10 October 2003
This is not Spinal Tap
The lobby of the Jury’s Hotel in Cardiff resembles a Barratt’s town square built of brick, with an enormous clocktower that usefully shows the time in New York and Tokyo. Piped insidiously into the atmosphere is a loop of orchestral arrangements of popular songs. Handbags and Gladrags evokes the awful image of po-faced Welsh whinge-rockers the Stereophonics. It’s hard to imagine a band less like the Darkness. Finally I manage to escape and arrive in the beer-sticky warren that is Cardiff University students’ union to meet the band. Well, all of the band except singer Justin Hawkins, who is still in bed. They had a “heavy night” last night in Stoke, involving depth charges of Bailey’s in pints of Guinness.
An interview with local television is about to begin on a balcony. “Uh-oh, we’re outside,” notes guitarist Dan Hawkins (Justin’s younger brother), who for civilian purposes is wearing a long brown suede jacket and brown drainpipe jeans. He dons his sunglasses, explaining: “Peepers – don’t want to upset anyone.”
Bassist Frankie Poullain, half Scottish, half French, with a neatly trimmed handlebar moustache, could easily have been cast in Pirates of the Caribbean, although for the moment he is wearing Aviator shades and a chalkstripe suit. The trio is completed by soulful-eyed drummer Ed Graham, and the band give a professional, if windblown interview. At the end, the presenter digs out an old newspaper photograph of himself at the World Air Guitar Championships and offers his services. “We’ll call you,” Frankie says, not unkindly.
We retreat to the basement kitchen: Dan and Ed mosey off to get some more rest before the sound check, while Frankie tucks into some spicy tomato soup. The Darkness recently played in New York, and US magazine Blender gave them $800 to spend on an evening out. “Most bands go to a lap-dancing club or something,” Frankie explains, lamenting the lack of imagination among his contemporaries. “We got a donkey. I dunno why we chose a donkey; there’s probably something subliminal about that. We put Darkness T-shirts on it and paraded it around outside New York fashion week.”
“Maybe the Darkness are like a donkey,” he says wistfully. “Cumbersome, ungainly, awkward … stubborn, too.” New York loved them, he thinks, because its own bands are a bit boring. Take the Strokes: “It’s all a bit naff. They’re all pretty boys, really. With us, there’s more of a backbone there, more of a nobility. We stand alone.” It’s impossible to tell whether Frankie is being serious.
The sound check is presided over by album producer and sound engineer Pedro Ferreira, who bears a striking resemblance to motorcycle courier Ferdy from This Life. Dan is up on stage, belting out solos on his Les Paul. “I’d prefer to hear the bass,” he shouts politely to Pedro, “but you can’t have everything.”
Suddenly Justin appears running across the floor, a lean bundle of energy in a leopardskin hooded top. “Did I say something really offensive to you last night?” he asks Andy. “I’ve been behaving really badly on this tour.” He then begins to joke about last night’s “Spinal Tap moment”: the white curtain that ought to drop when the show starts didn’t come down in one go. “So one corner of the thing was hanging down and everyone was peeping round,” he chuckles. Then he sprints off again, and is soon delivering spine-tingling power falsettos into his microphone.
An hour before they are due on, everyone is crammed into a tiny dressing room with beige breeze-block walls and dirty blue linoleum. Dan takes a Thin Lizzy T-shirt that is drying on the radiator and lifts it to his nose: “Fuck me, that stinks.”
For this tour, the Darkness have a dedicated wardrobe man, whose name is Ed. So as not to confuse him with drummer Ed, the band call him Edrobe. “I’ve got a whole drawer for wristbands,” he assures someone. He helps Justin on with his boots, and laces up a long black leather fingerless glove over Frankie’s wrist. Drummer Ed is carefully applying eyeliner in a mirror.
“Anyone got any moisturiser?” calls Dan. “I’ve just had a shave and my face feels like it’s gonna fucking fall off.” Suddenly Justin rushes in, calling for help. He has been at the side of the stage watching support band Three Inches of Blood, an impressively energetic Canadian speed-metal outfit. “The guitarist’s amp has died!” Justin cries, and drags a roadie out to help fix it.
Emergencies over, the band are all dressed. Dan has found a black T-shirt with the legend “Ten Benson” in Iron Maiden lettering that causes no olfactory offence. Ed is wearing a sleeveless Three Inches of Blood T-shirt. Frankie has finished his vampire-pirate look with a black and silver poncho. Justin is wearing a skintight white catsuit with transparent panels, the zip open to the groin, exposing the tattooed flames rising from his nether regions. It is T minus 30 minutes, and the Darkness are ready to rock.
