Pop music has always been a little too po-faced for my liking. To be taken seriously as an "artist" you either have to the act the tough guy, get your kit off or appear mysterious. There's not much room in today’s charts for "comedians". Humorous acts are instantly dismissed as novelties and relegated to the Christmas hinterlands or Comic Relief telethons.
So when The Darkness came blazing into our lives in 2003 in a blur of spandex, testicle-constricting vocals and sense of escapist fun it was hard to know what to make of them. I remember hearing their breakthrough hit I Believe In A Thing Called Love and thinking its big dumb riffs and mad multi-tracked falsetto were the perfect antidote to the sea of boring earnest mediocrity doing the rounds at the time (Beddingfield and Stereophonics I'm looking at you).
I wasn't the only one to catch the hair-metal bug as debut Permission To Land sold by the denim jacket load. Even the cynical music press embraced The Darkness's tongue-in-cheek love of rock 'n roll excess. Don't forget this is a band who won an Ivor Novello for Songwriters of the Year in 2004. There’s craft in their cheese.
After the party comes the hangover and the band started overdoing the Alka Setlzer (wink wink) as they begun to embrace the rock ‘n roll lifestyle a little too readily. Bassist Frankie Poullain was acrimoniously sacked and the good vibes that had powered the first album evaporated.
As a result sophomore album One Way Ticket To Hell...and Back was an over-produced dogs dinner.
In 2006 Hawkins thought he might as well go the whole hog with the rock n roll clichés and promptly checked into rehab for drug abuse. True to form the band split and members of The Darkness spent the intervening years time playing in poorly received side projects like Hot Leg, Stone Gods &; British Whale. Hawkins got clean (he sips on nothing stronger than bottle water tonight) and the inevitable band reconciliation followed. The second coming would yield the album Hot Cakes in 2011 which, although selling like lukewarm crumpets, was a handsome return to cock-rocking form.
So what of The Darkenss of 2013? Justin emerges on stage looking lean and mean sporting his usual Lycra onesy and a new beard/moustache combo that makes him look like th d'Artagnan of hair metal. Poullain is back on board & tonight seems to have come dressed as Prince circa Purple Rain with his extravagant bouffant, tache and flashy trench coat. Fans will be pleased to know that it's (absurd) business as usual from the guys.
Tonight's set is a game of two halves. The first is a hodgepodge of old tracks, new songs and covers. The second part is Permission To Land played in its entirety (big cheers at this news by the predominately older rockers who make up much of tonight's audience). The new song is The Horn which distils The Darkness to its ludicrous essence. Its balls out rock silliness with operatic flourishes. Sample lyrics
"Take off your dress,
undo my tux
Stick your long,sharp nails
into my pale buttocks"
Curse of the Tolland Man is The Darkness doing prog-rock and maybe the only misfire of the night. It’s a non-album track from 2005 and it lacks the band's usual immediacy. With its new age lyrics and odd time signatures it sounds like a Jethro Tull B-side. That's never a good thing. Their cover is Radiohead's Street Spirit (Fade Out) which has been injected with steroids and kicked up the arse. It's an inspired makeover. Ed Graham's drums sound like a herd of horses about to trample you to death and Justin falsetto is so high it’s barely audible to dogs. It's magnificent and I actually prefer it to the original.
At half time Hawkins takes exception to a chap in the first few rows who has been filming the show since the start and tells him it’s illegal
"not to mention f*cking distracting. It’s this kind if sh*t that's killing music"
He then invites the entire audience to record the next part so they can upload it to YouTube.
"…as it will blow your f*cking mind"
The roadies come on stage for an inordinate amount of time and appear to be adjusting the drum kit for what is about to come. I was fully expecting the drum kit to levitate or spin in the air a-la-Motley Crue but with the crowd poised for something amazing Graham does nothing more than the most basic of drum fills, like a 3 year old given a toy kit on his birthday. The crowd dissolve into laughter. The Darkness may appear ridiculous but they are certainly self aware.
Sonically it’s hard not to hear echoes of Queen in The Darkness back catalogue and there is much of the Freddie Mercury in Justin Hawkins live performance. There are the outlandish outfits, the showmanship, the impeccable vocals and the easy rapport with the crowd. At one point during Growing On Me he stops and conducts the audience in an impromptu sing-along with a raising and lowering of his arm. He literally has the audience in the palm of his hand.
During Love Is Only A Feeling one middle aged fan emboldened by beer now feels its time to go for a spot of crowd surfing. He is doing well for a minute until his girth becomes too heavy for those supporting him and lands head first with a one way ticket to the concrete.
That's not the end of the crowd based fun. We are treated to an extended version of Love On The Rocks With No Ice with Justin getting on the shoulders of one of the roadies and riding him into the audience. He solos as he creeps closer to where we are standing all the while being groped by various rabid fans. He doesn’t miss a note. To top off an excellent show we get an encore of Christmas Time (Don't Let the Bells End) with the guys dressed up in their Xmas outfits (bobble hats, tank tops etc). I dread Xmas but this even managed to unearth the yuletide spirit buried deep within me.
The Darkness is in every shape and form a stadium band so it’s a privilege to see them in such close proximity. The songs, their attitude and their musical ability all scream Wembley Stadium. They may be a joke to some but it’s a punch line that keeps on giving.