“I think some people thought we were a joke band,” Justin Hawkins says of the misconceptions surrounding The Darkness during their early Aughts breakout. “A parody of some sort. Some people thought we’d been assembled by a nefarious music industry string-puller, like a Simon Cowell type who designed the band to do a big joke on rock fans.” At a time when nu-metal and teen pop were fading and young rock bands were straining for credibility, an all-frills glam band inspired by Queen and AC/DC didn’t just threaten people’s sensibilities, it threatened their vanity. “I think because we were doing something that was so desperately unfashionable, disliking us was sort of a coping strategy. They didn’t want to be caught liking us. It was so uncool, and then it was cool for a minute, and then it wasn’t again. But during that minute there were a lot of people looking over their shoulders, like: am I supposed to be enjoying this or what?”
I’m here to tell you that in 2023, 20 years after the band’s breakthrough album Permission To Land, the people at a Darkness show know that they are supposed to be enjoying it. In fact, they know exactly how they’re supposed to be enjoying it, which is just like Justin Hawkins does: tongue about halfway in cheek, moves and outfits and vertiginously high notes just a little bit meta, aware that rock is a silly business but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a serious one in the exact same moment. About ten minutes into the set, during the bridge of “Get Your Hands Off My Woman,” when Hawkins does a headstand on the drum riser and leads the crowd in a big hands-in-the-air heavy metal clap, with his legs, keeping perfect time, any questions about the band’s or the fans’ commitment has been answered. It is ridiculous, and we are all the way in.
It’s easy to understand rock audiences’ confusion, given the landscape into which The Darkness made their debut. 2003 was a more serious time, a moment when bands like The Strokes and The Hives and The Vines scaled back the theatrics and the big looks. “The scene was very earnest, very concerned with emotional authenticity. But that rang a bit hollow for me,” Hawkins says. For him, the key was in saying what the cool bands were too cool to say. “Bands were writing love songs, but they weren’t being explicit about the fact that they were love songs. It was all colorful prose, all allegory and metaphors, but never actually saying the word love. I said to the guys, ‘Listen, if we start putting love in the title of these songs, we’ll be the only band that has the balls to do that right now and we’ll probably clean up.’ And I was right, I think.”
He was right. “I Believe In A Thing Called Love” was a massive hit around the world, propelling Permission To Land to multi-million sales around the globe and a sold-out three-night run at London’s Wembley Stadium. “The excitement around us came from the live stuff, which I do think makes us pretty bulletproof. What we do is just human beings with bits of wood and metal and there’s nothing else to it, no amps hidden under the stage, no simulator. It’s amplifiers and it’s guitars and it’s loud and it’s real.” It remains that way, even as some of the band’s early peers make adjustments for their own 20th anniversary tours. “A lot of established bands that have been around since those days have moved on to a more reliable way of performing live, which involves stuff on tracks and bits of circuitry that aren’t likely to feed back if you stand too close to them. Do you know what I mean?”
When Permission To Land landed in the early aughts, the record business was at its peak: CD sales were at their highest, Napster and streaming had not yet yanked the rug out from under the industry. Labels had time and resources to let young artists develop. “You’d have people like [Atlantic Records’] Ahmet Ertegun, who were like, “well, I dunno if it’s going to sell, but let’s give it a go.” And then they’d actually have people who would help you develop your craft and your persona.” The Darkness signed to Atlantic, the craft and persona having been developed. “There was nothing for them to A&R in the traditional sense. It was a product that was ready to go, and they really believed in us and gave us the power and support to do what we wanted. We made some great videos for that first album,” including the “Thing Called Love” video, which featured the band on a spaceship, fighting and then vanquishing an alien straight out of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. “I loved being on that label, a label of heritage and history. I just loved it. I would walk around with a hat that had the Atlantic logo on it.”
But success can disorient you, particularly when you’re fronting a band that turns out to be polarizing. “I wasn’t ready,” Hawkins admits. “We had this moment where everybody had an opinion on us, and it seemed like half the people loved us and half the people hated us, which felt like we were doing the right thing. But it’s very difficult to drown out the negative sounds.” For all his onstage hubris, Hawkins was wounded by the criticism: “If you’re paying any attention to what people are saying about you, you either believe your own hype, or you get this crushing imposter syndrome. Every day I went through a rollercoaster of all that stuff. It actually makes you really tired when you consider how your work is being perceived. It can be pretty exhausting.”
