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The Darkness

+ {Stone Gods} + {Hot Leg}

The revenge of 80s hair-metal in all its spandex-clad, critic-baiting, monster hook glory, The DARKNESS were perhaps an inevitable cultural blip on an otherwise insufferably uber-cool and irony-saturated music scene. That they emerged from the ruins of a bona fide prog rock outfit, Empire, only made their unselfconsciously unfashionable stance all the more er… unselfconsciously unfashionable.
Formed Lowestoft in Suffolk, by Justin and younger brother Dan Hawkins (guitar), plus Scots-born bassist Frankie Poullain (who claimed to be five years younger to the press!) and drummer Ed Graham, the seeds of the band were soon in place. With the maverick Justin having famously taken up the vacant lead singer role after a show-stopping karaoke performance of QUEEN’s `Bohemian Rhapsody’, the band’s championing of flamboyance over fakery seemed written in the cards. Or, in more heavy metal terms, glimpsed in the crystal ball.
A series of London gigs allowed Justin all the exposure he needed to prove that good old rock’n’roll props, like skin-tight strides, acrobatic stage antics and ridiculous falsetto squealing were what the kids really wanted. A sneering music press be damned, The DARKNESS released their debut EP, `I Believe In A Thing Called Love’, on indie label Must Destroy Music, in late summer 2002. Support slots to the likes of DEF LEPPARD and DEEP PURPLE followed before single `Keep Your Hands Off My Woman’, edged into the Top 50 early the following year. The hype only accelerated as Atlantic Records signed them up.
A further single, `Growing On Me’, just missed the Top 10, while attendant debut album, PERMISSION TO LAND (2003) {*8}, scaled the charts (Top 40 Stateside) soon afterwards. From its disturbingly BOSTON-esque sleeve to its meaty power ballads and cod-metal lyrics, the album could’ve been plucked ripe from the late 70s or the arena-rock-addled 80s. It was unreconstructed for sure, utterly decadent, certainly, but there was also an undercurrent of humour (if stopping short of irony) and more importantly, a killer instinct for huge melodies and chest-beating choruses. In other words, it wasn’t rocket science; and in these days of regulation post-rock glumness, maybe that was a blessing. Towards the end of ‘03, a re-release of `I Believe In A Thing Called Love’ and the 70s-retro, festive-baiting, `Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End)’, both narrowly missed the No.1 spot – had we finally seen the light. When fourth spawn, `Love Is Only A Feeling’, gate-crashed the Top 5, The DARKNESS had opened up other pop options for the hard-rock combo.
When Poullain left all the spandex-splintering shenanigans behind in May 2005 – amid claims he was “frozen out” – the band replaced him with one of their roadies, Richie Edwards. Justin indulged his incurable 70s fixation with his Top 10 cover of SPARKS’ `This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’, under the unlikely and very un-rock’n’roll pseudonym, British Whale.
Employing the services of vintage QUEEN producer, Roy Thomas Baker, The DARKNESS were finally re-animated later in the year with sophomore set, ONE WAY TICKET TO HELL… AND BACK (2005) {*5}. Managing to reference both AC/DC and ELO in one fell swoop, the album’s title was truncated for lead Top 10 single, `One Way Ticket’. Lacking the exploding choruses of yore, the record failed to take off never mind getting permission to land; its best shot at a Top 10 hook was `Is It Just Me?’.
Rock’n’roll rehabs always bursting at the seems (as represented in the tabloids), the clinics hadn’t reckoned with the cat-suit-filled cases of an exhausted Justin Hawkins, whom, after bouts of alcohol and cocaine abuse, left The DARKNESS in October ’06 to find light at the end of the tunnel. Whether subsequently applying to represent the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest was the answer, well.. judge and jury (the people) thought not, as they vetoed his entry to the waste-bins of pop. Meanwhile, back at Ranch DARKNESS, who’d split when Justin bailed, brother Dan, Richie Edwards on vocals/guitar (always a good bet as he’d karaoke’d AC/DC tunes) and Ed Graham formed STONE GODS; also enlisting bassist Toby MacFarlaine (ex-Thirteen: 13). Exciting the metal press who hailed the SILVER SPOONS & BROKEN BONES (2008) {*6} a success (Ultimate Guitar lavished it 10/10), it certainly had its moments in `Burn The Witch’, `Don’t Drink The Water’, `Knight Of The Living Dead’ and `Start Of Something’.
