So, The Boys Are Back in Town, one of Lowestoft’s more glamorous exports, The Darkness, crash-landing in the capital for the first time since the reformed four-piece took to the Hammersmith Apollo now eight months ago. Then, they reinserted the ‘cock’ into cock-rock so vigorously, that the west London venue has since changed both sponsor and interior shade, although if it made for a less celebratory soirée than this evening – a revisitation of 2003 début Permission To Land, played in its entirety in commemoration of its tin anniversary – then it was a rather more prestigious affair all round. Nonetheless, this is the second of two consecutive nights at Camden’s comparatively grotty, indeed understated Electric Ballroom, both of which have sold out, one way or another. That said, for all of the album’s extraterrestrial imagery, just how far have the mighty really fallen? Perhaps tonight isn’t the most appropriate night to probe, a nostalgia act revisiting in full the only record you’d want for them to, before their hardiest of minions, pretty much the most propitious scenario it could these days hope for. I mean what could possibly go wrong?
Unfortunately, tonight is in fact more a case of relatively little going right, really. From dredging up forgotten offcuts (nobody need be reminded of Hot Cakes’ She Just a Girl, Eddie, nor the band’s savaging of Street Spirit (Fade Out)) to airing a totally inessential new one ostensibly entitled The Horn, that sounds disconcertingly like Wolfmother giving birth to The Mars Volta reconvened, the opening exchanges are marred by ennui. “Everything you do just turns me on” Justin Hawkins squeals incessantly during that lattermost, in between stuffing his microphone down his saggy black spandex onesie, pointing at everyone and no one in particular with his fingers that “smell of cock” and frivolously juggling plectrums as Mesut Özil might chewing gum, but this couldn’t be much further from the truth on this sort of evidence. For despite having recently toured with a certain Stefani Germanotta, he certainly lacks the indomitable presence he once had. Later, there’s a thoroughly uncomfortable moment during which he jeers an unwitting roadie, Steve Eagles, suggesting the two should smooch as the tormenting ringleader changes guitars. “It’d be nice for the gay guys” he reckons, although why anybody would want to witness this bedraggled Camden take on Russell Brand neck anything but a can of Special Brew, I really don’t know. That he’s however many years sober, and still feels cocksure enough to make such preposterous assertions could be to his credit, were the drivel he drools not quite so unsettling. “I’m actually quite glad I’ve got a guitar concealing my arousement [sic]” he admits once Eagles, under duress, eventually condescends to comply with his extracurricular duty. And with Hawkins these days decorated with grimy NW1 dreads and a grotty Salvador Dalí moustache, it’s little wonder his doting roadie was quite so reluctant.
For as he trills in that hairy falsetto of his during another from Hot Cakes, Every Inch of You, when seen in such lax spandex, every single centimetre of his dignity is abhorrently visible to all. “You can take your qualifications, and shove them up your ass” he continues, and perhaps the most irksome thing about Hawkins is that, in fact, he’s quite an erudite type. When not motioning the caressing of Beelzebub’s “every inch”, he engages in witty badinage with his monosyllabic hecklers, of which there are a few to this day. “I can’t get rid of you/ I don’t know what to do” he’ll later shriek during Growing On Me, and while the single remains among the more infamous of songs written in honour of genital warts, the lyric best applies to their more adhesive of acolytes, à la those to so religiously frequent both tonight and last. “We’re not playing The Platinum Collection, which was released without our prior knowledge by the polite folk at Warner. And we’re not going to play ‘the Christmas song’ unless you’re very, very good” he retorts to an erroneous other. “If you’re going to heckle, at least get the names of the songs right” he then snivels from beneath his bristles, articulately fending off our voracious advances.
Although whether due to the dry ice or the initial apathy, it’s a bit like watching a live DVD – the sacrilegious cash cow of the major label sellout. Those days are apparently all but over for The Darkness, Hot Cakes released via the hilariously entitled Canary Dwarf Records, and this first portion of the show proves with stupendous clarity quite why. “Let’s be frank – sometimes, the B-sides are better than the A-sides” Hawkins sneers. “I like to think of all of The Darkness’ works as double B-sides. Or double A-sides” he persists, although in going on to plough through Love Is Only A Feeling flipside Curse Of The Tollund Man, you’re left with little to wonder as to why Atlantic Records may have disposed of The Darkness relatively soon after. More D- than B-side, they admirably include Hawkins’ mediaeval spoken word segment, as well as the lyric: “His actions were slated/ His guts were hated/ It was deemed that his life/ Should be truncated/ His demise, the townsfolk plotted/ Ambushed beaten and garrotted.” Again, there’s little refuting his latent intelligence, in the same way that he and brother Dan’s guitar dexterity has remained irreproachable to this day. But the song itself is, pure and simply, unadulterated drivel we should’ve been allowed to disremember already.
