Justin Hawkins on the Darkness’ Early Days: ‘It Was Pandemonium’
"Sometimes getting onstage is the thing that makes you realize it's not for you," the Darkness' Justin Hawkins concedes during a recent chat.
He's not speaking from experience.
"I had the opposite feeling, actually," the frontman remembers. "Our first gig was in August 2000. It was that long ago. And we were opening a night — I think we were probably on about 7 o'clock if we were lucky — and played for half an hour. It changed my life. I wasn't a singer before then. I played gigs as a guitar player. But just that first taste of being the center of attention was really heady."
Fast-forward three years, and Hawkins was peacocking across stages in sparkly jumpsuits and wielding his glass-shattering tenor like an ax on the Darkness' debut album, Permission to Land, released in their native United Kingdom on July 7, 2003. Spearheaded by the charmingly braggadocious "Get Your Hands Off My Woman" and evergreen karaoke staple "I Believe in a Thing Called Love," the album topped the U.K. chart and went four times platinum while also grazing the Top 40 of the Billboard 200 and achieving gold status in the United States.
Watch the Darkness' 'I Believe in a Thing Called Love' Video
"The Gay AC/DC" or "The Straight Queen"?
Permission's dizzying blend of Queen-level grandiosity and AC/DC-style riff-a-rama established the Darkness as rock 'n' roll saviors in some circles (and an unfunny novelty in others, though their dynamite live set often converted skeptics). "I think that sort of developed because when we first started off, we were a five-piece, and then in 2001, we became a four-piece and I was playing more guitar," Hawkins explains. "And my particular sort of vibrato style is quite similar to Brian May's, and the sort of licks I play are very similar to Angus Young. So the way I play guitar is probably a direct cross between those two guys.
"It was noticed by a journalist called Simon Price. He said, 'A lot of people are dismissing the Darkness as the gay AC/DC. But they're not. They're the straight Queen.' And we were all, 'OK, that's fair enough.'"
Hawkins admits that the Darkness' bombastic sound and presentation were partially a reaction to the self-consciously cool garage rock revival simultaneously taking hold on both sides of the pond. Nowadays, though, he sees it more as a case of a game-recognizing game. "It's funny, at the time I was kind of like, 'Yeah, look at these fucking posers,'" he allows. "But then look at what we were doing. We were just covered in feathers and leather and all this stuff, and doing the big catsuits and all that. I mean, of course, we were posers. I suppose it's just a different angle."
He recalls an early gig with British indie rock darlings the Libertines, "which I think was probably the British version of the Strokes, really. And I was having a conversation with the singer, and I noticed he was smoking a cigarette, and he stopped smoking the cigarette and started using the cigarette to burn holes in his T-shirt. I was like, 'What are you doing?' He just wanted to make it look like he'd fallen asleep with a cigarette in his hand. And so some of that really was just affectation, you know. It was posturing, really. But we were doing the same thing, but in a completely different way."
Watch the Darkness' 'Get Your Hands Off My Woman' Video
From the jump, the Darkness' modus operandi — "Stadium rock in pubs," as Hawkins puts it — set them apart from their contemporaries. Before long, they were strutting their stuff on the massive stages their songs demanded, caught up in the whirlwind of success. And yet, Hawkins says, "We didn't feel very much at all. We were quite heavily sedated for a lot of that period. We said no to a lot of stuff, and we said yes to a lot more stuff, and it seemed like every day we were busy. So you didn't get a chance to sort of stand back and watch what was happening, really."
"It Was Pandemonium"
A few pinch-me moments cut through the haze, though. "I remember we did one show in Ireland, and then we were having to get from a radio session to the gig, and there were kids actually running alongside the cars and in the streets," Hawkins recalls. "It was pandemonium, and it was not something we'd anticipated in the first instance. We thought people were just gonna reject us, but we were quite defiant that we would do it anyway. And then to see all that stuff happening was absolutely surreal, you know? We weren't prepared for it in the slightest."
The Darkness also got some pointers from fellow British rockers Def Leppard, who took them on their first arena tour in 2003. "I think the band we've learned the most from has got to be Def Leppard," Hawkins says. "If you're actually prepared to pull your head out of your ass, get down the front and watch what they're up to, you can learn a lot from Def Leppard. It's a masterclass, really, just in terms of the choreography or the lack thereof, the way it ebbs and flows. And wherever you are in the front row, you're gonna get face time with each of the members of the band. By the end of the show, you'll have had an intimate moment with everybody in Def Leppard except for the drummer. And that's so clever to be able to do that."
Twenty years later, Hawkins and his bandmates are now settling comfortably into elder-statesmen status themselves, readying a deluxe reissue of their debut album called Permission to Land ... Again and the accompanying Permission to Land 20 tour, where they'll play the entire album in its original sequence followed by a second set of hits. "The thing is, the fourth song is the big song, the one that we traditionally wait until the end of the set for, so it really forces us to raise our game for the second set," he says before deadpanning, "If you want to be dazzled and beguiled by some daft English blokes in crazy costumes playing some amazing songs from back in the day in the order in which you would normally consume them, then yeah, that's the tour for you."
Watch the Darkness Perform 'Growing on Me' Live in 2004
The frontman sounds gracious and a little awestruck as he reflects on a two-decade career, which was almost cut off at the knees after the Darkness' second album, One Way Ticket to Hell ... and Back, flatlined and Hawkins entered rehab in 2006. Instead, they regrouped in 2011, cemented their return the following year with the deliriously horny Hot Cakes and have continued proving themselves onstage and on record for the past decade.
"You get a band that's around for 20 years and then you can't shoot them down," Hawkins proclaims. "They're bulletproof, they have their own audience and their own way of doing things. And that's the sort of longevity that you don't dare to imagine at the beginning of a project. If you get there it's a miracle, really."