The hall is rammed with grungey students, skatepunk kids, 1980s metallers in ripped denim and pubescent girls. Suddenly we hear a kind of Celtic Abba instrumental, and the white curtain covering the stage lights up. Everyone roars. Justin strikes poses in silhouette behind the curtain, ending with a lovably cheesy two-thumbs-up gesture. The band launch into their rollicking instrumental, Bareback; one corner of the curtain falls, and for a moment it looks like the other will be stuck there, but that falls too after a few seconds, and the place explodes. The Darkness make people happy.
The combination of irresistibly muscular riffage and spectacular vocal melodies sounds even better live than on record, especially given a sensationally tight and clear sound mix. Dan and Justin constantly swap perfectly composed guitar solos. And then there is Justin’s exemplary showmanship – soloing behind his head, demanding that lighters be held aloft during “our power ballad” Best of Me, jumping all over the stage performing gymnastic kicks.
Costume change: Justin reappears in a billowing white cape, stripy red and white skintight rock trousers and an open white waistcoat. He introduces a cover version. “Sung by the Radioheads of Oxford, this is Street Spirit!” The band reinvent it brilliantly by alternating speed-metal verses with half-time power-grunge choruses.
The climax arrives during the massively extended final number, Love on the Rocks With No Ice: during his guitar solo, Justin climbs on to Pedro’s shoulders and is carried down from the stage to begin a circumnavigation of the audience, bobbing atop a sea of outstretched hands and camera flashes, improvising majestically all the while.
They finish with the mother of all heavy-metal endings. The standard metal salute, the “devil’s horns” of outstretched fore-finger and little finger, has been replaced by hundreds of upturned thumbs in the crowd. All four members regroup at the front of the stage and take a synchronised bow before running off. The house lights go up: everyone is drenched in sweat, everyone sports a mile-wide grin. Rock fans are not quite used to being so entertained .
Back in the dressing room, everyone agrees that this was the best gig of the tour so far. The room is gradually invaded by well-wishers, liggers and distant relatives, the support bands and their friends, until there is barely room to breathe. The band members are, however, superlatively polite and obliging, posing for photos and signing albums. A big scary white muscular dog is snuffling around. Justin, clutching a tube of Colgate herbal toothpaste, comes over, flops on to the sofa and begins to pet the mutt. “He likes me! See, he’s ripped both his cruciate ligaments in the past, that’s why he’s got the scars. I poked him in the eye with a pen earlier and he didn’t care.”
Two young women in knee-length boots and fixed smiles are schmoozing the room. One of them starts singing incomprehen-sibly in what might be Welsh. Edrobe is wiping down bottles of shampoo with a towel. “This is the less glamorous part of my job,” he confides, “but it’s still a crucial part.” Dan is confessing to someone: “The thing is, I’ve actually run out of Thin Lizzy T-shirts.” Frankie is annoyed about the lack of a proper party venue for this evening. “We’re a fucking number-one band and this is the fucking after-show?”
Not long after midnight, the room has cleared and only band members and crew remain. Justin has failed to get what he wanted from the fridge. “That’s a good idea,” he announces amiably, “play with two support bands, then invite all of them in, then wonder where the vodka’s gone. Class!” The evening is over. Everyone ventures outside into the freezing rain and boards the big gold tour bus. Next stop, Bristol.
At the Bristol Marriott City Centre, which is nowhere near the city centre, you at least get a slightly better class of orchestral Muzak in the lobby. I rendezvous with the band, sans Justin for the moment, for lunch at the venue. Everyone is tucking into a truly delicious shepherd’s pie with peas. Any suspicions I had harboured that the Darkness were simply a piss-take were banished by last night’s performance, but since this is still a popular position among certain po-faced music journalists, I dutifully ask the question. So, are the Darkness just “ironic metal”?
Frankie is well primed to answer. “We wouldn’t have spent this long doing it if it was just a joke,” he explains gently. “We wouldn’t have been travelling to all these gigs over the last three and a half years, being paid nothing, driving a transit van, playing the world’s smallest violin. If we were being ironic, we’d spend our time in wine bars, watching Fellini films, reading the Guardian.” Everyone laughs.
Dan chimes in: “People seem to have forgotten that being in a rock band is by its nature ridiculous. A lot of bands think being cool is more important than enjoying themselves.”
