You really start to notice how badly people crave simple, idiotic, happy rock music when you see how many of them are actually paying to see nostalgia acts like Poison and Def Leppard, bands who are some 15 years past their prime. I mean, where else is the regular, fun-lovin’ Joe going to turn? The nu-metalers are terminally surly, the hip Swedes have that unmistakable air of snarkiness buried underneath their copped Stones riffs, a band like The Datsuns have all the talent, but none of the hooks that they need to propel them to greatness, and The Strokes are far too cool to show up in some podunk town in the Midwest. And what’s most noticeable, no hard rock bands smile onstage anymore. Thanks to that charmingly lunkheaded hero, Andrew WK, we got to witness a bit of a return to simple, fun, hard rock music, but as instantly pleasurable as his music was, it was too one-dimensional to have any real staying power.
The Darkness are here to change all that. These guys from England have become the unlikeliest of success stories in the UK in 2003, debuting on the album charts at Number Two, boasting a couple of hit singles, earning a devoted following, and even a huge helping of detractors. When you first see them perform, your initial reaction is, “Are these guys serious?” Their music is a direct rip-off of every ‘70s hard rock riff ever conceived, their album features the most shamelessly misogynist cover art since Whitesnake’s Lovehunter, and they’ve got a singer who struts around the stage wearing flamboyant, chest-baring, Freddie Mercury-style catsuits. And then there’s that voice of his. Sometimes he sounds like The Cure’s Robert Smith, sometimes he sounds like the little guy from Cradle of Filth, but most of the time, he sounds like an operatic drag queen. It’s enough to make you wonder if they’re just taking the piss like Spinal Tap and Zodiac Mindwarp did way back when, but no, when you hear how serious they are, how ferocious those riffs are, how hard that singer tries to impress you, you’re hit between the eyes with the realization that yes, these guys mean it. That’s right, The Darkness just wanna rock, and they pull it off in convincing fashion.
Before you go and dismiss The Darkness as nothing more than the second coming of mid-‘90s Brit bores Reef, give a listen to Permission to Land. The first 15 seconds of “Get Your Hands Off My Woman” show all other faux-rockers how to do it right: drummer Ed Graham and bassist Frankie Poulain begin with an intro that’s like an engine idling, the guitars of brothers Dan and Justin Hawkins steadily increasing in volume, and when Justin comes in with an incredible, two-second, rock ‘n’ roll scream, the song kicks into full gear, a blast of unadulterated riff rock that sounds straight out of 1984. But it’s Justin’s bizarre Tiny Tim-style falsetto that makes this anything but a metal-by-numbers song, as he sings in a very un-metal shriek. His lyrics are hilarious, making him sound like a metalhead torn between politely politically correct and stepping up and defending his woman. He sings, “I’ve got no right to lay claim to her frame / She’s not my possession,” then adding, “you cunt”, but then, mid-sentence, he decides to screw the sensitive sentiment, and screams, “Get your hands off my woman, motherfuckeeeeerrr!” Old habits die hard, indeed.
“Black Shuck” marries a blatant AC/DC riff with some deliciously bombastic lyrics, seemingly inspired by the likes of Ronnie James Dio and Iron Maiden, as Hawkins sings about a legendary hell hound from their Suffolk hometown of Lowestoft (“That dog don’t give a fuck!”). It may sound as laughable as Spinal Tap’s “Stonehenge”, but when you hear Hawkins growl, “A nimbus of blue light surrounds a crimson paw / As he takes another fatal swipe / At the Blytheburgh Church door!” it’s impossible to resist, especially when he punctuates the song with a silly, “Woof!” Meanwhile, “Growing on You” and “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” are a couple of shockingly good, upbeat, pop metal songs, sure-fire hits that the likes of Van Halen would kill to pull off one more time. Hawkins, who has rock god written all over him, with his emaciated David Coverdale looks, possesses the type of charisma that is palpable even on record. He obviously loves every aspect of being a hard rock frontman, at one point, he even goes so far as to scream, “gui-tar!” before a Brian May-like solo by his brother Dan. When was the last time anyone dared to do anything as stupid as that in a song?
Of course, what would an album like this be without a couple of power ballads, and Permission to Land has a couple of real gems in “Love Is Only a Feeling” (which even comes with a pretty, Zeppelinesque acoustic coda) and “Holding My Own”, mining the best work by the likes of Boston, Peter Frampton, and the Scorpions, as Hawkins adds his own refreshingly sweet sentiment (“That the light of my life / Would tear a hole right through each cloud that scudded by / Just to beam on you and I”). However, the real heart of the album lies in the Cure-meets-Frampton “Friday Night”, as Hawkins dares to reveal that rock stars were geeks once too, singing, “We indulged in all the extra-curricular activities / We weren’t particularly cool,” as he goes on to list them all: “I got Bridge Club on Wednesday / Archery on Thursday / Dancing on a Friday night.” Hawkins then delivers the payoff line for the entire album, displaying a self-effacing quality that no ‘80s rocker ever dared to show, instantly endearing himself to the listener: “God, the way she moves me / To write bad poetry.”
Permission to Land stumbles a little bit on “Stuck in a Rut”, which is a little plain, compared to the other tracks, but when The Darkness make it work, which is very often, they pull it off with the most exuberance and joy that we’ve heard from a hard rock band in a very long time. They look ridiculous and they sound ridiculous, yet they know they’re ridiculous, and they shamelessly revel in their ridiculousness. The Darkness may be a total one-trick pony, but they do that one trick so well, that it’s easy to fall for it every time.