There once was “an Englishman with a very high voice, doing rock’n’roll.” He hailed from Lowestoft in the kingdom’s easternmost reaches, and derived his craft from hairy fretboard fiddlers whose luscious manes would be showered with the radiant spotlights of stadia nightly. He would climb into clinging catsuits which hugged his svelte figure as a steely panther might its prey. A genuine eccentric topped off with a tennis visor, his wife would be his manager and his brother his subdued foil forever cling filmed in a Thin Lizzy tee. They stole a summer – that of 2003 – before their fame, and in turn their fortunes were taken from them.
Which brings Justin Hawkins’ The Darkness to tonight, and Hammersmith. To the Apollo. They may still be in the “sleeveless t-shirts” of yore so too cited in tonight’s typically lurid opener Every Inch Of You, though the queues quite visibly no longer snake about the block. The venue isn’t sold out by any elastane stretch of the imagination, though a cursory glance up toward the balcony suggests it’s not too far off.
And that is a testament to the strength of their repositioning as an unabashed nostalgia act. Let’s face it – nobody’s here to revel in the newly reformed ensemble’s latest: though they may have entitled last summer’s third full-length Hot Cakes, it didn’t exactly sell like ‘em, such was its wearying cock-rock recipe. A conflation of threadbare sequin glam, disconcertingly glum lyricisms, and more stodgy riffage than you could shake any variety of rod at, mercifully they only infrequently touch their Hot Cakes tonight.
The night is, however, drizzled in melodrama: fashionably late as they always were, it seems meet and right that The Boys Are Back In Town should begin. They’ve still not materialised by the time it comes to an end, though that may be premeditated for they’ve prerecorded some faintly operatic, if fully grotesque self-referential song, the only discernible bit of which is “we are the Hawkins brothers.” And although they may have always favoured undiluted flamboyance, and showmanship histrionic as their solos they’ve not always indulged in the brotherly solidarity the sibs are tonight at least superficially hawking.
Change, however, doesn’t exactly abound: there’s newfangled facial hair and a few new tats out, though theirs is the same ol’ parodical Spinal Tap schtick tarted up in leather flares, glittering hems ablaze – a pastiche of a pastiche of an itself pitifully amplified epoch. And as they tuck into Black Shuck mere moments in, it’s quite apparent that although it may still sound like an inessentially overelaborate wig out right out of Guitar Hero, it so too still sounds absolutely fucking fantastic.
And they still command the adulation to match, as a forest of arms sway aloft, syrupy words dribbling out of every mouth. Every other back, meanwhile, is slathered with a slew of tour dates and their Hadean logo. The times they’ve a-changed along with the Hawkins’ character traits, though you wouldn’t know it as Justin yodels of pesky genital warts on a splenetic Growing On Me, before (arguably inevitably) informing of the perils of substance abuse. Himself now clean, One Way Ticket sardonically harks back to “the days when cocaine was cool. It’s not now.” The cursory preamble continues – “don’t do drugs, kids” – but it’s the single itself our bodies long to engulf. Its riff a now blatant rehash of that rocketed up the backside of I Believe In A Thing Called Love, it’s an instant infatuation all over again, if lamentably the only line chopped from sophomore recording, One Way Ticket To Hell And Back. Where, oh where is the embracing mollycoddle of Dinner Lady Arms? Or the fiddle-de-dee blarney of Hazel Eyes?
Instead, the set is sporadically bloated with that stodgy dross off Hot Cakes – the utterly forgettable Nothin’s Gonna Stop Us, or the limp Concrete during which Justin struggles with the highs to make for a distinct low. And this oscillating in fortune is something The Darkness know of only too well: from headlining Reading & Leeds and riding around the Wembley Arena roofing atop a tripwire tiger, down to obscurity and Eurovision, they’ve had their ups and downs undoubtedly. Yet each and every time Hawkins tonight utters those immortal words: “This is another old one”, he exhales another potent high. The cantankerous old codger that is Get Your Hands Off My Woman – now over a decade old – reeks of a fetid kind of freshness, as I should imagine does his pinstripe catsuit for it’s the same one to have adorned the sleeve of that very single. There are even a few loosely acting out its drunk and surly lyrical content towards the rear of the stalls, though if there ever were “Latino lover” types to have gone in for Permission To Land then they’ve since moved on elsewhere. They’ll be out east by this time on a Thursday, I should full well imagine…
Hawkins, however, has retained that boyishly irrepressible ebullience, standing on his head and clapping his Converse together like Wayne Coyne’s oversized foamy palms. It’s his way of ensuring the circus revolves right around its ringleader and although his ad libbed falsetto and response is absolutely extraneous, his performance is otherwise excellent. Given his tormented past – one debilitated by the drugs he now so staunchly reviles – it’s something of a wonder that he can not only recall, but so too reproduce these works with such dexterity and still he has the nerve in every respect of the word to tap out the flittering six string climax to Love Is Only A Feeling. Similarly, both he and brother Dan’s knees are still able to withstand the heavy impact of jumping off the top step of Ed Graham’s perfectly obscene, almost vertiginous drum riser with a jarring frequency. They always had the stage show honed to a T, and they’ve let none of that slack as have Hawkins’ lycra getups.
