ustralia has a history of placing its bets way before the form-guide has even left the printers. In early 1963, forward thinking promoter Kenn Brodziak booked a new band from Liverpool to appear down-under in the winter of ‘64. When the band actually arrived in Australia on June 11th, Beatlemania had already taken the world by storm. The Beatles honoured their contract and enjoyed the combination of a rapturous reception and faintly inadequate venues—by that time, they’d had twelve Australian chart hits and, at one stage, six singles in the Top 10 in one week. Had Brodziak not booked The Beatles in advance, there would have been no way he could have afforded to bring them out. It wasn’t the last time this would happen—Big Day Out promoters Vivian Lees and Ken West snared Nirvana to co-headline their inaugural summer festival in ‘92 before they’d gone properly massive (the band had been booked to do a small club tour that year before the release of Nevermind); when Kurt, Krist and Dave played the BDO main stage—and their new hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—the crowd, and the rest of the world, were going mental for it.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the world’s latest and arguably most important musical phenomenon, The Darkness, should be afforded the same treatment. The band had the BDO tour and various “side shows” in small-ish venues listed in their tour schedule long before any of the shows were actually confirmed. By the time the BDO line-ups were announced—with The Darkness listed as appearing at the ungodly hour of 12.45, lunchtime—the band had shifted enough copies of their album Permission To Land in the UK to have reached four times platinum status. The smallest venues they were playing in England were arenas and large theatres. When I interviewed Dan Hawkins in very early November last year, the band had already played to thousands of punters at Robbie Williams’ Knebworth shows in August, not to mention stacks of other mega gigs, tours with Iron Maiden and Meatloaf and were preparing to broadcast to “a billion people or something like that” via the MTV Europe Awards ceremony.
For those ‘in the know’, then, it was with a fair sense of disbelief that we watched the band step onto the stage at the Royal Melbourne Showgrounds in the blazing lunchtime sun on Monday 26th January, while old hacks like Metallica were afforded an hour and 45-minutes in the evening, ripe for pyrotechnics explosions and whole-crowd (think around 30,000 people) participation. Though they played a hearty and involving set, The Darkness not only had to deal with their own inevitable hangovers but also a half-baked crowd; most BDO-goers struggle to rise before about 1 PM. So, following a perfunctory—if energetic—set, the fans and the curious turned their attentions to the following night’s sideshow at the Corner Hotel, a live venue with a capacity of around 700. For those with any idea of the heights The Darkness were currently scaling overseas, seeing the band at a venue this size would be like travelling back in time—and, from the crowd’s rapturous reception, the sense of occasion and the band’s inspired performance—as though touring, press, tabloids and teachers and ex-fiancés selling their stories had not yet wearied them—it was almost like we had. Let me take you back, way back, to what it must have been like to stumble upon this latent phenomenon, this explosion kept barely under wraps, in your local pub…
Initial thoughts of disappointment that some had felt at seeing the band in the relatively small confines of the Corner Hotel melted away as The Forces Of Darkness (that’s the fans, for the uninitiated) realised just how close they’d be to their new heroes. The room was a one-stop vintage rock shop; the Thin Lizzy-AC/DC-Van Halen-Def Leppard t-shirt counter was rating off the dial. Sure, there were the usual dregs of folded-armed cynics and curious cats, but do they really rate a mention? If you’re presented with a band this stratospherically brilliant and you still feel the need to hold back, you may as well confirm your redundancy by asking straight out, “is it okay to like it?” Of course, The Darkness being the all-encompassing, generous band they are, answer those questions with a resounding “DERR” with their first step onto the tiny stage.
Dan Hawkins, seemingly 10 foot tall in tight jeans, Thin Lizzy t-shirt and Gibson, adopts the stance at stage right, our left. He stares straight ahead, stiffens his resolve and roars into the blistering tapping riff of ‘Bareback’, their instrumental set-opener. He’s blinking and grimacing and concentrating, looking straight ahead as though at any minute it could all fall down around him. Must… keep… rocking… His big brother Justin leaps onto the stage, resplendent in candy-striped hipster flares, beautiful and macho and fragile and tuff all at the same time, laying down his own florid guitar hysteria over the top.
