From the heavens they descended, clad in catsuits and dripping with an aura that screamed Queen meets Austin Powers. They were loud, brash, firmly tongue-in-cheek, and wildly innovative in a world of sameness. The Darkness, seemingly from another space and time, emerged from the UK to take the world by storm in the year that was 2003.
In an era where Linkin Park, Evanescence, and 3 Doors Down dominated the radio rock charts, the bombastic outfit of brothers Justin and Dan Hawkins, bassist Frankie Poullain, and then drummer Ed Graham uncorked a retro-driven sound that was more akin to late '70s or '80s than anything of their dawn-of-the-millenium contemporaries.
"I would say that we didn't have an eye on the scene. We weren't thinking about the other bands and what they were doing, really," shares Justin Hawkins in a candid sit-down with Metal Injection.
Formed from the bones of a previous band Empire, which Hawkins described as being "progressive in the Radiohead sense of progressive" with "bits like Pink Floyd or a certain period of Pink Floyd", The Darkness was born out of a desire to have a project that existed, as Hawkins puts it, "in its own world."
The world of The Darkness was a madcap cocktail of outrageous color, boundary-pushing on-stage antics, and a delicate dance of guitar-driven rock ‘n' roll and soaring vocals, with Hawkins himself the enigmatic and flamboyant centerpiece.
"When I was 15 I joined a band and [my mother] was like, 'you've got to look different. You can't just look like you've just walked in off the street. You've got to make an impression.' She was very assertive about that, really, and just making sure that I looked the part," Hawkins shared of his mother's influence on the presentation of the group.
And while casual observers would assume the trajectory of the band was as immediate as it was immense, success did not come overnight for the Lowestoft, England natives.
"The way we perceived it was different to how a Canadian, an American audience would see it, really," he says. "Nothing was happening for us in England and we were slogging away. We had a following. We had people coming from record companies that were watching the shows and saying they love it, but it's kind of not signable, not marketable. It doesn't fit in with anything that was on their roster, but they said they were keeping a close eye on us to see what we achieved under our own steam."
Organizers at America's South By Southwest caught wind of the growing British attraction on the heels of their self-financed EP featuring the 'love trio' – "Love on the Rocks With No Ice", "Love is Only A Feeling", and their soon-to-be breakout hit "I Believe in a Thing Called Love.""
"We were like, Okay, so maybe America's our place. Maybe North America is going to be our natural home and we'll all have to relocate. We're all up for it. None of us had families or anything like that, so we were like, Yeah, okay, let's do that. And then we went to South by Southwest and nothing happened.
"So then we came back to England and finished the record. We recorded it all in two weeks. So we'd already had those three songs, the ones that had love in the title, and then we recorded the rest of the album and all the B-sides in two weeks at Chapel Studios, all self-funded. Nobody was helping us. I was doing jingles, you know, advertising jingles. And I paid for the album with some stuff I did for IKEA. So we didn't have a label, and we started putting singles out."
The DIY-EP was spot-played on national radio, earning the band an opening slot on tour opposite The Wild Hearts.
"Then we went on tour with Def Leppard, so it really was all the live stuff. It was really just like everything we did live was kind of high energy and wasn't like anything else at that time anyway," Hawkins admits. "And we were doing really stupid stuff, like I was climbing on stuff and just doing everything we could to make an impression really, and really nailing it."
The band's next single, "Growing On Me", reached number 11 on the UK Charts as an independent release.
"I think that's a real achievement, just on the strength of doing a lot of live stuff," Hawkins recalls. "So from our point of view, we worked really hard and we broke through at a point when we were just used to working and all these opportunities came in. We carried on saying ‘yes' to them and we just kept going for as long as we could, really. And at that point after 'Growing on Me', that's when it was pretty undeniable."
A bidding war ensued between major labels, with The Darkness signing with Atlantic Records, the home of their multi-platinum-selling debut album, Permission to Land, an album that celebrates its landmark 20th anniversary in 2023.