Though it’s those “elderly songs from yestertime” which provoke those most audible of gasps in this comparatively pared back performance: the itself endearingly “bad poetry” of Friday Night, bawled along to boorishly even though it is alas, only a Thursday or the defiant ode to Justin’s coming clean of onetime vice heroin, Givin’ Up, both intoxicate. The latter is still perhaps the one and only time lyrics such as “I won’t apologise/ I’d inject into my eyes/ If there was nowhere else to stick my skag” have been successfully transposed to an arena rock setting and indeed included on a multi-platinum selling record. Granted, every charity shop in England is now equipped with a copy of Permission To Land though that’s beside the point. And it’s the beguiling harmonic solo which is so central to the former Friday Night which proves that bit more provocative, as it’s that which first cajoled me into an addiction all of my own – to the slender necks and curvaceous figures of the guitar. Thus there’s a powerful sense of sentimental attachment bound to it, as flashbacks of Friday nights spent squirrelled sweating away upstairs (with only a guitar for company, I ought add) obfuscate the song itself.
I was then fourteen, going on fifteen and it’s this which makes that vulgar lyrical opening of How Dare You Call This Love? sit that bit more awkwardly this evening. “All I wanna do is spend a little time with you/ But you’re so young it’s obscene/ I’ll just keep biding my time ’til you put your little hand in mine/ Boy, I can’t wait for the day when you finally turn sixteen” he laments as though reciting the plaintive soliloquy of an adolescent embroiled in a chatroom romance for a very first time. It’s pretty repugnant, as is the grim smirk to crack across his face as he avows lubriciously: “This is the happiest I’ve ever been.” I was around that same age when it featured on the flip to the single release of Growing On Me. I knew every word, and the intricately undulating inflexions of each. And that now fills me with a feeling of repulsion ’til brimming by the time Hawkins’ recounted emotions at last boil over into frothy yuck.
The majority of The Darkness’ satirical wit is quite alright, though this is the one moment where their penchant for the lewd proves their undoing. Not the undoing of Hawkins’ fronts, or anything of the smuttier sort but instead of he himself. For he’s quite evidently an intelligent, even erudite type. I never previously wondered as to how and why he wound up flicking plectrums and flinging locks; imploring we give him “a D…” and “an …arkness” and I’ve no idea now. But if he didn’t get his end away ten or so years ago, then at least his rather more innocent wish is granted tonight.
Yet you can’t but wonder what comes next for the brothers Hawkins and cohorts. For this is the four-piece dining off former glories and we allow it them. Indulge them, even. But for how much longer can it continue? There’s only so far I Believe In A Thing Called Love can carry them though as Hawkins teases with its first hunky burst of power chord, caution is thrown to the wind and scepticism to the springtime drizzle outside, for once more it’s that instant enamouring all over again. Of course he’s ravaged himself and can no longer bosh those falsetto highs and the same can be said of his audience, what with the bulbous shucks of this primarily male, and surprisingly young throng since granted permission to land as it were. Though if its performance is somewhat vapid, its response is absolutely rabid. I fear to even think as to how many times they must have now played the bugger, though it will always have its name indelibly etched in history – a glamorous cock-rock track with as many solos as most blokes have balls, which went on to reach the heady highs of number two in the UK Singles Chart. And what with the purported demise of guitar music, that may never happen again. Personally, it’s not an argument I could ever be convinced by – not only is the notion of an insentient object becoming extinct all but entirely illogical, but it’s such a fundamental machine in the moulding of any which musical landscape that such an eventuality is all but implausible to my ears. I Believe In A Thing Called Love is hardly the irrefutable greatest hit to serve as the cornerstone of a particularly cogent argument, though no matter how vehemently Peace and the like to fester about The Old Blue Last nightly may try to smother the thing, it’ll never entirely expire.
The way in which the brothers Hawkins throttle and caress it may, as glam rock drops off deeper into irrelevance though even their excessively garnished licks have a place and a time. And that albeit transitory time is now, as they rifle through a rowdy The Best Of Me. Regrettably, it’s not appreciated as concentratedly as it should be, a gentle exodus somewhat predictably succeeding I Believe In A Feeling Called Love though I’ve always subjectively deemed it to be one of their better, more cohesive works – a consummate brew of Queen chorus and Slade chug. As such, there’s a faint whiff of Christmaaas to it – one which discombobulates in this supposedly merry month of March – and never before have they been so manifestly exhibited as the pure and simple nostalgia act they’ve incontrovertibly become. They are these days the Status Quo of the twenty-something generation, and there are no prizes – booby, or otherwise – for guessing that which is their Rockin’ All Over the World as they evoke the nondescript atmospheres of the distinctly unmemorable ’03, faithfully recreating its pretty vacant identity.
And never are we thrown back so vividly as during Love On The Rocks With No Ice, during which Hawkins Jr. carts his billy goat-bearded elder about the stalls on his shoulders, Justin tonking out the sort of superfluous hillbilly noodling usually heard emanating up out of Denmark Street basements all the while. The wireless receivers are obviously back in range now that the band have been downgraded from the arenas and stadia of “yestertime” to this more intimate of settings though as the two complete their circuit, they reticently display a quietly heartwarming fraternity as one hauls the other up and out of the pit. He’s soon back in, clambering atop a mass of body and barking: “Take me to my father!” and though this may be but an ephemeral replication of the only year that The Darkness could count themselves relevant, as Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes pipe up over the PA, it becomes transparently evident that they back then provided as close an imitation of the “time of my life” as was possible. Tonight was just a rerun, but one irrefutably worth the running.
The Darkness oughtn’t now exist, though arguably they never should’ve in the first instance. That they can still continue to do so is a tribute to the eccentricity of this great British public – a rabble still believing in a thing called blind love for one of our fair isles’ more ludicrous of modern-day exports.