Guess who just got back today? Okay, not today, but in the last few months, the Great British rock public have gone a bit mad for the news that The Darkness are re-formed and touring the homeland with a vengeance. Shows have sold out faster than you can say “What, you mean those catsuit guys?”
Yes, those catsuit guys. Let me take you on a little trip back in time. It’s summer 2003. Po-faced nu-metallers Linkin Park and Evanescence dominate radio airplay. Jack White still refuses to wear anything but red, white and black. The last bit of fun anyone had with rock was Noddy Holder screaming “IIIIIT’S CHRISTMAAAAS” on a Top of the Pops re-run.
Then a band releases a single: ‘Growing On Me’. They make a video for it. A pterodactyl humps a spaceship; that spaceship gives birth to four toddler rockers, who board a helicopter. Lightning strikes, and men emerge, in capes and flares and catsuits. Turns out they play rock ‘n’ roll. With face-melting guitar solos. God, we’d missed those.
You don’t need their whole history to date; suffice to say they reminded the world how much fun rock ‘n’ roll is, was, and ever shall be. Then there was a brief period where they didn’t play rock ‘n’ roll (or exist), but that gave the rest of the music world time to catch up, so that seems acceptable.
Right, enough time travel. Back to the future, please. Upstairs at the Manchester Academy, and the little hand on a wristwatch is pointing to 9. Rock o’ clock. A brief keyboard overture to psych us up, and Dan Hawkins is visible onstage. Frankie Poullain and his humongous Thunderbird bass guitar cover the other end. Dan throws on the Les Paul. The black veil behind him falls; drummer Ed Graham and frontman Justin Hawkins peer out from a giant cage. Justin snakes his way through the bars, star jumping his way into that Hammer Horror of a song known as ‘Black Shuck’.
A song and a half into the gig, and this crowd has already fallen in love all over again with this band, as the irresistibly hummable ‘Growing On Me’ prompts the first of many en-masse falsetto sing-a-longs. ‘The Best of Me’ sees the Brothers Hawkins teaming up for some Thin Lizzy-style twin guitar harmonies, throwing in some flying high fives for good measure.
It’s this effortless camaraderie that distinguishes The Darkness from the vast majority of rock acts. This band knows we’ve come here to be entertained, and they go overboard accordingly. Critics have called them everything from a living joke to seventies throwbacks but, as a wise television character once said: there’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes.
A man sporting cavalier moustaches and tiger-print flares has got to be pretty comfortable with his sexuality, and so does a man who writes songs like ‘Holding My Own’ and ‘Love Is Only A Feeling’. Justin Hawkins is both of those men, and he has decided this concert needs a couple of heavy-metal-standard power ballads, fuelled by that classic twin guitar attack. You’ll never get a better chance to wave your lighter in the air like it’s Band Aid ’85.
It’s not all about past glories though; this winter comeback tour has proven an ideal testing ground for new material. Frantic, breathless and bristling with energy, ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us’ sounds like the lead single most bands can only dream of. Look forward as well to riff-tastic stompers like ‘Cannonball’ and ‘Concrete’, alongside the wonderfully daydreamy ‘Can’t Believe It’s Not Love’.
These sparkling new gems are sprinkled throughout the set, between fan favourites ‘Friday Night’ and ‘Get Your Hands Off My Woman’. The latter provides Hawkins ample opportunity to engage us in a little competition, namely, who can sing ‘motherfuckeeeeeer’ the longest and highest. We let him win, honest we did. It’s like this for near-on two hours; Justin Hawkins dangles his audience on a string around his little finger, and he makes us dance with the slightest muscle twitch. And we love him for it.
He might be the frontman, but this show isn’t all about Hawkins senior. At times it seems Dan Hawkins has more guitar tricks up his sleeve than the entire Thin Lizzy guitarist roster. Frankie Poullain lends these treble-drenched wailings some bass weight, and he’s always ready to add more cowbell. Ed Graham is the true unsung hero though, hidden away in a cage filled with dry ice, like Mr Freeze in his seldom-seen Tommy Lee phase.
It’s his unmistakeable drum solo intro which signals that ‘Christmas Time’ is here. That, and the ever-charming phenomenon of indoor snow. Gary Jules might have beaten them to 2003’s Christmas Number One, but who the hell remembers him? Besides researchers cruising around Wikipedia? Assaulted with this head-banging display of wanton Christmasness, it’s easy to forget the soggy X Factor efforts of recent years. Somewhere, Noddy Holder’s sequin top hat is sparkling that little bit brighter.
Everybody’s got to go home sooner or later, but if you’ve learnt anything about The Darkness, you know they don’t do anything by halves, especially encores. This particular four-song lap of honour takes in the galloping instrumental ‘Bareback’, a spot-on cover of Queen’s ‘Tie Your Mother Down’, their signature theme ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’ and ‘Love On The Rocks With No Ice’ as the finale to show all other finales how it’s done. It’s one long tribute to the electric guitar, capped off by Justin’s patented Piggyback Guitar Solo Through Crowd technique. They bow, and we can finally let them go.
So what if The Darkness wear their influences on their sleeves? They’re just the landing lights to show us where we’ll find high-pedigree rock. This is a band who completely, fearlessly and devotedly love rock ‘n’ roll. Of course, it doesn’t do any harm that they love their audience, too.
The Darkness are back in town. Spread the word around.