The first time I heard The Darkness was in late 2003 while driving along a foggy mountain road in northern Spain. The radio was low in the background as I focused to avoid hitting the inordinate number of feral cats dashing across my path. Then I heard “I Believe In a Thing Called Love.” I turned it up, apologized to an unlucky, unnamed cat, and wondered if I had stumbled upon some obscure and long-forgotten metal gem out of 1980. Once it hit the chorus—and Justin Hawkins’ voice reached its double aurgasm—it sounded more like a spoof of 1980 than anything else. It was Weird Al in Spandex.
By the time I got back to the States, “I Believe In a Thing Called Love” had already beat me across the pond. It was all over the place, as was the song’s video, and The Darkness’ debut album Permission to Land crept up the charts. It was a peculiar time in rock music as The Strokes, The Vines and The Hives were taking rock from the garage to the less tidy bedrooms of middle-American 20-somethings. Were people ready for another “The” band? One whose felinish frontman sported an open-chested leotard, and whose caterwaul could lure a pack of neighborhood dogs? Whose songs were about nothing but love, drugs and exchanging body fluids?
The answer, obviously, was yes. And although The Darkness were all about rock and roll fun (the kind enjoyed by bands during the hedonistic ’70s and ’80s), further inspection revealed that the British quartet meant every inch of what they said. You can sniff out a fake, and this was the real deal—for better or worse. The band carried on with 2005’s One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back, which attempted to sophisticate the band’s sound with layers of strings and vocal harmonies. By then Hawkins was spending all of his hard-earned pounds on nose-candy, and he eventually left the band for rehab.
Now, after seven years and numerous side projects, the four original members of The Darkness have returned with Hot Cakes, a platter that again promises nothing but a good time. Still intact are guitars, guitars, guitars, Hawkins’ otherworldly falsetto, and the band’s proclivity for arena rock practitioners like KISS, Queen and AC/DC. Seven years isn’t an incredibly long time, but within the context of pop music it’s an eternity.
Rock of The Darkness’ ilk is far less pissed on in 2012, where bands like Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, KISS and even Van Halen are once again kings of the arenas. To crib a line from Hot Cakes’ terrific, self-explanatory party anthem, “Everybody Have a Good Time”: “It’s time to make a brand new start/Take off your thinking cap and listen to your heart.”
Hot Cakes is the most varied record of The Darkness’ canon—11 killer-no-filler songs that steer through the ’70s and early-’80s and veer from fist-pumping anthems to mid-tempo good-time rock, all with an ear for a killer pop hook. Opener “Every Inch of You” is a battle cry for maximum-capacity arenas, and perhaps the true missing link between 1977 and 2012. “Keep Me Hangin’ On” recalls Queen’s work on Sheer Heart Attack. And “Forbidden Love” offers a much better take on the obligatory power ballad that ruled throughout Reagan’s rule.
Perhaps the most intriguing song on Hot Cakes doesn’t even belong to The Darkness. The band turns Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” (one they’ve been playing live for years) into a frenzied metal song, and easily the heaviest cut on the record. It doesn’t quite match the party vibe of the rest of album, but it’s just as intense. It may not be their song, but an argument can be made that it is now.
The Darkness—the members reportedly now clean and sober—continue where they left off seven years ago. It’s a much different world now, a fact made even more clear as the band currently plows through sold-out European stadiums opening for Lady Gaga. One thing that hasn’t changed is that The Darkness still draw a lot of their musical influence from the ’70s. And their aspirations fall nothing short of being a huge arena act, which is almost refreshing. Most important, they follow rock and roll’s most sacred yet forgotten rule—that there are no rules.