Embrace the Darkness
Music wo camps are forming in America. These factions are vehemently opposed to each other. Both are convinced they're in sole possession of the truth. But the funny thing is, we're not talking here about the gay marriage debate or the Iraq-war hawks-versus-doves dispute. No, this discussion is about something still more vital: namely, the polarizing effect of British rock and roll phenoms the Darkness. Abortion tiffs are kid stuff. This is America's new civil war. (For the purposes of this column, the opposing factions will be labeled Camp Night and Camp Day.)
Picture, if you will, a young man in a zebra-striped unitard. Now imagine him tweaking a ridiculous guitar solo while straddling monitors at the front of the stage. The music coming out of the Marshall stacks sounds like Foreigner's "Juke Box Hero," only the bastard son of Klaus Nomi and Tiny Tim (you pick which one's the mother) has taken over on vocals. Breathe deeply. Now imagine this: A stadium full of people is going apeshit for it.
In a musical era dominated by self-important artistes, the Darkness has grabbed rock and roll by its shoulders and given it a swift snakeskin-booted kick in the arse. Camp Night loves this. They're tired of hip-hop, saddened by emo and disgusted by Nickelback (read: contemporary rock radio). The Darkness harks back to the bands its members loved: Thin Lizzy, Queen, AC/DC. They look and act the way rockers should. They're funny, cocky and loud -- David Lee Roths with funny accents, crooked teeth and amusing hair.
Tim Murrah is a counselor at Camp Night. Long a persistent and vocal supporter of all things Union Jack, the former Metropol and Stuka manager was on the Darkness train before it turned into a bandwagon. To him, the Darkness "represents something that's been missing from American rock," he says. "They walk it like they talk it. Sure, you might look at them at first and say, 'This has got to be a joke,' but if you listen to it, it's great. It's good-time music, man."
Dave Grohl agrees. "Show of hands: Who here misses the days of extended guitar solos, striped leotards, falsetto vocals and songs demanding, 'Get your hands off my woman'? Yeah, me too," he wrote in a guest column in The New York Times. "I'll take the Darkness over those whiny emo bands any day. At least they're getting chicks."
Above all else, setting aside the hype and the band's image and actually listening to the Darkness seems to be the key to liking them. Frankie Poullain, who plays bass for the band, quite naturally agrees: "I don't want to sound inflated or too self-important, but at the end of the day, we've made a really good record. I think it speaks for itself. Generally Americans like rock. Well, we've got ten rockin' tunes on the record. We put on a rockin' live show. I think if people buy the album and come see the show, all this talk of being a joke band will subside."
One can't help but think he's right. After all, the Darkness has already gone through this rigmarole in their home country. America is a bigger piece of the same puzzle. "We've been breakin' all the rules, and we'll continue to break all the rules," Poullain says of the naysayers' objections, and when he says it you can't help but think they'll be breaking down the walls of Camp Day pretty soon, too. 'Cause a lot of people firmly believe his band rules.
Camp Day's magna cum laude group of music imperialists is, above all, concerned with authenticity. They're the kind of people who work at Championship Vinyl and mock your Cosby sweater. The Darkness, in their mind, isn't a throwback to rock's glory days -- it's an abomination, pure and simple, like one of the real bands Spinal Tap skewered. Think Tenacious D with electric guitars, no sense of humor and access to Steven Tyler's wardrobe. (A deranged English member of Camp Day recently went so far as to mail hand-written death threats to Darkness front man Justin Hawkins.)
For them, the problem is this: Where the D and Tap are nudge-in-the-ribs hipster jokes, the Darkness tries to play it straight, and that's an unforgivable transgression. You just can't do that in 2004.
Ex-Sound Exchange employee and longtime record collector Sean McManus -- who also happens to be my brother -- is one of these people. "I think that if the Darkness was from Iowa, no one would care," he says. "It's more based on [British music magazine] NME endorsing what's hip and what's next. These indie rock kids with trucker caps that shop at Urban Outfitters are obsessed with things because they're 'ironic.' It's the same reason they grow out their mustaches and drink cheap beer. It's very hollow."
The underground tastemakers and scathing satirists at Buddyhead.com agree. They put the Darkness's debut, Permission to Land, at the top of their list of the worst albums of 2003. "Can we cut the irony bullshit already?" their review thundered. "Enough with the whole 'I'm dressed like a fucking clown, isn't it hip?' crap Yeah dudes, I get the joke mullets, bad solos, falsetto, posturing not fucking funny. This glam cock rock pose was stupid 20 years ago, and it's worse now because we should know better."
Here again we see little evidence -- save for the "bad solos" swipe, which could be a jab at form rather than content -- that Camp Day has a problem with the actual music played by the Darkness. Buddyhead's Haterade seems to be a concoction brewed from "irony" this and "media hype" that. It begs the question, Have they even heard the record?
McManus concedes that the music's okay, up to a point. "It's all right. I just don't think they're worth all the press they're getting. Put it this way: I just saw Yngwie Malmsteen a couple of weeks ago. He's the real deal -- an honest-to-goodness metal shredding cheeseball. That guy's been dressing like the Darkness for years, and I dare say, he can play better than them. I guess I'm just put off by those that claim the Darkness is the greatest thing ever."
Is it fair to hold against a band the hype heaped upon it? It's one thing to realize that something is goofy, but quite another to suggest that goofiness disqualifies its significance or worth. Understandably, no one wants to be the butt of someone else's in-joke; no one wants to fall for the Darkness, only for the group to say Permission to Land was just a joke and that they're secretly Joy Division and Velvets acolytes, like virtually every other hip rock band. That's why it might take a while for some to listen to the Darkness with their ears and not their eyes. Once this happens you'll be able to read an entire article about them without a mention of the word catsuit. (Almost made it!)
Understanding that not everyone knows (or cares) about this emerging cultural conflict, I've been playing Permission to Land for folks I knew hadn't been exposed to the Darkness and, more important, to the arguments of either camp. I selected a jury that couldn't give a flying scissors kick about the hype surrounding the band, and -- bar none -- they loved the music, though for different reasons.
Older listeners said it reminded them of being in high school. Younger listeners thought it sounded like nothing they'd ever heard and, just speculating here, were thrilled that Justin Hawkins's falsetto sounded nothing like the earnest cottonmouth of Scott Stapp or any of his hordes of imitators.
"No one is right or wrong," Poullain says magnanimously. "One man's meat is another man's poison. If people want to write us off because they feel we're a joke, they have that option. We're not afraid to embrace the absurdity of life. Adam Ant had a song in which he said, 'Don't be afraid of ridicule' -- it's kind of our unofficial slogan."
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