In times when the cultural landscape is less than inspiring, the nostalgia machine cranks into high gear, churning out memories of happier days, when music, film, fashion and SNL catch phrases were just…you know, better. And with the current musical climate dominated by pop tarts, faux-gangstas and overly earnest singer-songwriter types, it’s to be expected that we might look to simpler, more entertaining times. Times when we weren’t afraid to pump our fists in the air at rock shows, when we’d marvel at widdly-widdly guitar solos, when we never bothered to ask what an “unskinny bop” was…it was just fun to sing along.
Brit-rockers the Darkness remember those times, and are doing their damnedest to bring them back. And judging by the rapturous response from the capacity crowd at Toronto’s Phoenix (reportedly, 1,200 tickets sold out in two hours), they’re well on their way to having us all banging our heads in simple, silly metallic abandon. Granted, the hype for these four young-ish lads has been deafening, but with their debut album, Permission to Land, getting the thumbs up from a notoriously Brit-wary North American press and the singles “Growing on Me” and “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” actually receiving airplay, it looks like these shaggy-maned, unitard-sporting, Def Leppard-lovin’ dudes could escape the Brit Band Curse. You know the malady—the affliction that saw acts like Suede, Manic Street Preachers, and Pulp, among others, hit U.S. shores armed with style, pomp and hyperbolic wankery from the U.K. press, only to be sent packing by an uninterested American public.
Automatically the Darkness’s appropriation of all that we hold dear about ’80s rock (the hair, the leg kicks, the big choruses) gives them a better shot at the suburbs than the flouncy ditties of the aforementioned bands. But don’t North Americans like their rock with pyro, goatees and backward baseball caps? How will a continent weaned on Nickelback respond to a band fronted by a singer who resembles Peter Frampton with a penchant for singing in falsetto and wardrobe changes?
Kicking off the set with an instrumental (let’s call it “Theme from the Darkness”) and plunging headfirst into the AC/DC stomp of “Black Shuck,” the band (singer/guitarist Justin Hawkins, brother/guitarist Dan Hawkins, drummer Ed Graham and bandana-sporting bassist Frankie Poullain) answered that question with a resounding “Who cares?”, burying any doubts under a massive, fizzy chunk of rock candy delivered with full-on rock n’ roll hysterics. Watching the Darkness in action, the nostalgia machine kicks into overdrive—in Justin’s kicks, costumes and receding hairline we see a little 1984-era David Lee Roth, while brother Dan’s “back to the Marshall stack” stance recalls a young Malcolm Young.
Musically, the Darkness are, like the best pop/rock songwriters, canny thieves: “Get Your Hands Off of My Woman” is Urge Overkill’s “Sister Havana” as sung by Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, while “Friday Night” could’ve sat comfortably next to “Talk Dirty to Me” on a Poison album. While the more cynical folks among us may dismiss the Darkness as a mere retro-rocking curiosity, there’s no doubting their appeal. A packed house, with 15-year-olds and grizzled mulletheads alike raising their thumbs in unison (hey, it beats the “lighters aloft” move), singing along to a storming shit-kicker of a tune called “Love on the Rocks with No Ice.” Scenesters and suburbanites united under the Party Rock flag. Really, what’s not to love? As long as they don’t plant their tongues too much further into their cheeks, The Darkness might actually (and deservedly) succeed where so many other Brits have failed. Perhaps a spot at Lollapalooza ’04 with a reunited Mötley Crüe hangs in the hazy, smoke-machine obscured distance. Stranger things have happened.