After a second album, One Way Ticket To Hell…And Back, and a trip to rehab for Hawkins, Atlantic dropped the band, and The Darkness went on a hiatus. Nowadays, Hawkins says, “I feel like the nature of the industry has gone from being product-based to service-based. There’s a load of amazing stuff out there right now. But the way that the gatekeepers of the music trade discover those things is through social media. They’re looking at the numbers. They’re not looking at potential artistry in the things that they sign.” The Darkness has independently released five albums since 2011, and Hawkins has moved from London. “I now live in rural Switzerland, which is like, it doesn’t get any more anonymous than that.”
But when it is showtime, it is showtime. At the center of The Darkness experience is still Hawkins, a front man for people who watched Freddie Mercury and said, “I wish this man would come out of his shell.” Hawkins’s embrace of the over-the-top is what made the band click in the first place; an essay in the 20th anniversary reissue of Permission details a Christmastime pantomime of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” in which Hawkins made a decision to be as stupid as possible, as the moment the band found their identity. Of his role as lead singer, Hawkins says, “I always sort of correlated it with my experiences with romance and girls when I was younger. I remember there was more than one girl who was like, “Yeah, I’d love to go on a date with you, but I think I’d be too embarrassed.”
Hawkins’ stage persona, and the punny song titles, and the video with the fake alien, are among the reasons people don’t know how seriously to take The Darkness. Particularly in the United States, where we seem to need things to be completely serious or completely a joke, and have trouble interpreting what lies between. Take Robbie Williams for example: at the turn of the millennium, he was massive all over the world except the US, being a pop star and parodying a pop star in the same breath. In our need to classify pop music, to understand its intentions and suss out its exact sincerity levels, we often forget to just enjoy it. (The Darkness’ opening set for Williams’ legendary 2003 performance at the Knebworth Festival is included as a DVD in the Permission reissue.)
Aside from the Permission To Land tour, Hawkins has an extremely entertaining YouTube channel, Justin Hawkins Rides Again, in which he holds forth on today’s music. Right now, he’s loving The Lemon Twigs, he’s recently picked up the classic 1995 album Ro Sham Bo by The Grays, featuring cult hero Jason Falkner, and he’s happy to see Greta Van Fleet moving on from being influenced only by Led Zeppelin. “They’ve added kind of a Rush thing, and they’ve got more ethereal and flowing with their threads. It’s just great.” (His advice to a few of today’s top artists can be found below.) He also occasionally gets very serious, as in a recent video about his commitment to sobriety. “I connect with my audience in a completely different way now,” he says. “I’m not afraid of an awkward silence. I love to stand at the front and just drink it in and just see the people, and I have little anchor points. If there’s a group of people that are having a good time, I’ll focus on them. If there’s people that aren’t having a good time, I’ll focus on them. I have a totally different understanding of who’s out there.”
But the question remains: why does an artist have to be completely serious to be taken completely seriously, and if those are the rules, why doesn’t everyone have to play by them? If we’re asking Justin Hawkins whether he’s joking because he wears tight pants and hits high notes and fights felt aliens, why aren’t we asking the same of AC/DC, whose guitarist has for decades dressed like a literal child? “That is always the example that I give,” Hawkins says. “You’re talking about a band with a guy who’s wearing a school uniform, and they’re always going on about balls in their lyrics. And it’s genius.”
So why isn’t AC/DC asked the same questions The Darkness is still having to answer 20 years on? How come they don’t have to tell you whether they’re joking? “I wonder if people did ask them that question in the ‘70s,” Hawkins says, clearly having given this some thought, “and I think there’s a very good likelihood that Bon Scott would just have punched you straight in the face.”
As always, Justin Hawkins is a little bit serious, a little bit joking, and absolutely right.
Judge Justin: Snap Judgments and Sage Advice From Rock Star To Rock Star
DAVE: I was wondering if I could take you through some current acts and see if you have any quick advice for them.
JUSTIN: Oh, let’s try it. Let’s see how I feel.
