The lighter side of the Darkness

Michael Lucarz

Justin Hawkins’ long, lean fingers scale the guitar neck with ease, bending and churning the steel strings of his majestic white Les Paul every which way. A bottle of Jack Daniel’s adorns the top of his vintage Marshall stack like a trophy, rocking side to side with each monstrous power chord he strikes, teetering visibly with each falsetto howl he delivers. He looks unmistakably familiar onstage; part David Lee Roth, part Peter Frampton, he is the embodiment of rock ‘n’ roll from the days when androgynous frontmen toured the known universe back flipping and duck-walking their way across the great stages of the world.

The Darkness is so rock ‘n’ roll that they don’t even seem real. Their history reads like that of any one of their influences: skinny blokes from working-class British suburbs whose daily sustenance consisted of healthy portions of booze and cigarettes, their only company kept in the form of groupies, tour managers, beggars and hangers-on. “Permission to Land” is the group’s debut record and features tones and textures from their British ancestors Thin Lizzy, Queen and Aussies AC/DC, all of whom have openly praised their musical offspring. Up on stage they’re in another world, with Hawkins fazed and dazed as he taunts the crowd menacingly with his axe, skinny limbs flailing and an elusive grin revealing a set of bone yard teeth. Classic rock hasn’t rocked this hard since the Black Crowes broke big in 1991, juxtaposing the flannel shirt, my-girlfriend-just-left-me angst they wanted nothing to do with. It’s that time again, and the Hawkins brothers are the first ones to remind us that guitar solos and stage theatrics are nothing to be ashamed of; it’s the core of this thing we call rock ‘n’ roll music.

The Darkness is the real deal, and not in the same way every other band seems to be these days through the words of ill-advised rock journos. The lifeblood of rock ‘n’ roll flows through Justin Hawkins’ veins like the channels and tributaries that surrounded him growing up in Lowestoft, Suffolk. The term “retro-rock” would probably elicit vibes of cynicism and taboo from this motley crew of Brits, who have little in common with their minimalist counterparts coming out of New York. They even look like real rockers with their leather trousers, cowboy boots, snakeskin scarves and skin-tight tees, all naturally aged to perfection after years of touring, cigarette smoke and sweat. These boys aren’t your run-of-the-mill, retro wannabes who take Daddy’s credit card and raid Andy’s Chee-Pees in SoHo in order to look legit. They actually enjoy being photographed with their guitars, each member’s style shining through what they play and say and not only through their threads. Self-deprecating to say the least, the Darkness carry themselves lightly but would probably kick you in the teeth regardless if you rubbed them the wrong way. That roughness is there, that torn and frayed kind of thing that distinguishes the kings of the castle from the pretenders to the throne. The band has paid its dues; ten years of rock ‘n’ roll boot camp through the trenches of London’s critical and slavishly brutal club scene in an era where classic rock was thought to be an antiquated art form overtaken by emo kids. Rock isn’t the stage for suburbanites to whine incessantly about their precious emotions, but “emo” is beginning to reflect the heavy-metal overload of the late eighties with amorphous bands recycling hackneyed chord progressions and insipid lyrics. Enter The Darkness.

Rock ‘n’ roll never died; it just stepped out for a smoke because the bar became too crowded and the music inside sounded a bit unbearable. The “retro-rock” phenomenon is another marketing phase, with bands that transcend categorization and those that embody it. Just as The Strokes could never be huddled together in an “emo” category, The Darkness could never be just another “retro” band. Excuse them for actually learning how to play their instruments and working as a unit instead of plugging in and wailing discordant, out-of-tune notes that mindlessly-obsessed fans think are “too deep for you, man. No, you just don’t get it.”

Perhaps that’s exactly the problem with rock ‘n’ roll these days. If nothing else, even at the most base level, the retro appeal of contemporary bands is a tip of the hat to the groups that actually wore that “1974 World Beer Drinking Championships” tee-shirt when it was new, maybe even placed in the competition.

Rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be deep naturally, not because a band is trying too hard. Drugs are supposed to be instigators and catalysts for musicians to explore themselves deeper than the common person, eliciting emotions through the push and pull, not a reason to brag. Rock ‘n’ roll is sacred, an ancient art of weaving, tried and tested throughout centuries by minstrels whose nomadic lifestyles helped them convey aural pleasures previously unheard of. And while The Darkness may not be the saviors, they’re giving it their all, and their all is quantum.