All words: Philip Runco with Eamon Redmond
Some nights I wake up in a cold sweat, alone, confused, scared, wondering: “Did the Darkness really happen?” It did. I know it did. Right?
The open-chested catsuits, the spacecraft-humping interstellar octopus, the falsetto (oh my God, so much falsetto): I didn’t fall asleep listening to Queen’s A Night at the Opera on a stomach full of absinth again, did I? These four Brits really did take a love for the theatrical rock of the late 70s/early 80s, combine it with an absurdist sense of humor, and sell millions of records?
It did happen, of course, in the face of all reasonable expectations, in the faraway land of 2003. It was in those summer months that Justin Hawkins and company unleashed Permission to Land, an album which would go straight to number two on the UK charts and eventually hold on to the top spot for a month, on the way to selling 1.5 million copies in the UK alone. Reception in the States was slightly more reserved, with hipsters paralyzed by doubts of, first, whether to take the band seriously, and, second, whether they could – gasp – unironically enjoy cock rock so heavily influenced by AC/DC and KISS. (Oh the early 2000s…)
By the following spring, these concerns were pretty much moot, as the band’s third single “I Believe In a Thing Called Love” was damn near ubiquitous. I’m not going to say being on a college campus at the time felt exactly like this year’s Samsung Super Bowl commercial, but it wasn’t far off. The thing was inescapable.
I bristle when people describe the band as a one-hit wonder though. Even if we ignore the band’s sensational success overseas, Permission to Land was – and remains – a great album. The LP is loaded, front-to-back, with power pop anthems (“Friday Night”, “Givin’ Up”), sweeping power ballads (“Love is Only a Feeling”, “Holding My Own”), and headbangers (“Black Shuck”, “Love on the Rocks with No Ice”). In fact, the band nailed its aesthetic so thoroughly right out of the gate that it had nowhere to go but down.
And down the Darkness went; first, with 2005’s overblown and underperforming (although actually fairly enjoyable) One Way Ticket to Hell… And Back, and then a year later with Hawkin’s departure (attributed to a massive cocaine addiction, natch).
The inevitable reunion announcement came last March, and with a comeback LP well underway, the Darkness visit the 9:30 Club tonight. The advance single “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us” – available for free on the band’s website – doesn’t inspire overwhelming confidence in the upcoming record, but if all of this gives us a reason to revisit Permission to Land and its pitch-perfect videos, then who are we to complain? Guitar!
I was studying in Dublin during the fall of 2003. I had assumed that an English speaking country would have a fair amount of English language television channels, but the reality was that the options were pretty sparse. As fate would have it, MTV was usually the most reliable source for original programming. And unlike its American counterpart, MTV UK actually played music videos (even in 2003!!! – I know, right?!).
A big part of the fun of studying abroad is the lack of actual “studying.” Around 3 p.m. every day, my roommates and I would begin mulling whether it was too early to start drinking, and we would usually be watching Total Request Live – filmed live in London – while doing so. It was during these lazy afternoons that I first encountered the Darkness and “I Believe in a Thing Called Love.”
My friends and I were blown away and, being the American bros that we were, we immediately fell in love. But it wasn’t just us – all of Ireland (and the U.K.) seemed to feel exactly the same. You couldn’t go to a party or bar without hearing the trademark opening guitar riffs. And the video was classic Darkness: space ships, gratuitous male nudity, and bad 80s graphics. As a college student abroad with nothing but time on his hands (and no money), it was the ultimate motivator to rock out. I hope – and believe – that it still holds true today. – Eamon
For a song explicitly about high school, the Darkness chose to a film a video set… on a Pacific island with a (spoiler alert) cannibalistic tribe? Like most things Darkness, you just have to roll with it, because this may be the band’s most giddily enjoyable video. Hawkins’ mugging and horrendous dance moves, in particular, steal the show. One thing to keep in mind while watching this: he would later admit to spending almost a quarter million dollars on cocaine during this three-year stretch.
As for the song, “Friday Night” is the closest the band would come to straight-up power pop. An economical three minutes, the song is also a reminder that the Darkness was a band that showed a surprising amount of self-restraint when it came to its music. As Permission to Land’s nine b-sides (!) can attest, the Darkness was not a band that suffered from a lack of ideas, but it whittled Permission to Land down to a lean 10 songs and 38 minutes. – Philip
Part of what makes the Darkness so enjoyable is its tongue-in-cheek approach to everything, and questioning how serious they actually take themselves. On an initial listen, “Growing on Me,” sounds like an unassumingly rockin’ love song, but a closer listen implies a cheekier theme: V.D.
I’m being punished for all my offenses
I wanna touch you but I’m afraid of the consequences
I wanna banish you from which you came
But you’re part of me now
And I’ve only got myself to blame
Huh, I wonder what’s “growing on” him? Double entendre aside, this video might actually be my favorite, beginning with the “baby” Darkness members hatching from eggs spawned from the illicit love of a pterodactyl and spaceship. The video plays on British and 80s metal cliches, with the band rocking out at an English country house furnished with floor-to-ceiling speakers in apparently every room, and, in an Arthurian wink, a guitar sprouting from a lake for a righteous solo. – Eamon
“Love is Only a Feeling” was the fourth single from Permission to Land, and it’s not hard to envision the Atlantic Records execs finally waking up to the Darkness’s success and deciding to throw some real money at the band. Hawkins et al. took that cash and made its most straightforward send-up of rock tropes: the pastoral / mountaintop video. Filmed in the Blue Mountains of Australia, it’s an epic video befitting an epic power ballad. – Philip
It took living in Ireland for me to discover the U.K. tradition of musicians competing to hold the Number One single the week of Christmas. I didn’t understand why it made a difference what song sat atop the charts on December 25th, but apparently everyone across the pond really cared about this sort of thing. (This was just before the world was blessed with “Love Actually.”) Personally, I have never been interested in following the charts, but I found myself checking the daily updates and rooting for The Darkness to come out on top. The band didn’t win – the song came in a close second – but it still put out a bitchin’ Christmas anthem, and the song’s success was just one more reflection of the Darkness’s pop cultural dominance at the time. – Eamon