Almost in conjunction with his former buddies group, Justin found a revived impetus to get back to work, stirring up HOT LEG with lead guitarist Pete Rinaldi (ex-Anchorhead), bassist Samuel SJ Stokes (ex-Thieves) and drummer Darby Todd (from Protect The Beat). With titles such as `I’ve Met Jesus’, `Gay In The 80s’ and `Prima Donna’ (Hawkins scribing lyrics with Chas Bayfield of E-Wing), the RED LIGHT FEVER (2009) {*6}, had the usual sexist, glam-metal approach that was never going to garner enough attention outside metal circles.
Inevitably, and with both bands going nowhere fast, the original alumni of The DARKNESS re-grouped; even Poullain was reinstated as it seemed the Stone Gods extras were surplus to requirements. In 2012, after being chosen to support LADY GAGA on her Afro-European tour, HOT CAKES {*7} lifted the band out of the doldrums and into the Top 5 again (Top 50 in America). With even the NME giving the set a decent review, the crotch-rockers had permission to land us with the likes of `Keep Me Hangin’ On’, `Nothin’s Gonna Stop Us’, `Every Inch Of You’ and a screechin’ Jay Hawkins-like re-vamp of RADIOHEAD’s `Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ – 70s arena-rock and the NWOBHM had been reinvented here.
Another original to duly drop out, Ed Graham (who had both hips replaced a few years back) left the band in October 2014, leaving short notice for filler drummer Emily Dolan Davies to perform on the quartet’s fifth set, LAST OF OUR KIND (2015) {*6}. There’s hard-rock and then there’s the stuck-in-reverse Tardis cadets, The DARKNESS. Taking the Viking invasion theme on the opening `Barbarian’, the shock and awe was in Spinal Tap proportions, and not that Edmund the Martyr lost his head. Screeching beyond the realms of mere mortals, dragon Dan breathed life into `Open Fire’, but on further inspection the rock gods of Kerrang! readers (honest head-bangers and air-guitarists all!) played the The CULT-meets-SAXON or DEF LEPPARD-meets-AEROSMITH card too many times; `Roaring Waters’, `Mudslide’ and the THIN LIZZY-riffed `Sarah O’ Sarah’, heartfelt to no one but the affiliated – a case of stop me if you’ve heard it all before. If QUEEN was the missing link to their Neolithic, dinosaur rock, that was sorted when ROGER TAYLOR’s drumming son Rufus Tiger Taylor superseded Emily (on tour; then full-time).
Saviours of many-a twilight-time combo, Cooking Vinyl Records served up The DARKNESS’ fifth studio set, the Top 10 PINEWOOD SMILE (2017) {*6}. Fans and critics had long been used to the quartet’s OTT cliches and un-PC antics, and this glam-heavy record didn’t disappoint (prime examples `Japanese Prisoner Of Love’ and sexist/fattist juvenile jaunt, `Stampede Of Love’). If ADAM & THE ANTS had explored hard-rock in their heyday, they’d have authored `Buccaneers Of Hispaniola’, whilst there were slaps in the face for `Southern Trains’ and opening salvo `All The Pretty Girls’. The all-encompassing concert set, LIVE AT HAMMERSMITH (2018) {*6}, sounded off why the 4-piece had proved so popular over the past decade and a half.
Approaching a Halloween Brexit scenario, but instead focusing on power-corrupt pious politicians, fanatical fascists and a lack of religious morality by way of EASTER IS CANCELLED (2019) {*7}, “Jesus” Hawkins and Co – in their best tongue-in-cheek motif (as depicted on the sleeve artwork) – amplified their OTT head-charge. If you believed in a thing called love and now believe that one could rid the globe of hate and hypocrisy by playful exuberance alone, then this enlightening Top 10 rollicking frolic – best bits: `Heart Explodes’, `Rock And Roll Deserves To Die’, `How Can I Lose Your Love’, `Heavy Metal Lover’ and the “Babylon’s Burning”-like `Choke On It’ – would indeed float your boat, or indeed ark.
© MC Strong 2004-2006/BG/MCS // rev-up MCS Nov2013-Oct2019

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