“The song, ‘I Believe In a Thing Called Love’ has changed my life. I am now a full on rocker!” read my diary on 20th September, 2003.
The above text is copied from my diary, aged 11. In 2003 I was experiencing something of a mid-first-quarter life crisis. It was a time of transition, namely graduating from the hopscotch-painted tarmac and chopped apples of primary school into the over-sized blazer and double decker bus journeys of secondary school. Many people talk about reinventing themselves when they go to university, shedding their skin and becoming something more than what they were in the closed-gate communities of their hometowns, but for me the need to do this arrived much earlier.
It wouldn’t be right to say I was “bullied” at primary school, but I definitely never really felt at home. I was best known in the playground both for my penchant for scoring own goals and for being the only kid whose mum made him wear the uniform in a school where it was optional and by extension completely ignored by everyone else. Leaving primary and starting secondary, with a completely different set of now unanimously uniform-wearing children, was a fresh start. David Copperfield in shit-flickers.
In this flux state, I was basically a blob of confused play-doh with a mp3 player. Ready, willing and able to accept whichever trend, sound or subculture offered me the best chance of an identity. I was desperate for a calling card, my “thing”, something to give me a raison d'etre in the wilderness of state education. Alf, the older cousin mentioned in the diary entry, become my cultural gateway.
Alf was born in 1978, meaning he was a teenager during the glory days of Guns N’ Roses and Skid Row, and was more than happy to introduce the glorious significance of these bands to me. From the age of nine or ten, I’d leave the adults downstairs discussing their garden centres, and spend the slow three or four hours after Sunday lunches in his room (the door to which, incidentally, was painted on each side with the reversible Use Your Illusion album cover).
In that hallowed space it was gradually indoctrinated in me that cool meant long glossy hair, tight leather trousers, male falsettos, sassy androgyny, expensive sounding drum-fills and cowbells. I didn’t have an older brother to go skateboarding with, the football team didn’t want me, and there were no long chats with dad about the acid house days. In that space, shrieking vocals and screaming guitar solos were the first taste I had of an alternative culture. Something dangerous, something sexy. What I didn’t realise was, I was falling in love with a culture that had already died. By the time I first listened to Appetite for Destruction, Axl Rose had already looked like a Mick Hucknall Ziggy Marley hybrid for at least five years. Nirvana had won. That was, until 2003 happened.
My cousin Alf with Slash from Guns N’Roses.
The day I wrote that diary entry has never left my memory. My mum ironing, me in my new secondary school uniform, the fat black and red tie loosened round my neck, as I plunged gulps of orange squash down and skimmed the channels on our new Telewest digital TV package. I landed on a music channel. It probably didn’t happen quite as immediately as the cinematic rendering that the passing of time has affected on my memory, but as far as I remember, I was greeted by the image of a cold grey shuttle coursing through starry space. Then a heart shaped hot tub. Then, from the steam, a figure emerged, and the music began.
There are times in life when the world – from the soft buzz of traffic to the tapping of your heart – just stops. When the walls fall away into smoke and you seem to leave your body. That was me, that was my 11-year-old self watching the video for The Darkness' “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”. Justin Hawkins, this strange, serpentine man who somehow oozed sex appeal despite looking like an undernourished cavalier, clambering from the plumes of a steamy hot tub, flicking wet, pink hair from his eyes. The lavish, crunching riff, the melody so immediately hooky I felt like I’d known it all my life. Not one but two guitar solos. The catsuits, the wall of Marshall amps, the lightning bolts, the giant squids, the tattoos – I was shaken to my core.
As if by some strange, serendipitous glitch in the matrix, at the age of 11 I was gifted the exact right band at the exact right time. I can’t say I remember praying for my own AC/DC, I don’t remember calling on God to pull Aerosmith out of Lowestoft and catapult them into the mainstream, but, in his wisdom, he did. Within the hour, I’d decided to grow my hair, and spent £3 on an “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” ringtone for my Nokia 3410.
The author, aged 11, at the height of his hair metal phase.
The next afternoon I didn’t go straight home, but instead stopped off at HMV to buy Permission to Land, hiding the CD deep in my rucksack so nobody could see the bare bottom on the album’s reverse. I’m not sure if you’ve listened to Permission to Land in full recently, if ever, but let me tell you now with the mature sincerity of an adult that as hard rock albums go, it’s not far off being a masterpiece. The biggest myth about The Darkness, and the one that gets thrown about all too often, is that they were a “joke band”. They had a sense of humour, sure, but no more than AC/DC or Motorhead. Yet, because they arrived about 25 years after the music they were playing, they have been largely recognised since as a pastiche act. Yet for me, a child who’d never seen Spinal Tap, I had no reason to take them on any terms other than their own.
At its core, Permission to Land isn’t an album about theatrics and pyrotechnics. It’s about heroin addiction, escaping the claustrophobia of small town life, the excitement of falling in love, the heartbreak of falling out of it, and the blissful escape of getting pissed and dancing. Yes, there’s also a song about a mythical black dog gnawing down the door of a church, but for the most part the album evokes lavish drama from the great mundane. You can practically hear the cold sea-stained streets of Lowestoft running throughout it: “The Golden Mile is paved with shite,” as Justin would sing on “Stuck In a Rut”. It was an album that imbued me with a confidence to search for remarkable things in the most unremarkable of places. The album that showed me there was always light in the darkness. It was also the album that introduced me to the word cunt.
