26 Mar 2006

The showman must go on

+ posted by FlamingWhopper

The punters won't pay $30 for a CD any more, but they'll fork out hundreds for a concert ticket if the band gives them a crazy live show. Luckily, Darkness frontman Justin Hawkins is happy to oblige. Guy Blackman reports.

The first decade of the 21st century has been a rough one for aspiring rock gods. Falling CD sales, rampant digital piracy, fickle market trends and growing record label conservatism mean these days even if you manage to get a record deal, your chances of a continuing and productive career are incredibly slim.

"There is a lack of loyalty among record buyers," Shabs Jobanputra, head of EMI UK sublabel Relentless, told a Canadian newspaper. "The market has never been more volatile."

Advances in digital technology have left the local industry floundering, with Apple's music download site iTunes not arriving in Australia until October last year. Illegal file-sharing, moreover, is a harbinger of the end of the world in the eyes of many, a virtually unpoliceable phenomenon as elusive as it is ubiquitous. None of this makes for a secure, nurturing world for bands trying to achieve artistic development over a series of albums.

It all looks quite grim - so really, what is a poor aspiring rock star to do? Well, if you're Justin Hawkins, lead singer of UK glam-rock pranksters the Darkness, the answer is to fly into your concerts suspended on a supersize pair of boobs. And when you strip off to reveal a belly grown large and rubbery from two years of heavy drinking, don't admit to any shame, but instead refer to it as "the Beer Gut of Fury".

In short, the answer is to be a strutting egomaniac, a larger than life showman, supremely confident of the adoration of your audience. Because in a musical climate where one week you're the hottest thing in spandex tights and the next you're washed up hasbeens in, er, spandex tights, the only thing that you can really call your own is your live show. And if you don't cut it as a live band, then you're already yesterday's news.

In 2003 and 2004 the Darkness were one of the biggest bands in the world, their first album, Permission to Land, debuting at No. 1 and selling more than three million copies in Britain, going platinum in Australia and even denting American popular consciousness by breaking briefly into the Billboard Top 40. But, as Max Lousada, the A&R rep who signed the Darkness to Atlantic Records, said last month, "this is the age of the debut - people want new, fast, disposable".

After inter-band squabbling led to the eventual sacking of bassist Frankie Poullain (reportedly because he was spending too much time in his French chateau), the Darkness' second album, One Way Ticket to Hell and Back, was released in November last year to a mild critical response and broad public lack of interest. The album peaked at No. 11 in Britain, selling far short of its predecessor. "It appears the fact that our album is not selling has become the story," Hawkins commented wryly to The Times in London.

Everything that had initially made the Darkness stand out - figure-hugging costumes in unnatural fibres, unashamedly extended guitar solos, falsetto vocal hysterics and endearingly daft songs - was now a liability, damning the band to the status of a joke that was funny once and once only.

But flop record notwithstanding, when the Darkness announced a world tour in support of One Way Ticket, punters virtually climbed over each other to get tickets. Their February dates in Britain were rapturously received and in Melbourne their first show sold out within minutes and another had to be added to meet demand. The record-buying public may have turned on them, but the Darkness' reputation as an unparalleled live experience and Hawkins' position as modern rock's most flamboyant frontman, have made this tour a resounding success.

Letting rip with a wild guitar solo while straddling the shoulders of a bouncer and being carried through the crowd, or twirling above the audience in a trapeze - it's this kind of behaviour from Hawkins that will keep audiences returning to Darkness concerts, even if their record sales continue to fall. Suggest to Hawkins, though, that people might prefer to watch him live than listen to him at home, and strangely enough, he takes offence. "It is so f--king shortsighted. I always say that you can't hear a f--king catsuit," he said shortly before One Way Ticket made its less than spectacular assault on the charts. "What you get on the record isn't showmanship. It is musicianship and songwriting."

Still, amping up the showmanship is one possible response to a listless post-millennial music industry, and despite the ludicrous outfits and appalling hairdos of Hawkins and his band, it is one that should not lightly be dismissed. In fact, bands of the recently popular New York New Wave school, such as the Strokes, Interpol or the Killers, would do well to pay attention. When the time comes for their flop album (for the Strokes it already has and for the others it's only a matter of time), one-time fans will be a lot less willing to sit through another haughty, disdainful performance by a singer too shy or bored to interact with the audience.