Fuck me this song is exciting. On record, it’s pretty damn good, live, it’s as thrilling as ‘Start Me Up’, as ‘Jump!’, as fucking ‘Mars, The Bringer Of War’. I know what you’re thinking, one song in and she’s already dragging out the big guns. Cut the crap, as Nick Kent said, and put the hyperbole on ice. Well, that’s the extraordinary thing about The Darkness—the hyperbole is on ice. You can say their songs are as good as all your favourites because, well, they are. Finally, after years of turning up to simpering indie gigs proclaiming to be ‘the new Bob Dylan’ and finding only ‘the next shelf-stacker’, here’s something to get excited about. And I mean really excited, because this band is real. So real you want to know them, touch them, like some shimmering new fabric or crystalline ornament—at once intangible and thrillingly genuine. “Hi!” yells Justin, brightly. “We’re the Darkness!” The crowd explodes gleefully, as though what they thought was a dream has just materialised into reality. Next up, the scabrous thunder of ‘Black Shuck’. The crowd goes mental, proper mental, greatest-rock-photographs-ever mental. You’ve seen If You Want Blood live in Paris? You’ve seen Robert Ellis’ photo of the front row at the Glasgow Apollo in ’79? You’re there now, only we’re in Melbourne and this band have a way to go yet—but fuck me if they’re not three-quarters of the way there already. ‘Growing On Me’ proves this point further; when Justin sings, “I want to touch you / But I’m afraid of the consequences”, he’s tapping into that same mix of macho and feline sensitivity that made Bon Scott so exhilarating.
“We’re going to do a boogie woogie number, so if you fancy a dance, don’t hesitate”, offers the impish Justin. They tear into ‘The Best Of Me’, an old song that is close to their best. It’s great, as wonderful to the virgin ear as it is to the faithful who’ve had it on MP3 for years. It’s ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ meets ‘Reeling In The Years’. “For you! You get the best of me!” Dan and Justin play their harmonised solos and then high five. Does it get any better than this? Not likely. But what’s especially special about The Darkness is that underneath the silly rock moves and nutty lyrics about wanking and pubic lice there’s a genuinely affecting heart beating. That trilling solo isn’t just righteously rock, it’s beautiful, too. And it’s not just nearest-common-denominator writing to draw comparisons between The Darkness and their predecessors. When you first heard Power Age or Rumours or Jazz or 1984, it was simultaneously an unexpected new voice and the one you’d been waiting for. You knew it was going to be thus from the first ringing chord. Their gig is blisteringly exciting and fabulously delivered, but it doesn’t feel like the best gig ever. It just feels like the most natural thing in the world. Of course they were going to rock this preposterously and happily!
They play on; the hot-lovin’ anthem that is ‘Makin’ Out’, the exquisite ‘Love Is Only A Feeling’, the ridiculous ‘Physical Sex’, the operatic insanity that is ‘Get Your Hands Off My Woman’. “Who likes swearing?” Cunt! Cunt! Motherfucker! He’s behind you! Bassist Frankie Poullain rock-Vogues all over the stage, resplendent in velvet shirt and leopard-print headscarf. When the Pirates Of The Caribbean break down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists—they rock the fuck out! Ed Graham, though you can’t really see him from behind the “Darkness”-daubed drum kit, pounds out heavy metal thunder with seeming nonchalance. Oh, this old thing? Pfft. We are The Darkness and we blow people’s minds daily, twice on Saturday. Justin is back with a costume change (black and metallic violet cat suit, swinging his devil’s tail coquettishly at the audience), and they rip into the magnificent ‘Stuck In A Rut’. Through all this, Dan is beautiful and steadfast, Malcolm Young’s truck driver to Angus Young’s stunt performer. Equal in vastly different ways. Now it’s the delightful ‘Friday Night’. “What night is it?” hollers Justin. Even though it’s clearly Tuesday, a handful of blissed out fans still holler, Friday! “And what do you do on Tuesday?” Badminton! This is a lovely song, made all the more precious for Justin’s daring to reveal that even behind the façade of the most flamboyant rock’n’roller there beats the heart of a shy kid in needlework class. There were more songs; the inevitable ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’, an epic version of “the Radiohead’s” ‘Street Spirit’ and ‘Love On The Rocks With No Ice’, which sees Justin carried through the crowd on the shoulders of Pedrock, soloing all the way through the faithful as they touch the hem of his garment. And then, just like that, it was, “thanks! See you next time”.
So it’s come to this. I’m going to blow what’s left of my tenuous credibility in one big shuddering globule by stating that, where before I’d simply suspected they could be the greatest “new” band around, on Tuesday night The Darkness confirmed it for me in brilliant, unrelenting, size 24 Arial Black bold. For years people have been grasping for a new musical icon, someone or something they could grab hold of with both hands. They’ve been clutching at straws at the best of times. The Darkness are a beacon of passion and joy and a ray of iconic hope in a murky quagmire of shitty rock and humourless lyricism. Grab onto them; they’re all yours, they’re all ours. No one was sad after the Darkness’ gig, not even three days later. Why? It was real; other rock “stars”, The Strokes, Coldplay, tease you with a vision of superstardom that is inexplicable as it’s impossible to grasp just how they got there. The Darkness were real, it was obvious how they’d got there and why they deserved to stay. And just maybe, for one brief evening, we did get the best of them. You could say we were there when.
By: Clem Bastow
Published on: 2004-02-16