The initial impression left by Permission to Land, the debut CD from The Darkness, is that this band truly loves its Queen. From its layered, Brian May-like guitar work, to vocalist Justin Hawkins’s semi-operatic, Freddie Mercury-esque vocals, this disc comes off like a day at the races and a night at the opera—all at the same time.
With the act’s new CD, One Way Ticket to Hell ... And Back, this four-piece band could have done its utmost to avoid such seemingly royally annoying comparisons. But nothing could have been further from its minds, it seems, because Roy Thomas Baker (Queen’s famed producer) manned the board for this project. Furthermore, the band even recorded some of these tracks utilizing Freddie’s grand piano.
“We’ve never been the best at doing the right thing,” guitarist (and Justin’s brother) Dan Hawkins explains. “[Baker] was the man for the job, and we couldn’t not work with him. We met him and just got on so well. It was, ‘Well, who gives a fuck? Let’s work with this man, he’s awesome.’”
When you stop and consider how this album is comprised of an instrumental cornucopia - one that includes everything from pan flute to tubular bells—who else but Mr. Baker could have rounded up all these various elements, and then turned the project into something cohesive?
“That’s a very good question,” Hawkins agrees. “I can’t imagine anyone else would be able to. Again, that’s a testament to how similar we are as people. It’s not necessarily even as a producer and the way a producer works. It’s just a personality thing, you know? So in that case, again, we had no choice. It had to be him. It worked out great. Although, obviously, the [Queen] comparisons are there.”
The group’s biographical material suggests that the Darkness nearly broke up before even finishing its second CD.
“To be perfectly honest, and to be brutally honest, when we did that interview for the bio, we were fuckin’ assholes. [laughter] And we got to the point where we were actually quite maudlin,” Hawkins explains. “But the truth of the matter is that we were never going let it get as far as Justin leaving or the band splitting up. It’s just how bad things got, which was basically to the point where Justin couldn’t stand to be in the same room with the bass player, [Francis Poullain] our ex-bass player. And therefore, he had to go. [This firing] didn’t really hold things up either, because I was like head down working on the album. Then I put my head off about three months into it, and thought, ‘Fuck, where’s my brother?’ We sorted our problems out, and then, bang, Justin launched into doing vocals in a really good frame of mind. That’s why the record sounds so up; because we sort of sorted everything out.”
This explanation makes it sound like Poullain was let go, primarily due to personality conflicts.
“Yeah, that’s pretty much how it is,” Hawkins confirms. “I think it’s difficult to ... I think we’ve all sort changed quite a lot. I think we’ve changed a helluva lot. The person I hired wasn’t the person I fired, basically, let’s put it that way.”
The Darkness has stated in print that it will stop at nothing short of recording only certified rock classics. That’s a high goal—even for the best of bands. One wonders why it sets such nearly impossible standards for itself. Also, how does it know when it has laid down a true winner?
“I don’t know. That’s the art of songwriting, isn’t it really?” Hawkins ponders. “You know, you keep pushing and pushing, and if something doesn’t make the grade, you’ve got to be fucking really harsh with it. It’s not going on the album, and you’re not moving on with this. I think one thing we do, which a lot of bands may not do, is that we have very strict quality control and we do work really hard. I may be writing and have up to ten songs a day when we’re writing. Can you imagine over a two month period? That’s going to be a lot of songs! And a lot of songs aren’t going to make it. So in that sense, I’m pretty prolific. That’s how we do it. If something isn’t absolutely fucking awesome, then we don’t bother with it. That’s the bottom line. That’s how we gauge where something makes it, whereas 400 other songs didn’t.”
Justin Hawkins has said that this album’s title track is an anti-drug song. Just how autobiographical is it, though?
“All I’ll say on that, really, is that on the first album we had a song called ‘Givin’ Up’, which—if you read the lyrics for it—is very evidently written from the point of view of a smack-head, someone who takes heroin,” Hawkins says. “And Justin’s never taken heroin in his life. There’s always going to be the question: How much of that is autobiographical? And we’ll always avoid that question. And you can read into that whatever you want. Basically, the message is there. I appreciate Justin’s honesty in his lyrics. But I wouldn’t always assume that things are autobiographical.”
On a significantly lighter note, there sure are a lot of songs on this new CD that speak about hair, as well as the doomed prospect of losing one’s hair. “Bald”, for instance, addresses this subject directly. But both “The Dinner Lady Arms” and “Knockers” also include lines that mention the bushy stuff on top. Are these long-haired boys somehow afraid of becoming shiny tops soon?
“I don’t even write the lyrics, but I’m honest enough to admit to the fact that—as 90% of blokes do—when you look in the mirror, the first thing you check is your hair,” Hawkins explains. “And I’m sure every guy I know is convincing themselves that they already have a high forehead by the time they get to about 28. One of the things that I’ve learned to appreciate about the lyric writing is how honest we are about those sorts of things. Cock rock is not just about losing your virility; it’s incredibly original as well.”
Let’s be clear, however: The Darkness is a long way from being just another “cock rock” or “hair” band. In fact, it’s difficult to put this group’s sound in any sort of a nice, neat categorical box.
“It’s just going to have to be rock, isn’t it?” Hawkins muses. “Rock ‘n’ roll is something that’s more about lifestyle than the music, isn’t it? So I’d have to say we have to be a rock ‘n’ roll band.”
Whereas many strict metal bands take themselves just a little too seriously at times, the Darkness has brought back the fun to hard rock. And that’s a good thing. Why does rock ‘n’ roll lose its sense of humor every now and then in the first place, however?
“I don’t know,” Hawkins admits. “It seems to be as if R&B’s the new rock ‘n’ roll, isn’t it? That’s the only inventive and fun place to be. I think it’s got a lot to do with cynicism and money and lack of balls,” he says, when trying to explain rock’s periodic serious shifts. “I’d also put it to record companies not taking a lot of chances on bands that are actually really out there or different. It’s actually a big risk to laugh at yourself, isn’t it really?”
The Darkness, at least, has seen the light (and also the good commercial sense) in having a little fun with its image. Therefore, I’d take a one-way ticket to just about anywhere with this gang.