Being a showperson doesn't have to mean making a fool out of yourself. This year's Big Day Out is a case in point tens of thousands of Australian and New Zealand teenagers watched 58-year-old singer Iggy Pop writhe wild-eyed around the stage, with his reunited group the Stooges relegated to the status of backup band.

Very few of these kids would have owned any Stooges records, let alone one of Pop's 15 solo albums to date, yet the power of Pop's legendary stage presence was enough to make him the talking point of the entire festival.

Pop credits the enraptured singers of '60s soul, R&B and gospel that he saw as a Detroit teenager for his initial performance model, which has included slashing himself with broken glass. "There is the tradition in gospel, the preacher - he'll get down from time to time, but I'd also see the R&B singers rip their pants," he said in 2004. "They'd rip them, some of them, during almost every performance. They'd just make sure they were really, really tight sheer pants. I thought, ‘This is cool. I want to go out with my pants ripped. Start from there'."

In fact, you could go so far as to say that Iggy Pop isn't that gifted a singer or songwriter, and that the career he has forged for himself over the past 30-something years is based more on performance and charisma than real musical achievement. Pop's successes on record, although undeniable, are isolated, and all have come with seriously heavyweight assistance - John Cale's production on the Stooges' first album, David Bowie's songwriting on Lust for Life, the raw power of his Stooges' accomplices Ron and Scott Asheton. Such is the power of the consummate showman, though, that people will flock to see Iggy perform despite not owning or even liking any of his recent work.

Of course, donning lycra catsuits or crawling semi-naked across broken glass are not the only ways to win over an audience. AC/DC's Bon Scott wore not much more than a denim waistcoat and jeans for much of his live career and made little use of stage props, but is still heralded as one of the most charismatic frontmen rock'n'roll has ever known. Likewise Tina Turner in her '60s and '70s heyday prowled the stage, her body in constant motion, virtually terrifying her audiences into a worshipful frenzy, without artifice or theatrics.

Frontmen and women come in as many different varieties as the styles of music they play. Even Stuart Murdoch, leader of winsome Scottish indiepop septet Belle and Sebastian, could be seen as a frontman in the classic mode. He eschews wildman antics in favour of crowd participation, regularly inviting audience members on stage to singalong, bantering casually with the front row and gently putting his fans at ease, making Belle and Sebastian shows feel personal and special.

Perhaps Murdoch has the right idea, holding his audience's attention while avoiding the kind of self-destructive behaviour for which rock stars are famous. Because one of the traditional corollaries of rock'n'roll showmanship is a shortened lifespan, with Iggy just the exception proving the rule.

Penis-flashing Jim Morrison, guitar-burning Jimi Hendrix and bourbon-guzzling Janis Joplin are the classic '60s triumvirate of doomed legendary performers, all dead by 27. Drug-hoovering Pete Doherty of the Libertines/Babyshambles, the UK singer who turned 27 this month, is the latest rock frontman to take on this dangerous mantle, and whether he will outlive his famous predecessors is open to speculation.

It's perhaps for this reason that bands aren't exactly queuing up to find volatile, flamboyant, over-the-top singers to ensure career longevity.

Justin Hawkins seems to have cornered the market in the past few years, and there are few pretenders to his throne. But according to Ian Astbury, Jim Morrison's recent stand-in for the reformed Doors of the 21st Century, it's because they just don't make them like they used to. "The days of the superpredators are gone," he said last year. "There's not much up people's trousers any more, I don't know what happened… The Aussies are trying, but I think a lot of the American bands are like frightened little puppies pissing on the carpet."

Astbury may be on to something, but still, the return of the superpredator is not out of the question, a return to the days of pomp, ceremony and showmanship in the concert hall, as groups realise that to make their salad days last beyond first course, they're going to have to serve up something memorable on stage.

The Darkness play the Palace, April 6-7. Both concerts are sold out.

Credit: www.theage.com.au

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