Why the British band’s classic debut was no joke
Part of understanding The Darkness’s debut album, Permission to Land, is recognizing the landscape it was released into 20 years ago today.
The early 2000s were a point in time where people were excitedly insisting that rock was “returning.”
It never left, of course, but we’re talking about the hope that it would return to being the pervasive cultural force it had been 30 years before (or even less than a decade before when alternative rock became mainstream before collapsing under its own weight).
The White Stripes dragged old blues through a newer garage to break through. The Strokes’ debut, Is This It, showed them capable of transcending the hype, which proved to be a temporary condition. The Hives, from Sweden, had some buzz. So did Australia’s Jet, thanks to their Iggy Pop-cribbing “Are You Gonna Be My Girl.” Their fellow Aussies, The Vines, had come out with a pretty solid debut in Highly Evolved.
The mainstream rock scene itself was seeing nu metal die off, as albums like the Deftones’ terrific White Pony were the exception and ones like Limp Bizkit’s Results May Vary were too common.
Soundgarden had fallen apart. Rage Against the Machine was done without Zack de la Rocha. So we got Audioslave, which was Rage with someone who (A) could sing and (B) had too little interest in politics. Results were mixed.
2003 was a year where bands who’d eventually be more famous for their lead singers’ loving embrace of right-wing politics – Staind and Trapt — were having good years commercially atop a sea of post-grunge full of names like Taproot, Disturbed, Creed and pre-trainwreck Puddle of Mudd.
What wasn’t there in all these names? Bands taking their cue from ancestors like Queen, Van Halen, Thin Lizzy and numerous other bands that carried themselves with a certain degree of fun.
The Darkness began, under other names, with the Hawkins brothers — Justin, the lead singer and guitarist, and Dan, the rhythm guitarist. They’d started playing together as teenagers in Lowestoft, a town on England’s Eastern coast.
By the early 2000s, the band had its name and a growing audience, even if their approach wasn’t drawing label interest commensurate with the venues they could play.
Nick Raphael, then in A&R at Sony Music UK, told HitQuarters in 2005, “One artist I wanted to sign but who unfortunately went to Atlantic Records was The Darkness, about three years ago. There couldn’t have been less of a buzz, and only two record labels showed any interest in them. The business as a whole thought they were uncool. In fact, people were saying that they were a joke and that they weren’t real.”
The Darkness ran up against the prevailing hard rock of the day in a 2002 gig opening for Disturbed at Brixton Academy. Twenty years later, Justin Hawkins on his YouTube channel (worth a follow for its smarts and humor), answered a fan question about their worst time as a support act. “They were throwing stuff like shoes, bottles and coins,” he said, adding later, “Somebody threw a piece of chewing gum, which had presumably been in their mouth and it landed directly in my mouth as I was singing.”
VIDEO: Justin Hawkins Rides Again Disturbed episode
Disturbed singer David Draiman didn’t take kindly to Justin speaking onstage against Disturbed fans’ loutish behavior.
There was bad blood between the two, with the humorless Draiman telling Metal Edge in 2004, “To be perfectly honest with you, I think that The Darkness is a joke, and that’s, unfortunately, exactly what the world wants. The world wants rock bands to be idiots. The world wants rock bands to be these bumbling buffoons, these morons who made fun of themselves and their music and their art and don’t take themselves seriously in any way.”
Upon seeing Justin’s telling of the story in 2022, a different Draiman apologized to him on Twitter, saying in part, “There’s a lot of things I regret saying in the past. This is one of them.”
The Darkness frontman took the apology in the spirit it was intended, a calmer, cooler climate years later. But back then, the band was not out to disturb, stain, trap or drop anyone into puddles of crud.
The album came out in the U.K. first in July and the positive response helped grease the skids for its September release here.