Was it songs of such questionable calibre that prompted bassist Frankie Poullain to part ways with the band back in 2005? Perhaps, and he looks increasingly like Peep Show lynchpin Super Hans, stood imposing yet immobile stage-left in a satiny tracksuit and blackish bandana. He thwacks an elasticated cowbell, hung from the rafters, to inaugurate a slightly deflated One Way Ticket as what look strange exorcisms take place upon the floor. In amongst vacated cans crumpled up against the barrier, all looks as well as it ever did on Camden High Street: Opeth hoodies still abound, as do Steel Panther sweatbands, although such is this particular postcode that you could revisit the region in centuries’ time, and the exact same ‘metal’ paraphernalia would still pave the place.
But it’s as The Darkness themselves turn to their ludicrously illustrious past that they hit upon a richer vein of form. “Ladies, gentlemen, cavemen, persons” resounds a voice over the PA, enrapturing every sentient being between. Becoming increasingly pantomimic, prerecorded voiceovers from the band’s four members bumptiously inform of their having sold “1,300,000 copies [of Permission To Land] in the UK alone.” How did it feel? “It felt great. And how would I know? Well, because I was there” they each duly inform in turn. It’s irksome, not least in its factual incorrectness (they’ve actually sold considerably more copies) and selective revisiting of histories. It goes without saying that Hot Cakes didn’t sell as well as its title might’ve suggested, provided it ever could have, whilst One Way Ticket To Hell… And Back only went platinum, as opposed to Permission To Land’s quintuple platinum. They brag on, and on, and on about the BRIT, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, MTV, Smash Hits! Pollwinners’ Party, yadda yadda yadda Awards they won way back when, reciting this Wiki guff with great relish, before Hawkins – now in a fluorescent pink catsuit of course – leads both us and them aboard “a document of undisputed magnificence.”
Embellished with a few more wrinkles and plenty more tattoos, with air guitars donned, Black Shuck begins. In truth, in such an intimate setting, it sounds fucking sensational, its guitars crunching and kicking wildly at your nether regions. Thus with this long overdue reversion to their club beginnings at last begun in earnest, all the self-aggrandising webpage regurgitation is instantaneously forgiven. But forget one-hit wonders; The Darkness were a one-album wonder all along, and this was it. And maybe Camden was exactly where they always belonged. I mean it doesn’t take a mind pliant as that of the late Zappa to imagine a glut of druidic oafs reciting similarly riled up lyrics to Get Your Hands Off My Woman the length of this exceptionally nasty High Street nightly. Granted, a lesser elite could likely clap with their lurid pink trainers while executing a perfect handstand, but still – the point itself stands.
Get Your Hands Off My Woman falters, however, once Hawkins pauses to deploy the first of what feel umpteen vexatious call and response routines. It’s now that he stuffs his microphone down his crotch, remarking: “It doesn’t make any sound. I shaved my pubes – it was an experiment.” Although he may have retained his intelligence, it would appear he kicked his humour when he did away with his addictions. “Indecent exposure? Decent exposure – that’s what we need. We need to get back on the fucking radio” he drones on, oblivious to the adjourned song he’s supposed to be singing. “The last thing we want is to sell millions of records, and tour the world again. No, I’d end up doing all that cocaine, and sleeping with all those men again.” The howls that greet this lattermost mock suggest homophobic quips to be that bit better respected in these sorts of scenarios. Yes, I realise Hawkins was poking fun at himself, and not those unfortunate enough to have taken that particular One Way Ticket To Hell… And Back. But the point still stands: Hawkins, as do so many beta males, seemingly believes himself to be totally irresistible to those of an alternative sexual orientation – or to put things in his terms, “the gay guys” – and in doing so, can sound implicitly, if deplorably homophobic in his gnomic gybes.
