfort, I was never quite sure why I couldn’t warm to Dan, Richie and Ed’s band, Stone Gods. Always the less showy musicians and performers, they seemed to take the public rejection of the second album as a request for some ‘back to basics’ rock. They had some good songs and played them well but, ultimately, I found them unspectacular, in the most literal sense. All classic black leather and functional riffing, they were like a million other bands you could find bulking out the bill in dingy rock clubs all over the UK.
It’s not that there’s anything bad about ‘back to basics’ rock but, after the pomp and circumstance of The Darkness, there seemed something almost apologetic about Stone Gods. Despite the self-aggrandising name, it was as if every black T-shirt and slickly effective riff was saying; ‘yes, you were right, this is what proper rock is about, not all that fun and success and self-knowledge nonsense’.
But even Angus Young of AC/DC, the most functionally effective rock band of them all, knows better than to give up on his schoolboy uniform at the first sound of laughter.
The increasing success of the reformed original line-up proves there doesn’t necessarily have to be a distinction between the ‘jokey’ elements of rock music and the ‘serious’ elements (as does AC/DC’s continuing global dominance of the hard rock scene!). During The Darkness’ previously meteoric rise many postulated that they would burn out because they wouldn’t be able to maintain the delicate balance between ‘laughing with’ and ‘laughing at’ the hardcore rock fans; while the mainstream fans they were apparently courting would tire of them when they realised they didn’t really like loud guitars after all.
The Darkness were only a ‘joke’, however, to those with no interest in rock music, who assumed they must be mocking the genre they, in fact, so evidently loved. Most rock performers have always known how to laugh at themselves and I would argue that silliness, exaggeration, innuendo and a certain knowing cheesiness have always been a part of the hard rock milieu. While they don’t set out to be ‘comedy’ acts, does anyone really think that Def Leppard or AC/DC sit around congratulating themselves on the nuance and subtlety of inviting their lovers to ‘pour some sugar on me’ or to ‘cut your cake with my knife’?
Having seen the reformed Darkness twice this year, in increasingly large venues, I can reliably report that rock fans never turned against The Darkness for ‘making fun’ of the music we love. Many, like me, were thankful to them for reminding us that a sense of fun played a big part in creating that love in the first place. Maybe there weren’t enough of us to keep filling stadiums forever but certainly enough to continue filling mid-sized venues for a good few years yet.
People seemed to assume that the combination of failing to meet unrealistic expectations and personal friction that put paid to them first time round was inspired by a public consensus that the ‘joke’ wasn’t funny anymore. While the supermarket CD shopper may have deserted them once they had stopped laughing, the rock and roll faithful always knew that they would return to make us jump around, headbang and, yes, even chuckle once more.