The third single was the breakthrough and still the Darkness’ biggest hit. Its knowingly cheesetastic video didn’t hurt. It came complete with the band aboard a spaceship, Justin being felt up by a four-armed Grimace before later appearing in a unitard and screaming “Guitar!” into a sausage, Dan playing guitar in front of a comic amount of Marshalls, a giant crab, a woman made up as a demon in horns and red body paint and ending with a space octopus meeting its demise while trying to mate with and/or destroy the ship.
VIDEO: The Darkness “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”
What keeps it from being all an arch wink-and-a-nod is the song itself. It’s tight in its construction, forceful in its riffing and insistent in its hooks, while Justin goes into the higher registers of his voice to unleash what can only be described as a power falsetto with fearless bravado.
“I can’t remember who said it but we were having a conversation along the lines of: ‘Why don’t we just write the stupidest song ever?,'” Dan Hawkins told the Guardian earlier this year. “It was probably Justin, my brother, who came up with the first riff: he and (bassist) Frankie (Poulain) were sparring with that ridiculous chorus line very early on. I came up with the bridge and the back end of the chorus and tried to put it into some sort of semblance of a song.”
From the start, The Darkness left no doubt what kind of album Permission to Land was going to be. “Black Shuck” was based on the legend of a ghostly dog said to haunt a church in Suffolk, not far from Lowestoft.
“‘Black Shuck’ does run parallel with the legend,” Justin Hawkins told Songfacts in 2019. “I wasn’t too far off with ‘Black Shuck,’ because I was working from childhood memories of when we used to visit that place. They used to tell us about the scratch marks on the door, and that lightning struck a tree. As the legend goes, the church was attacked by a giant hellhound, and then it burnt to the ground and everybody died.”
The song kicks off with a stomping guitar and drums that would have had AC/DC’s Young brothers nodding in approval. Then Justin shows off his range right away, tackling lyrics that sound like a Hammer horror film, although Christopher Lee never said, “Black dog don’t give a fuck.”
The driving “Get Your Hands Off My Woman” has Justin living in that power falsetto in what was the latest in a long lineage of “Excuse me, sir, I am dating this individual and I would appreciate it if you stopped hitting on them” songs.
For a song whose chorus is “Get your hands off my woman, motherfucker” (or the ridiculous “motherfarmer” in the clean edit), it’s less cavemanish than you’d think. At one point, Justin sings, “I’ve got no right to lay claim to her frame/She’s not my possession.” It’s also wittier than you’d expect, as the would-be casanova gets referred to as an “octoped with six arms too many.”
After those two rip-roaring rockers, “Growing on Me” switches things up by being more melodic. The heart knows what it wants, even if sometimes the head above the shoulders doesn’t, thus the lyrics go from “I want to banish you from whence you came” to “You’re really growing on me (or am I growing on you”). It’s got another driving chorus and it goes out with a nifty solo, to boot.
“Friday Night” is far less ambivalent, as Justin still carries a torch for someone from high school and sweetly imagines what it might be like if they were a couple. It’s a lovely slice of glam pop that, sadly, was not one of the album’s singles.
Contrary to what some people thought, “Growing On Me” was not about some form of venereal disease, but “Holding My Own” leans into its double entendre.
The lighter-waving ballad is, on the one hand, a breakup song, in which Justin determinedly realizes that this relationship’s end is for the best (“Cause I’m holding my own/Give or take a tear or two”).
But that leaves another hand free to engage in onanistic pursuit. As he puts it, “Lately I’m doing what I can to pleasure me/I’m finding time to focus on my fantasies/I’m satisfied in my own company/I don’t need your permission/To take this matter in my own two hands.”
Breakup song, masturbation anthem or both? It’s a clever bit of writing in that it works no matter how you take it and a happy ending for the album itself.
“Things that are cartoonish and ridiculous – that’s my raison d’être,” Justin told the Guardian. “The ridiculous things that The Darkness do are tempered by Dan’s actual good taste. For me to be turned on, it’s got to have something in it that makes him go: ‘You can’t do that.'”
While the Bee Gees asked, “How deep is your love?,” The Darkness seem to be asking, “How deep is anyone’s love” on the power ballad “Love is Only a Feeling.”