Nonetheless, if the very essence of the show ensures they’re unable to savour the hits as they might otherwise, then many become exercises in infuriating protraction. It’s something we’ve not heard from them to this extent since they last headlined Reading Festival. That was 2004, when Hawkins was a sprightly 29-year-old – the exact same age he sardonically professes to being this evening. “Don’t listen to Wikipedia – I made it all up, anyway.” A strange, if satirical confession from someone who so evidently reveres the site as some kind of omniscient spring. His own spring – tonight a thoroughly filthy one – continues to spew vulgarity (“It is generating a lot of heat [his penis], but it’s not infected” a choice quote) and at times, it feels as though he’s administering his own smear campaign, besmirching their own legacy, or perhaps more appropriately that of their best record. The ever-parodical I Believe In A Thing Called Love remains a true beauty, the band embodying the perfectly brainless antithesis to David Byrne’s How Music Works thesis. Music was never supposed to work this way, and yet this one still does. It really does, and I couldn’t even begin to imagine as to why.
Similarly, oddly enough, it’s the album’s slower moments – Love Is Only A Feeling; Friday Night; Holding My Own which, played for only the second time as a full live band, is particularly spectacular – as Hawkins ditches the crudity in favour of “finding time to focus on my vanity.” And with one wall lined with mirrors, the Electric Ballroom is the perfect venue for it. Friday Night meanwhile, adorably atrocious, has Justin dropping the mic, before recollecting it to incite a pub-like singalong that spans from the very front, to the very black alcoves at the back. An ode to the enduring exhaustion of suburban oblivion that’s somehow remedied weekly by weekend obliteration, its message remains pertinent to this day. With a belle in his sights, she may inspire him “to write bad poetry” although it’s certainly incomparably preferable to The Horn, or whatever they may choose to eventually call that claptrap.
Another that is, unfortunately, rather less applicable to the concurrent is glam skag anthem, Givin’ Up. Thoroughly uneasy, Justin swivels the proverbial spotlight so that it stops at his sibling. “He’s a fighter; a lover; a surviver. He’s a man who knows what it means to rock.” It’s as if he’s attempting to deflect the song’s lyrical atrocities onto someone; anyone else, even if that may just so happen to be his own brother. But as was always his wont, he’s back at the very forefront for a thorough going-over of Love On The Rocks With No Ice. His party trick, trawling through the crowd on some burly lackey’s shoulders, is met with the usual abundance of applause from his populace, before he reappears onstage with the swagger of an overly confident stage invader. Against Back In Black kick drums and Epic guitars, Justin tells of an awards ceremony they’re due at the following evening. “Should I be humble and gracious?” he questions with wicked glee. “Or should I be a cunt? Roar for cunt”, and the hordes oblige. The score settled, he proceeds: “I am gonna be the biggest fucking cunt they’ve ever seen.” Certainly a few in the room might say they’ve already seen just that…
And on goes Love On The Rocks With No Ice until beyond lukewarm. “I fucking love you!” squawks another heckler, Hawkins doing a double take making him out to look like an overbearing David Brent. “Huh? What?” But with Ricky Gervais currently touring under that very guise, maybe he’s been taking pointers from another “fucking cunt”. On a similar note, if they’ve taken anything from their time on the road with Lady Gaga, then their two costume changes would likely be that, as they reappear for a token run-through of “the Christmas song”, or Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End), in festive Thin Lizzy knitwear, bobbly hats and regal gold trench coats. And ding dong, merrily on high, has the genital gag gotten old! “What really matters is what you buy your loved ones for Christmas. Because Christmas is about friends, and family. And what do friends and family do? They turn the lights out, and fuck. So let’s turn the lights out, and fuck.” Fuck no, and they thankfully stay on for the duration. The single itself, well, its harmonised solos incur a Christmas spirit that’s rather more inspiriting than seeing Rihanna switch the lights on at Westfield, while the band linger to dish out presents long after it’s over. Plectrums, drumsticks, sweatbands and so on make their way into squabbling palms, before we’re off on our (debatably) merry way. As if you weren’t sure, (I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life pumps over the PA, really thumping the point home.
However, although it may never have featured on the record in question, to paraphrase the wholly (oxy)moronic One Way Ticket, it only too often feels as though we were never issued the return portion. For never before have The Darkness so closely resembled Slade in appearance and output likewise – they’re now pretty well cultural equivalents in terms of contemporary relevance, too. For you’d likely find more ‘hard rock’ in a grizzly old burger at 150 Old Park Lane.