DAVE: Let’s try it. The Killers.
JUSTIN: The Killers. Oh, cool. I just met Taylor, the new guitar player, in Milan the other day. Loved him. We did a T-shirt exchange and I’ll wear their t-shirt now. When The Killers first came out, I was like, okay, this could go in either direction. Is it a synth band or is it a guitar band? I didn’t really know where they sat. And I heard one of their songs recently and it was very, very much like the Pet Shop Boys. Wow, nobody’s doing that. And I’ve always loved his voice. I’m not impressed by his range or anything like that, but the intensity that he sings within that sort of note range is really cool. I think he’s just one of the good ones, really. I bumped into him about 10 or 11 years ago at the, what was it? The Sunset Marquis. I was having breakfast with my publisher, and he walked in and came over and said Hi. I thought, fuck, now that guy looks so healthy. He actually inspired me to try and get a bit fitter.
DAVE: Mormons will do it, man. Okay. 30 Seconds to Mars.
JUSTIN: I think if he wasn’t so good looking, people would take that band more seriously. I don’t think they’re doing anything bad. I think they’re real musicians, and when I listen to his voice, he’s an accomplished singer, whether you like the songs or not. They operate in a genre that’s of no interest to me whatsoever. But I think what it needs to do is just get a bit uglier. You put a guitar on me, people take me more seriously than they do him, and we’re talking about me here. There’s nothing that a person who looks like that can play on a guitar that will ever be of any interest to a music enthusiasts. The only one exception to that rule is Jeff Buckley, and that’s because he had that voice.
DAVE: Post Malone.
JUSTIN: Now, see, if he was singing in 30 Seconds to Mars, that would make a lot more sense. But that voice that he has matches Jared Leto’s face. He’s terrifying to look at, but when you listen to any of his music, you just think, well, that could be a One Direction solo attempt or something like that. It’s so pop and so sweet. I mean, somebody described him as a crooner to me. He’s not a crooner, he’s a pop singer who looks like he would kill you. There’s something beguiling about a person where what you get isn’t what you see. I always love that. Anyway, I think it is a good lesson for everybody in the Instagram generation and the TikTok generation. It’s good to have people around like that who show you that you don’t tell anything about a person based on what they look like. You just don’t know.
DAVE: Right. Taylor Swift.
JUSTIN: What could I possibly advise Taylor Swift on? Taylor, stop making all the right decisions. It is really impressive the way she’s sort of releasing herself from the stranglehold of every kind of parasite and machination around her as an artist that dined out on her talent for all this time. I have a daughter who’s 10 years old, and she loves her music. It has nothing to do with her persona or the way she looks. She just loves the songs and they connect with her and she does the deep dive. Now, she’s of an age where she’ll listen to the lyrics and read the lyrics along, and she’s listening to it, and she said to me, “Daddy, it seems like all of Taylor Swift’s songs are about boys.” And I said, “Well, that’s not necessarily true. Let’s have a look.” Then we went through all the lyrics and, yeah, that one’s about boys, okay, well, that one’s about boys. This one’s, yeah, boys. And I said to her, you’re 10. Not everyone’s going to be doing songs about trampolining or whatever you’re into right now, but when you get to 11, 12, 13, all these songs are going to mean even more to you and you’ll get it. Which I’m excited about really, because the way I perceive Taylor Swift’s music is that it’s the transitional phase of my daughter’s listening to stuff and becoming an adult. I’m really fond of Taylor. We’ve had so many long drives where we just listened to her, and it’s not just tolerable, I actually enjoy some of those songs as well. Some of it’s really good.
The only thing I will say is, I think when Taylor Swift swears it sounds a bit out of character.
DAVE: Has she sworn? I don’t even think I knew that.
JUSTIN: Yeah, listen to the new record. There’s one about snow, there’s snow on the beach or something. She says “fucking weird,” or something like that. But the way she says “fucking,” it just sounds like when you get an email and then there’s one word that’s emboldened and you can tell they’ve copied and pasted the rest of it. It doesn’t sit right in the thing. So if I had any advice, I’d say, just leave out the swear words.
Dave Holmes is Esquire’s L.A.-based editor-at-large. His first book, “Party of One,” is out now.