"I always think about this record because it's kind of never lost its energy," Hawkins says with a smile. "Sometimes you listen to other things in our oeuvre – or sometimes I listen to other things in our oeuvre – and I'm like, okay, I can see what we were trying to do. But nothing feels like that first record. And I don't know whether that's just my subjective experience of everything that led up to recording it. But there's something in it that's just magic. I can't imagine myself ever wanting to sing in that way. I've become a different, and in some ways better, and in some ways not as exciting singer over the years, but I think there's just something about that record."
The anthemic "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" became a massive crossover hit, receiving platinum certification in their home country and gold status in the United States.
And while the ensuing years for the band would be fraught with highs and lows – including Justin's candid battle with a substance issue, brief hiatus from the group, and triumphant return – the fiery frontman admits he wouldn't change a moment of the wild journey.
"I wouldn't change a single thing. Nobody died. We're all okay. But it was edgy. But that's kind of what you sign up for. That's actually what you sign up for. It's the roller coaster ride," he shared, prophetically.
"I think about bands and I think about artists and not just in music, but in general. Anything that you did as creative, if you're lucky, you're one of the few artists that capture the zeitgeist and that you get it and you have it and you got it for a moment and then you lose it. Inevitably, that happens to everybody. You know, sometimes the period of time when you have it is longer than the period of time that we had it, but we had it. You've got to say what a fucking experience. You just can't look at that, even after 20 years of it, and you can't look back with anything other than, Wow, I'm so glad we experienced that stuff because it was just madness, unforgettable madness."
The band is set to re-release their celebrated debut, aptly re-titled Permission to Land … Again, complete with live recordings, demos, and B-sides, and commemorate the album on a world tour beginning this October.
Reminiscing on the album's humble beginnings before fame, glitz, and excess, Hawkins is transported to familial memories of an altogether simpler time.
"Me and my brother have this brilliant memory of when we had done those demos that are in this edition. We went on holiday with our family in Turkey. So my grandmother was there, my mum and dad and everyone. We chartered a little boat and we went out and tried to catch some octopus and we listened to the demo on the boat and that's probably the last time I listened to it," he recounts, reflecting on the band's improbable journey to rock stardom.
"All those demos have been remastered and stuck on this collection, which is great because they're recorded in a bedsit. To the chagrin of my neighbors, they were recorded in my little bedsit, which is a room about the size of my YouTube studio now, but it had a bed, my kitchen, toilet, and studio set up. So that's how I was living for a few years.
"Really seat of your pants stuff, really day-to-day, just getting through because that's what you do. You move to London and you just make it work however you can, and then you hope for the best. A lot of people fall down the cracks. A lot of people don't make it. But you've just got to believe you can't give up. That's the thing. You can't give up."
Dates for the Permission to Land anniversary tour are below. Get your tickets here and get the anniversary edition of Permission To Land here.
10/3 San Francisco, CA The Masonic
10/4 Sacramento, CA Ace of Spades
10/6 Los Angeles, CA The Wiltern
10/7 Tempe, AZ Marquee Theatre
10/8 Las Vegas, NV Brooklyn Bowl
10/10 Denver, CO Summit Music Hall
10/11 Kansas City, MO The Truman
10/13 Chicago, IL The Vic Theatre
10/14 Indianapolis, IN The Vogue
10/15 Detroit, MI Saint Andrew's Hall
10/17 Boston, MA Big Night Live
10/18 New York, NY Terminal 5
10/19 Philadelphia, PA Franklin Music Hall
10/21 Sayreville, NJ Starland Ballroom
10/22 Washington, D.C. 9:30 Club
11/7 Germany, Berlin, Admiralspalast
11/8 Germany, Hamburg, Markthalle
11/9 Germany, Cologne Essigfabrik
11/11 Germany, Munich, Technikum
11/13 Italy, Rome Orion
11/14 Italy, Milan, Alcatraz
11/15 Italy, Modena, Vox
11/17 Switzerland, Prattlen, Z7
11/18 Luxembourg Den Atelier
11/20 Switzerland, Bern Muhle Hunziken
11/22 Belguim, Brussels, AB
11/23 France, Paris, La Cigale
11/24 Holland, Amsterdam Melkweg Max