When British rock band the Darkness came into popularity in 2003, the international press couldn't get enough of them. Though many critics thought their sound and look were humorously ironic and not worth their time, others took note of the quartet's outrageous stage outfits, long hair and '80s anthemic rock music and applauded the band for bringing back fun to mainstream rock music. Their debut album, Permission to Land, sold more than 3.5 million copies worldwide, due in large part to the amount of press written about them. They were, in fact, too unusual not to write about.
What started off as a synth-pop band called Empire eventually evolved into the Darkness when Dan Hawkins convinced his brother Justin to be the lead singer of their new group. Growing up in Lowestoft in Suffolk, England, one night during karaoke at their aunt's pub, Justin got up to sing Queen's hit song "Bohemian Rhapsody." Justin hit nearly every falsetto and note that former Queen singer Freddie Mercury made famous and it was then and there that they decided that Justin just had to be a front man. "It was one of those moments where you realize what music is all about—having fun, but rocking at the same time. And that's what we planned to do," Dan told Rolling Stone's Austin Scaggs.
With Dan on guitar and Justin on vocals and guitar, friends Ed Graham and Frankie Poullain joined on drums and bass, respectively. The band dubbed themselves the Darkness and began to write and play songs that echoed of '80s arena rock masters like Def Leppard. The group spent most of 2000 and 2001 playing small clubs and pubs in England. Even though they were small venues, the band wanted the look and the energy of an arena show, since that is what their music sounded like. They often got strange looks from audiences who wondered why the singer was wearing a leotard and acting like he was performing to 10,000 people. That was just the kind of energy the Darkness gave off.
Unfortunately, most of the music journalists in Britain thought of their throwback sound and look as a joke and refused to write anything good about them, or in the case of one major music magazine, anything at all. The band continued to play gigs for little money, determined to get a record contract. "The thing is, being in a band is a bit like having a child, and 99 percent of being in a band is struggling, intolerable bullshit, and a real pain in the ass," Justin told Yahoo! Music. "And then the other one percent makes it all worthwhile. It's the thrill of doing it."
Major record labels wouldn't touch the band, but they pressed on, and saved enough money to fly to Austin, Texas, to appear at the internationally famous music festival South by Southwest (SXSW) in the spring of 2002. By that summer, the Darkness recorded and released the EP I Believe in a Thing Called Love for independent label Must Destroy Music. The single of the same title topped the charts in London, a feat rarely accomplished by an independent band.
"If you're going to try and be in a band and you're doing something that's slightly different, the record industry doesn't jump on you just like that. Nobody wants to take a chance on something. So, you have to kind of do it yourself," Justin said to Yahoo! Music. "This means your whole life is devoted to it, and you can't think about anything else. So when the light does appear at the end of the tunnel, you just run as fast as you can, and make the most of the opportunities." Soon, the major labels started to pay attention.
With their musical and visual nods to '70s and '80s giants like AC/DC, Queen, and Def Leppard, the Darkness took pride in writing pop-rock songs that were instantly catchy, in-your-face, over the top, and fun. Singer Justin was prone to wearing tight leather pants or spandex catsuits, like Freddie Mercury. It was no surprise the band went on tour with Def Leppard in the winter of 2003.
When the Darkness returned once again to Austin to play SXSW in March of 2003, this time the club was packed, but the band was still without a label. After selling out the infamous London venue the Astoria, Atlantic Records signed the Darkness and released their debut album, Permission to Land, in both the United Kindom and the United States in the summer of 2003.
Rolling Stone's Rob Kemp, recognized that band got flack for being "ironic," but there music could not be ignored. "… This is no irony-damaged novelty. Songs such as 'Get Your Hands Off My Woman' and 'Givin' Up' display industrial-strength riffs, vigorous hammer-on guitar solos and a rhythm section that swings like a wrecking ball," wrote Kemp. "Permission to Land is the first retro-metal album that's worth more than a momentary chuckle. Eighties hard rock is alive and well in the hands of the Darkness."
British music magazine NME, who ignored the band for years, finally gave the Darkness the press they had deserved. Over the course of 2003 and 2004 the band graced the cover numerous times, all without an official interview from members of the Darkness, who refused to give them an interview after years of being snubbed. To top off their glorious year, the Darkness released the Christmas single "Christmas Time (Don't Let the Bells End)."
For the Record …
Members include Richie Edwards (joined group, 2005) bass; Dan Hawkins (born on December 12, 1976), guitar; Justin Hawkins (born on March 17, 1974) vocals, guitar; Ed Graham, drums; Frankie Poullain (left group, 2005), bass.
Group formed in Lowestoft in Suffolk, England, c. 1999; released independent EP I Believe in a Thing Called Love on Must Destroy Music, 2002; signed with Atlantic in the United States to release Permission to Land, 2003 and One Way Ticket to Hell … And Back, 2005.
Awards: Brit Awards, Best Group, Best Album, and Best Rock Group, 2004.
Addresses: Record company—Atlantic, 1290 Ave. of the Americas, New York, NY 10104. Website—The Darkness Official Website: http://www.thedarknessrock.com.
The little band that could have flopped, but had more energy than almost every modern band on the radio, sold more than 3.5 million copies worldwide of their debut album. Before they knew it, Darkness cover bands started popping up in England, in a true testament to their power.
Critics and naysayers continued to poke fun at the Darkness, but the band and its fans knew what mattered. "There are people who think that we are a joke. But those people don't know anything about rock at all," Justin admitted to Yahoo!. "The people who endorse us are people like the guys in Aerosmith, AC/DC, Queen, Whitesnake, Def Leppard—people who actually know about rock and were there when rock was what it should be. To have that praise from them means we don't take the criticism too seriously."
In February of 2004, the Darkness won three Brit Awards including Best Group, Best Album, and Best Rock Group. Finally, it seemed the band got its kudos. "We've been desperately hungry to make it for about ten years, and now we have our chance," Dan reiterated to Scaggs. "We're part of this aristocracy of classic rock, and there's no competition, because classic rock has been dead for so long."
That spring, the band started their first American headlining tour. Shortly after the American tour ended, in an accident in October, Justin injured several of his tendons in his hand, which had to be repaired in surgery. The band continued to tour throughout 2004.
In the spring of 2005, the band settled into the studio with producer Roy Thomas (Queen, the Cars). The band chose their new producer based on his past efforts and were actually able to record some of their sophomore album at Rockfield Studios in Wales where Queen actually recorded "Bohemian Rhapsody." "He was right on the money. Bang on the money," Justin told Rolling Stone's Lauren Gitlin about their producer. "He's brilliant, with a fantastic ear, and I don't ever want to work with another producer."
During recording in May, bassist Poullain left the group due to inter-band conflict. Poullain's bass duties were taken over by former Darkness guitar tech Richie Edwards. Between breaks of recording their new record, Justin worked on a solo album. In August of 2005, he released his first single, a cover of the 1974 Sparks' song "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us," under the name British Whale.
In November of 2005, the Darkness released their second full-length album, One Way Ticket to Hell … and Back. People called the album, "… One wild, thrilling ride." Gitlin also wrote, "The ten tracks continue in the anthemic head-banging vein of the fabulously trash Permission to Land."
I Believe in a Thing Called Love (EP), Must Destroy Music, 2002.
Permission to Land, Atlantic, 2003.
One Way Ticket To Hell … and Back, Atlantic, 2005.
People, December 5, 2005.
Rolling Stone, October 2, 2003; January 28, 2004; October 4, 2005.
"Growing On Us," Yahoo! Music, http://www.music.yahoo.com/read/interview/12055307 (February 1, 2006).
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