First impressions last, and this applies just as well to people as it does to bands. How we are introduced to new music affects our views on them from that point onwards for better or worse. If you start off in pigtails and a school uniform, or singing angelically to the Snowman, or featured in a major advertising campaign then these sounds and images will remain, for better or worse, in the minds of those who listen to the later music created by these artists. Some acts embrace their roots, some never move away from them, regardless of the pressure to do so (got any Quo?) but the one thing that is almost guaranteed to annoy us is when an act refuses to even acknowledge the facet of their history that we initially loved them for. This usually manifests itself as never playing their biggest hits, or storming out of interviews at the slightest mention of the past or simply imploding.
When the glam-rock quartet The Darkness broke through in 2003 with "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" it was in a blaze of tongue-in-cheek greatness the like of which we hadn't seen for decades and we embraced it. So with rumours of dissent and disagreement between the band members, along with a movement away from their "Permission to Land" tracks to produce "proper" music the band drifted away from the public's heart and ultimately into rehab and the dissolution. It was a real shame as, though there were plenty of elements of parody in The Darkness, it was based on a sound footing of quality rock and roll. This year (2011) the band reformed with the original line-up of Ed Graham, Frankie Poullain and brothers Dan and Justin Hawkins to play Download festival and set out on their first tour for over four years. We caught up with The Darkness in Bristol on 14th November 2011, hoping that we would be treated to a night of fun.
Support acts can sometimes give a good indication of the night to come so the American rock band Crown Jewel Defense (sic) gave us a bit of a nervous ripple. It was lively rock and roll but sounded all too familiar. Fortunately Foxy Shazam followed them with a short but sweet set of high-energy madness. I knew something was afoot when front man Eric Sean Nally came out clasping a poppadom that had been signed by the band (a feat in itself) that he gave away to the first member of the crowd who could name the largest zoo in America (San Diego, apparently). Nally jumped about, bounced to his knees and back, forward rolled from one end of the stage to the other, volleyed his mic like a Hacky Sack and generally caused mayhem for the duration of their set. When he wasn't performing acrobatics he was entertaining the crowd with amusing anecdotes and asides, and even a joke that was so long I can't remember ever hearing a punchline, if there ever was one. "Sorry, I fucked that last song up" he told the crowd, "but that's what you have to expect at a live gig. Every band should fuck up at a gig, if you wanted it perfect you may as well listen to the CD at home". A great sentiment, and one I agree with, unlike the person who booed him: "Don't you use the word boo at a rock and roll show - not at a rock and roll show" he was quickly told. Nally is like an evil merging of Freddy Mercury and Emo Philips, his falsetto vocals blended well with the rock and roll and I would recommend that you take any opportunity you can to see what they are up to. Like them or not, and they may well generate polarised opinions, you won't forget them for a while.
As soon as The Darkness came on stage it was apparent that it was going to be a night to satisfy all of your Rock and Roll requirements. Justin Hawkins bounded around the stage like a heavy metal Musketeer (check out the beard and moustache in the photos) and showed everyone that he still has all the charisma and skill that got The Darkness the notoriety that they rightly deserved back in 2003. The whole band worked like a finely oiled machine, they were polished and faultless from the off, throwing some serious Rock shapes and stances harking back to the original days of Glam Rock. Justin switched between a number of guitars and just vocals more times than I cared to count and his voice soared around the packed O2 Academy. There is something about the falsetto voice in rock and metal that seems to pluck at the soul and Justin's is high enough to only be heard by dogs if he chose, a fact that anyone who was foolish enough to sing along in the same octave as him would be in no doubt about.
The scene was set for a great night, but at the back of my mind was the thought that this was going to be an evening of new tracks without a sign of those songs that seemed below them now. Fortunately this was completely unfounded and even though I was enjoying the tracks I had not heard before I was beyond relieved when "Get Your Hands Off My Woman (mother fucker)" resonated through the venue. Halting mid song to get the crowd to sing "mother" and "fucker" was the sort of fun antics that we were looking for. There was no sign of a band too up themselves to enjoy their back catalogue, on the contrary, they embraced it like any good band should, there's a reason that these original tracks were a success, it's because we all liked them and want to hear them again, thanks.
Following the checklist for a perfect rock night we had the lighter waving ballad moment with "Holding My Own", one of the few times that the stage was still, but this relative tranquillity was broken with a rendition of "Friday Night". I don't often loose track of the set list, but by this time I didn't really care what song was playing, they were all performed with style and panache, nor did I care if it was a new or old track and that surely has to be the sign of a good night? Mention has to be made of two stand out cover versions that were thrown in to the mix. Queen's "Tie Your Mother Down" at the start of the encore was superb, and considering that Justin Hawkins is about as close to Freddie Mercury as it is possible to get, it worked brilliantly, but it was the cover of Radiohead's "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" that blew me away, and not just because the song is a firm favourite with me - or it might be, I didn't care. "Givin' Up" was a good way to follow this, but then we were given our Christmas Present from The Darkness in the form of the only recent Christmas song to show any signs of longevity or credibility, "Christmas Time (Don't Let The Bells End)". To add to the festive atmosphere a deluge of paper "snow" poured from the ceiling for the entire track - I've never seen so much at a gig indoors, and I bet they are still clearing it up at the O2 now.
Of course it was "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" that everyone was waiting for and it was introduced with a single chord - enough for the crowd to know exactly what was coming up. Naturally Justin used this to his advantage and milked as many cheers for each chord he played from the audience before launching into the song in full. Too cool to play it? Not a bit of it, it was superb. They ended with "Love on the Rocks With No Ice" in a blaze of glory.
A packed O2 Academy paid testament to the fact that they can still pull the crowds, you really couldn't move in the O2 tonight, everyone had come for a good time and that, in a nutshell, was what they got. The O2 is quite a small venue so we didn't get the full set up that other larger venues have had, but what we got was a more intimate performance. There's no shoe gazing at a Darkness gig, it's all power chords, theatrics, good old-fashioned Rock and Roll, fun and costume changes.
It is the costume changes that I feel are worthy of a special mention. If you turn your back for a minute, get a drink or lose yourself in a song then the next thing you know is that Justin is in a new outfit. They were like a visual representation of the seven ages of rock, from tartan two pieces with lace-flied trousers right through to the classic spandex one-piece with exposed chest and flared leg. A particular favourite was the final one-piece outfit which sported black feathers down the spine. If you are stuck for fancy dress ideas, go and see The Darkness, that'll give you some great ideas.
You've got to take your hat off to The Darkness, underneath the tongue-in-cheek antics is an extremely talented yet underrated group of musicians who simply know how to do Rock and Roll. The Darkness played to their fans with the kind of confidence that can only come through talented musicians who have had it all, fucked it up and come out the other side stronger, tighter, together and clearly friends. Say what you like about these guys, they always were a guilty pleasure, the "New Darkness' are still larger than life - just with a new kind of wisdom and a new kind of maturity that's brought with it a new kind of experience - and it shines throughout their performance. They don't take themselves too seriously (any more) and seem to just enjoy doing what they do, which creates a fantastic night out for all. Go and see them, dust off your copy of "Permission to Land" and tune up your air guitar.
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