Justin told Songfacts, “When we wrote that one, I was thinking, ‘People always say that it’s more than a feeling.’ It really isn’t. It’s just that: it’s a feeling. So, I wanted to express that, really. Because for me, that’s enough. The way you feel is really essential to what frames your perception of a day or of an existence. I struggle with the idea that it can be any more than that… or is there?”
In 1997, Third Eye Blind had a big hit with “Semi-Charmed Life,”AE×st1 a deceptively upbeat song about meth addiction. The Darkness attempted the trick on “Givin’ Up”, which is a joyous track instrumentally until you start paying attention to the lyrics and realize it’s about using heroin and enjoying it. Basically, Alice in Chains’ Dirt meets “Shiny Happy People” in a house with an extensive classic rock album collection and guitars turned up.
If the album’s later rockers don’t quite reach the level of Permission to Land’s opening salvo, it’s by degrees and certainly not for lack of commitment.
“Stuck in a Rut” finds the band stuck in a sort of deathtrap, a suicide rap they need to get away from while they’re young. Roads known to folks from Lowestoft, the Barnby Bends and the Acle Straight, get namechecked as potential escape routes.
The song clearly got more lighter-holding hands aloft with its chorus and the song features Justin’s best soloing, especially playing off twin leads.
As a singer, he was clearly having a ball. He speed stepped his way through the verses, and let off some delightfully hammy stage laughing before the solo.
“Love on the Rocks With No Ice” is exactly what you think it’s about lyrically while the band shifts into heavy overdrive (Poulain and drummer Ed Graham aiding and abetting the guitars). It’s all done with zero fear of going over the top, complete with false ending leading into windmilled power chords.
The album was a huge hit in the U.K., going quadruple platinum, and sold well enough here to go gold.
The follow-up, 2005’s One Way Ticket to Hell…And Back, enlisted Roy Thomas Baker, the producer who’d been at the console for classic rock hits by the likes of Queen, the Cars and Foreigner. The result was an album with some good songs, but less lively than Permission to Land.
The band certainly was not immune to the temptations of the rock lifestyle, especially after the first flush of success. Those indulgences fueled Justin’s addictions, especially to alcohol. There were increasing creative tensions, with Poulain leaving during recording of One Way Ticket.
With things worsening personally, Justin went to rehab. Along with the creative differences, they led to his departure from the band and its breakup in 2006. Both Hawkins brothers formed bands in the five years after.
Justin’s talked openly about his sobriety and how seriously he takes it. There’s video of a show in Austria in 2020 where some jackass in the crowd threw beer at Justin. After immediately stopping the song, he had the person thrown out and addressed the crowd. “I just don’t like being covered in beer. Do you know how long it’s been since I last drank a beer of my own volition? 13 years,” he said. “You think I want to be covered in somebody else’s alcohol? Probably not. Probably not. I can taste it. What if I go crazy now? What if I destroy what’s left of my life. Is it being a pussy to expect respect? No. No it’s not.”
The band reunited in 2011. Every album since has had songs with the cleverness, spark and hooks of the debut, even if they don’t appear as consistently.
What folks like 2004 David Draiman and the labels who refused to sign The Darkness missed was that, yes, they clearly had their tongues in cheek, but they weren’t a joke.
While there was a camp theatricality at work, The Darkness took the art of what they were doing seriously.
VIDEO: The Darkness “Love is Only a Feeling”
David St. Hubbins, in This is Spinal Tap, said, “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” The reality was that, however silly and over-the-top they could get on Permission to Land, the Darkness were a very smart band at their core. Some of the greatest rock in history was just sheer fun, sometimes even dumb fun, which is something the band clearly understood and took to heart.
And if they didn’t last at the heights of the debut, so many of other early 2000s would-be saviors of rock didn’t either. And few of them came up with an album that’s as much of a bracing and enjoyable to play loud as this.
The Darkness had clear affection for the rock tropes they were mining. On Permission to Land, they struck a vein of pure gold.
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