03 Mar 2006

The Darkness

+ posted by FlamingWhopper

Oooh, they are awful ... but we like them. The Darkness revel in the saucy traditions of English humour.

It begins with a vaguely East Asian synthesiser whirl and two bars of acoustic guitar, then the barely restrained drama of the vocals introduces us to the narrator. He hails "from the flatlands of East Anglia" and tells of a woman who has come from "a land afar" where the seas have been emptied by callous fishing.

Then, while military snares are drummed and his voice moves to a higher pitch, only a breath away from falsetto, he sings her declaration that "hoots I cannae get back to me hoos in bonny Scotland".

All of which is a precursor to a chorus combining bagpipes, crunchy guitars, face-slapping drums and a call-and-response line that answers "girl with the hazel eyes" with the kind of high-end warbling last heard in an amateur production of the Mikado.

It climaxes with the narrator offering to "travel with thee, for to see your folks in Scotland" where he asks for her hand in marriage just before a guitar solo that can really only be played if you have a poodle haircut and leather pants.

Big Country mixed with Peking Opera? Bon Jovi and Jimmy Shand? Dick Emery and Queen? Yes, absolutely. This song, Hazel Eyes from the second Darkness album, One Way Ticket to Hell ... and Back, is all that and more.

It is utter nonsense, of course; and one of the most hilarious and exciting bits of rock'n'roll you will hear this year. For the Darkness may be the smartest dumb band in rock.

When they emerged in 2003, straight out of Lowestoft, the rock'n'roll capital of seaside Suffolk, they were all in their late 20s or early 30s and quite prepared to wear unitards, handlebar moustaches and lots of hair.

Not surprisingly, they were seen as a joke: parodists with a limited lifespan. But the sheer pop quality of the songs and the obvious affection for the music meant the joke kept satisfying.

Now, despite losing a bass player acrimoniously, playing themselves to a standstill around the world and being tempted by the blizzard of cocaine available - the album's title says it all - they are still in love with the pomp and circumstance of '70s rock and the flash and giggle of '80s pop metal.

Not for nothing did they choose producer Roy Thomas Baker, whose work with Queen proves he is a man who doesn't know how to tone anything down.

The Darkness are still fired by the pleasure of guitar volumes turned to 11, choruses that come in large, extra large and huge, and voices tuned to high C. And they are still driven by an attitude that could legitimately have this new album called Carry On Up the Rock'n'Roll.

Indeed, when I tell the Darkness's singer and main songwriter Justin Hawkins that there are moments on the album where I'm waiting for Carry On stalwarts Barbara Windsor or Sid James to appear, he responds proudly, "They are there in spirit."

They are there in Knockers, where the overweight protagonist falls for a "potty mouthed and brassy/anything but classy" woman and then realises it's been so long since he's had sex he's forgotten how to do it. You can almost hear them in Bald, a song about the follicularly challenged (with its chorus of "not for me, heaven forbid, it's not for me"), which toys with the British tabloids' fascination last year with Hawkins's receding hairline.

"I have so many friends who say, 'I've always had a high forehead' and you have to show them a picture and say, 'look, it's getting higher'. There's so much denial around," says Hawkins before adding, after a beat, "I'm lucky, I've always had a high forehead."

Even if he was bald, Hawkins would have no trouble attracting women. Anyone who can write a song of such romanticism as Dinner Lady Arms, with its line "throw your arms around me, your dinner lady arms", is a man for all seasons.

"It's about an elderly couple who endeavour to reignite an old flame," he says solemnly. "It's a song of regret and it's touching and moving. It's just a really sweet story, innit?"

When I last spoke to Hawkins 18 months ago, he had reluctantly changed some of the lyrics on the band's debut album, Permission To Land, so that it could be sold through prudish department stores in the US.

This time he may have saved himself some effort.

Take, for example, the galloping Queen-in-extremis English Country Garden where the tale of two village idiots with a special rural talent - "I've never seen a bale of hay move so fast" - includes what could be an award-winning pun: "She was a bona fide forking genius."

"That's dynamite, isn't it?" a chuffed Hawkins says. "They wanted me to change it when we played [British pop show] CD:UK and I said to them it's not f---ing, it's forking.

"It's just a peculiarity of my accent that it sounds that way."

Credit: Bernard Zuel | www.smh.com.au

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