Suddenly Justin bounces over to the table and clenches his fists in delight over his plate. “I haven’t had a shepherd’s pie for fucking ages!” Someone mentions that Euan Blair is coming this evening, and Justin pounces. “I’m gonna get really pissed and do that thing: ‘So, Euan – you fooking murderer!’” Everyone collapses in laughter. Justin impersonates Paul Whitehouse quoting Shakespeare: “‘Out, damned spot’ is it, you know, when you’re sitting there, washing your hands?”
“You can’t blame him for what his dad does,” says Ed reasonably. “He’s a nice guy.” Frankie points out that Tony Blair himself was a prog-rocker back in the 1970s, but this cuts no ice with Justin. “I’m sure Ted Bundy enjoyed music!” he cries melodramatically. “David Koresh was a keen songwriter!” Later on, he will thoughtfully offer another persuasive example of how the love of music does not rule out evil. “Caligula liked nothing more than a harp lament while fisting his sister.”
The conversation then turns to Prince (“Purple Rain? Bags of space – brilliant!” says Justin approvingly, before beating to death the sexual metaphor of Little Red Corvette) and other admired frontmen (David Coverdale, Steven Tyler, Freddie Mercury, David Lee Roth). The band remember supporting the Rolling Stones in Germany and discovering that Keith always has a shepherd’s pie with baked beans on top.
Justin recalls that when he and his brother were kids, “You got into trucks and I got into sharks.” So if he weren’t a rock singer, he’d be “a marine biologist”. Ed snorts in merriment. “But I also wanted to be a helicopter pilot,” Justin adds. “And a doctor. I could combine all three and be a helicopter-flying marine-biologist doctor. If, like in Jaws, there were people trapped in the water, assuming that, you know, the shark didn’t eat the helicopter, I could go and help them.”
“Or you could pick the shark up and take it from one place to another,” suggests Dan.
“Yeah exactly! Airlift sharks out of danger,” Justin says triumphantly.
Edrobe wanders up and announces that he is going to the shops. He is bombarded by satirical requests for rulers. “Actually,” says drummer Ed, “can I have some more conditioner for my hair, please?”
Lunch ends with Justin trying to think of euphemisms for women’s genitalia, while Dan grins in disbelief. “We’re talking to the Guardian, and you’re sitting there thinking of names for the female, er …”
“Quim!” shouts Justin, to uproarious laughter. “I like quim,” Justin insists. “It’s written on a passport – yeah, if you look closely you can see the word quim. And then you open it up and there’s a picture of me in it, which is ideal, really.”
The gig that evening is rammed again. Justin performs bare-chested in fluorescent pink-and-white stripy stretch pants and a matching pink headband. At the end of Street Spirit he turns his thumbs slowly upwards like a Roman emperor – perhaps another Caligula reference. A long-haired bloke in a Whitby Gothic Weekend T-shirt passes the bar, ecstatically playing air guitar to Dan and Justin’s harmonised duet in Friday Night. A girl faces her boyfriend, joyously mouthing the words to an apocalyptic Get Your Hands Off My Woman. The climactic Love on the Rocks is even better than the night before.
The party afterwards is in a dank, black-walled bar upstairs. A girl wearing a bullet belt lifts up her top to show Justin her tattoo: he stops to examine this proffered midriff with scientific curiosity. Dan is decrying the froideur of southern audiences. “People don’t drink enough in the south of England.”
Tragically I have missed Euan Blair: apparently he was introduced on a sofa to Frankie, who asked how he was. “Yeah, fine,” the young Blair replied. “Uh, these are my mates.” A young man of few words, but amiable enough, it seems.
I meet the band’s costume designer, Lucy Manning, a comely young lady wearing a multicoloured Doctor Who scarf. She promises that their look can become a lot more camp than it already is. “This is nothing, I worked with Kylie. It can get more glitzy, a bit more sequiny. Justin’s going to become more of a showgirl. Maybe high heels …” she fantasises. It turns out that the boys are very hot in the couture industry. “Donatella Versace is a really big fan of the Darkness,” Lucy says. “All these people in fashion are really obsessed with them.”
The party stretches on pleasantly till 2.30am. I fail to spy anyone ritually sacrificing a chicken, or snorting cocaine off the buttocks of a groupie. Justin leaves in a car for London: tomorrow he has to re-record the album’s vocals without swearing so that it can be sold in puritanical American chain Wal-Mart: the line “Get your hands offa my woman, motherfucker” will now end “mama mama”. As the bar empties, Dan is sweetly hugging strangers. Everyone is tired but happy. Tomorrow is a day off; for now, the nicest men in rock have deserved a good night’s sleep.