Walk into a British booze hall looking like you dressed yourself at David Lee Roth’s yard sale — open-chested cat suit, silk scarves, tinted visor — and you’re asking for a smack in the chops. Yet that’s exactly what four 20-ish blokes did three and a half years ago. Repeatedly. Not only that, but they got up on pub stages and proceeded to perform arena-ready, balls-out retro rock with the kind of camp verve and eccentric showmanship not seen since, well, Diamond David himself. They called themselves the Darkness, and within three years their debut album was topping the U.K. charts, they were piling up awards, they’re now a snowballing global phenomenon with a Stateside gold disc.
“When I look back, I think we must have scared a lot of people,” mulls guitarist Dan Hawkins in an incongruously proper British accent. “I mean, we’re one of the tallest bands in rock — we’re all around 6-foot-2 — so I always thought that, combined with the amount of nervous energy onstage and the fact that we were each holding 10-kilo pieces of wood, you know, no one really messed with us. But people were kind of outraged!
“We’ve been treated pretty well, though,” he marvels, “’cause if people really hated us, Justin [Dan’s front-man brother] can deal with hecklers, make them feel ridiculously small. It takes a lot of balls to stand up to someone, but if you’re not worried about looking ridiculous yourself, then it’s quite easy to make people believe that there’s an art to being that ridiculous.”
The Darkness’ cartoon rock & roll presentation has its roots in their small-town upbringings: Dan, Justin and drummer Ed Graham grew up together in sleepy Lowestoft on England’s east coast (“The last stop on the train track,” Dan recalls), while bassist Frankie Poullain experienced a parallel youth on Scotland’s eastern seaboard. “Bands wouldn’t come anywhere near Lowestoft to play shows, so we’d hardly ever see any. So you form these dreams of what it must be like — I guess childish ambitions that just don’t go away. Maybe in a musical sense as well, ’cause all there is to do is play in pubs in different covers bands.”
Insulated from contemporary fads, the brothers Hawkins listened to classic rock and dreamed unfashionable dreams. And without big-city distractions, both developed their guitar playing to soaring, pre-punk virtuosity. In the midst of the U.K.’s dance-dominated youth culture, the Darkness’ sound — AC/DC’s high-roughage riffage, Queen’s sense of pomp, Thin Lizzy’s dueling guitars and Rush’s ludicrous falsetto vocals — is like transmissions from a distant planet. And this is not Spinal Tap: The Darkness are straight-faced about creating timeless music and an arresting concert experience. But though the germ of their shamelessly theatrical show was there at the outset, it took a while for them to get up to full, crotch-thrusting speed. “It’s been a very gradual process,” says Dan, “but we had the same outlook right from the start. I mean, at the very first gig we did, within 30 seconds of Justin being onstage, he’d torn his T-shirt off and thrown it into the crowd, so it was always going to go a certain way.”
Ironically, though they’d pandered to industry tastes in previous acts, it was when Dan and Justin quit playing the game that the labels came calling. (Sunset Strip wannabes, take note.) “It’s almost like we’d totally given up and were sick and tired of being in shitty bands which meant nothing and doing things for the wrong reasons. So when this band started, it was like, ‘Right, let’s not stop doing this for, like, 10 years.’ If in 10 years we’re playing covers in pubs, then so be it — at least we’re not chasing other people’s tails. This band is like four people combining into one really big middle finger to the entire British music industry, who treated us as a joke band.”
What tethers the Darkness this side of parody is that, however outlandish their onstage antics, they’re nonetheless an eternal spring of escapist tunes, can play their (Lycra) pants off, and embellish it all with a sense of spectacle, drama and charisma that has been sucked out of rock since it became more of a career choice than a craving. Audiences understood long before the A&R sheep: Even sans record deal, the Darkness were able to fill London’s 2,000-capacity Astoria Theatre. The labels belatedly pounced, and the Darkness duly delivered in 2003 with Permission To Land, a delirious debut that stormed the U.K. charts on the back of the singles “Growing on Me” and “Get Your Hands Off My Woman.” Equally strong in full-on party raunchers and Zippo-draining weepies, and lyrically detailing everything from mythical tales of yore to heroin addiction, Permission leaves a unique fingerprint via Justin Hawkins’ operatic flights into upper-register helium heaven. Yet, all the while, he’s singing, with control and melody — his love-’em-or-hate-’em eunuch acrobatics are a trademark, not a novelty.
Propelled by tireless international touring, Permission was soon being embraced overseas, even seducing the vast U.S. market, where it breached Billboard ’s Top 40 earlier this year in the wake of the radio hit “I Believe in a Thing Called Love.” When the Darkness were in L.A. last September, they played the cozy Roxy — seven months later, they’re doing two nights at Hollywood’s 1,300-capacity Henry Fonda Theater, having sold out the first show over a month in advance. No Brit hard-rock band has proved so exportable since the late-’80s Cult, and even they took three albums to break the States.
Asked if he believes Stateside Darkness domination is imminent, Dan doesn’t hesitate: “Yes I do! Not because you can sell millions of records there and become very rich, but because we’re a live band, and after everything’s said and done and the hype’s blown over, we’re a band that want to go out and play to as many people as possible. We should exist in the same arenas that Kiss, Aerosmith and AC/DC are in, but those bands are — not to be rude — I mean, they’re old, and we’re bringing something new and we’re taking a genre forward and we’re doing it in a totally fresh, new way. America’s a very important place for us, ’cause we feel like if we can capture the audience’s imaginations and make a stand, that’s basically going to support us for the rest of our career.”
Thing is, while the Darkness have tunes aplenty and oodles of tongue-in-cheek charm, there’s as yet little evidence that they are in fact pushing guitar-rock forward, or indeed anywhere. Though they sound fresh next to their new-millennium competition, they’re essentially an amalgam of 1970s sounds. Besides, it’s not clear that the audiences who’re filling arenas for Kiss, Aerosmith and AC/DC want the genre to develop. Those bands’ stylistic predictability is addictively reassuring, an unchanging anchor in aging lives. But the Darkness are smart to vigorously pursue overseas acceptance, as the notoriously fickle British music press will almost certainly turn on them when album No. 2 appears, and in that small market, three or four journalists can finish a band.
The future sound of the Darkness involves delving further — much further — into the past. Brace yourselves: “What we’re interested in is becoming medieval,” says Dan. “I’ve always wanted to do a double album, where one disc is the Darkness rocking as you know it, and the other is medieval folk-rock. I mean, ‘Black Shuck’ [Permission To Land’s opening track] is one of our [lyrically] medieval songs, and we’ve just recorded a new one, ‘Curse of the Tollund Man,’ for the B-side of our new single in Britain.” Dan also insists they’ll don period garb when performing these tunes.
So will it be arena adulation or puppet-show support slots for the Darkness in five years’ time? It doesn’t matter — they’ll deliver with the same single-minded fuck-you glee that is ultimately their lasting contribution to a business teetering on the cusp of oblivion.
The Darkness perform at the Henry Fonda Theater on Saturday and Sunday, April 17 and 18.