For a while the rest of the Britain seemed to recognise that power. As I fell deeper in love with this band, plastered posters of them all over my walls and let my hair grow longer and longer, it felt like everyone else was doing the same. The Darkness were unstoppable; headlining Reading and Leeds, nearly winning Christmas number 1, and cleaning up at the Brit awards. They were both mine, and the country’s, favourite band.
As if they were my spirit animal, we ascended in tandem. As the mainstream British public accepted The Darkness so my peers accepted me. Quite unlike my experience of primary school, in the concrete chambers of year seven I was flying. My rucksack emblazoned with pin badges, sweat-bands under my shirt sleeves, and a CD Walkman plugged near-constantly into my ears, I had a place in the social strata. That’s not to say I found a load of friends who were all listening to Deep Purple, but the mainstream acceptance the Darkness found seemed to validate my self-confidence and worth. I became ‘cool rock guy’; people wanted to hang out with me and come round my house, even though I dressed like if Gene Simmons was in Busted.
One night, cousin Alf took me on a school night trip to the Permission to Land farewell tour which, by the way, concluded with Justin riding a suspended white tiger over the crowd – a move only trumped by the One Way Ticket tour, which he opened flying above the stage aboard a massive pair of tits with flashing nipples. The next day I swanned into school with wild tales of Cardiff International Arena, pints of beer; of Justin’s hilarious onstage banter and the speed Alf’s mate Chris had reached on the motorway on the way back. Drunk on my own hype, in the middle of an otherwise silent science lesson, I entered into a heated debate with an ostensibly far more mature girl in my class. She was ridiculing my love of spandex, and telling me about this really great album called Amnesiac by her favourite band Radiohead. I didn’t know much about Radiohead, beyond The Darkness’ excellent cover of “Street Spirit,” but I didn’t need to. I knew the truth and the truth lived inside of me. Martin Kemp hadn’t presented the 2004 Brit award for Best British Group to fucking Radiohead. I stood up from my rickety wooden stool and proclaimed to the her, the class, and anyone who would listen: “The Darkness are better than Radiohead!”
I look back on those words now, and wonder if they marked the beginning of the end.
Seasons passed, leaves turned green and brown and green and brown again. Year seven became year eight, three-month girlfriends came and went, first cigarettes were smoked, first essays marked, and then, in the autumn of 2005, I started year-nine, just as The Darkness released their second album. One Way Ticket to Hell...And Back! had taken two years to make, and cost the band £1million and a bassist. Yet still, on listening to it, I thought it was perfect. As I wrote in my diary at the time, “It is so polished, so perfect, it has become like a drug to me. I have to listen to it.” On the Wednesday of release week I ran over to Tesco to pick up Kerrang! and was greeted by an effusive 5 K review, pitting OWTTHAB as the greatest rock album Britain had seen in decades. The boys had done it again.
Around me though, Britain was falling out of love with Britain’s favourite band, like my own little miniature zombie apocalypse. Reviews everywhere but Kerrang described it as “culturally sterile,” and “riding a revivalist routine longer than necessary.” The worm had turned, and the collective subconscious of a nation had decided that the party was over. Older; my long hair looked tackier, and the sweatbands became questionable. People were listening to emo, and grime, and indie, and shoegaze. Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not had been released, and suddenly my air guitar routine was not cute.
Within a year, Justin Hawkins had left the band to go to rehab for cocaine addiction – lyrics like “Several massive choking lines of glorious gak” should possibly have flagged the issue earlier – and the band had fallen apart. Faced with two options, conform and keep my mates or die in dogged resistance, I did what I had to do. I cut my hair, took down the posters, put the guitar in the loft, and got into four-piece alternative guitar bands and skinny jeans. The Radiohead comment was retracted and I pretended, like the rest of the UK, like nothing had ever happened. As though, for one glorious, pivotal year, the heavens hadn’t sung with a thousand screaming solos. As if we hadn’t all briefly been living in perfect hard rock harmony. Very high-pitched harmony.
Over the following years I passed through the arms of all accepted trends like a cultural orphan. Catsuits became tracksuits. I wore neon sunglasses, Topman polo shirts, and danced to Hadouken!. I started letting in the grime that everyone else had been bumping at the back of the bus. Arctic Monkeys became Arcade Fire who became Grizzly Bear, and eventually hard rock became hard house and the transition was complete.
But I never forgot. I never lost the longing. The desire for a scorching solo like a bolt of white-light, so unashamedly open in its glory that all other music was left ashen in its wake. The truth is, and I’ll say this now, I never truly turned my back on The Darkness. In the following years, through school, sixth-form, university, bad jobs and good jobs, all the way up until now, writing these words, I never stopped.
At the crux of it all, I’ve never been able to see them as a joke. They entered my life in the magic hour between the naivety of childhood and the cynicism of adulthood. Of course, rationally, I can see why people make Spinal Tap comparisons and view them as a conglomerate tribute act of every hair metal band that ever existed, but I only had their music, and how invincible it made me feel. Which, during a time where very little else made sense, was a gift of timeless value. It might sound dramatic, and possibly ridiculous, but we don’t pick our moments – I owe The Darkness an eternal debt of gratitude. For showing me that anyone, even the most unlikely, could suddenly find a place in the world—even if it only appeared to last for five minutes. Because after those five minutes, once the fair-weather fans have dispersed, you can tell who really loves you by who is left.
Which is why, if you see me, on the tube with my headphones in, ostensibly dressed like every other beats and two veg listener, you should know that I am plugged into a higher power. Love is only a feeling, but it’s one that never goes away.
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