Suffolk, 1991: "Look out! That's a ..." The end of my brother's warning is lost in a sickening crunch as the Biff! band wagon, affectionately known as Betsy, bumps off the tiny back road and straight into a ditch. For a moment there is complete silence as the stereo, along with all the other electrics, flicker and then die, leaving us in the dark, rocking gently in Italian Job style with all four wheels off the ground. "Okay, no one panic," I say with all the calm a 17-year-old new driver, foreseeing an imminent mother-of-all-bollockings, can muster. "Everyone just move slowly to the back of the van. And take the heavy equipment with you." That's when the shouting starts.
The evening had been a complete disaster from beginning to end. Chasing a never-to-materialise support slot with an older local band called Egypt - who boasted members from legendary Seventies blues-rock outfit, The Groundhogs - we had schlepped across East Anglia in the hope that driving a trio of greying rockers to a pub gig in north Norfolk, and loaning them our gear, might somehow further our quest for a record deal and subsequent world domination. In fact, the band had simply ignored us all night, got pissed and then made us drive them home without even paying for our diesel. Now it is two in the morning, we are miles from home and the van just won't start. And it's a school night. Quite literally.
Carefully sliding the amps and speakers to the back of the bus and hanging our pitiful, combined body weight off the vehicle's back step, we manage to get the van onto its rear wheels while my brother, Dan, and our singer crawl underneath with a torch to find the problem. "Well, this band had better make it now," rock-star-in-waiting and Biff!'s junior guitar player, Justin Hawkins, suddenly pipes up from the darkness. "I've got my maths GCSE tomorrow and I'm never going to pass it now." At that moment, the stereo suddenly stutters back to life and the still, country night air is shattered by AC/DC's "It's a Long Way To The Top If You Wanna Rock and Roll". Carefully we ease Betsy back onto the road and limp home.
Twelve years later, sitting in The Darkness's infinitely more comfortable tour bus, outside a small venue in Holland's Den Bosch, as Britain's most vaunted rock band are waiting to sound-check, I remind Justin of this and he laughs. "I think that's when I gave up on academia," he says with the calm vindication of a man who has just sold more than 300,000 copies of his début, number-one, Mercury Prize-nominated album. Then he says, "Do you ever play any more?"
It's an innocent question, and he clearly means no malice by it, but I feel myself wincing, because while Justin and his brother, Dan Hawkins, have been making The Darkness what the tabloids are calling "The biggest British rock band of the last 20 years", I have hardly picked up an electric guitar since Biff! split up, dramatically, on my 18th birthday. That's unless you count the drunken, nostalgia-ridden jam arranged for my 30th. If you come from a tiny, parochial town like Lowestoft, heavy metal is almost the teenage male's rite of passage. It offers escapism and rebellion and a whole lot of glamorous sex. And that certainly beats playing arcade games on the pier. Suddenly I feel that I have let our shared history down very badly indeed. And in true rock style, it was all over a girl.
At the time, things had been going well for Biff! Locally we had become minor celebrities, which only really meant we were acknowledged by other leather-clad long-hairs in the pubs of Lowestoft, but that was enough for us to be determined we would make it big. We were young, had a sound that was beginning to come together and, most crucially, we had Betsy. In those days, the pinnacle of all our ambitions was to receive groupie love, post-gig, behind a stack of speaker cabinets while heading home along the A12. I had even managed to come to terms with the fact that Justin was a far better guitar player than me, despite his having only been playing for a year. And, oddly, he was often so shy offstage that we didn't even know he could sing, but there was this weird piercing warble he would occasionally emit when drinking beer. Or pissing around at sound-checks. The plan was a simple one, we would move to London, live on the dole and play anywhere we could until people started to take notice. Such was my commitment, I had even deferred my university place for a whole year.
Only, unknown to any of us, our singer had been quietly crooning at my brother's girlfriend. When Dan finally discovered what was going on, in the middle of our show-stopping thrash-metal rendition of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds", he leapt over his drum kit and punched the erstwhile vocalist off the stage. They never spoke again - so, disillusioned, I filled Betsy with camping equipment and a hippy, dippy girlfriend and spent the year off travelling Europe instead. Justin, meanwhile, went and got his first tattoo and continued with the plan alone. That was in 1991.
After that, we lost contact with Justin for a few years. Periodically we would hear stories of his musical misadventures and grinding poverty in London with some band or another from mutual friends. There was talk of a publishing deal and occasional session work and by the time we ran into him again in an east-London boozer around Christmas 2001, I had comfortably settled for second best as a moderately successful music journalist while my brother had become a barrister. When he told us he had started a Seventies-sounding rock band called The Darkness with his brother and that they wore Spandex while playing long, duelling guitar solos, we laughed all the way home.
Gradually, however, rumours of The Darkness's growing reputation started to filter back with alarming regularity. It started out with little mentions in local fanzines like Camden's The Fly and occasional conversations with friends who had seen "this hilarious live act" playing around town. Then, late last year, they secured a support slot with one of our teenage heavy-metal heroes, Def Leppard, and followed that up by selling out rock's spiritual London home, the Astoria, with a headlining gig. It was all disturbingly unheard-of for a band that hadn't even signed a record deal. Incredibly, in these days where music is dominated by the likes of Fame Academy and Pop Idol, the Darkness have done it the old-fashioned, rock'n'roll way, hauling themselves around urine-stained venues and building up a dedicated following. But even though they had financed their début album, Permission To Land, themselves, the record industry still couldn't see a place in the market for 21st-century cock rock.
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"It was mad," says Dan Hawkins, The Darkness' rock-solid rhythm guitarist, as he chain smokes cigarettes. "We were too busy to have even part-time jobs and though we were selling out the Astoria we still didn't have any money. We had proved we had a fan base and were getting as much press as some signed bands but they still didn't want to know. Then a month later we were suddenly in the middle of a bidding war."
For many of the country's rock fans, The Darkness's audacious theft of the Glastonbury Festival this summer f was probably the music event of the year and certainly marked the start of Darkness mania. Completely undaunted by their 10.30am "alarm-call" slot the band flew in by helicopter and proceeded to open up an economy-sized can of whoopass on the totally unsuspecting crowd. The Def Leppard shows had taught them how to use a big stage and the festival environment was perfect for their particular brand of grandiosity. Shortly afterwards appeared their first splash across the celebrity pages of a leading national tabloid and by the following day The Darkness were full-blown national treasures. I called my brother immediately. He was sitting in the bath, groaning.
Since then the tabloid coverage the band has received would keep all of Lowestoft in fish-and-chip paper for a month. With a new single out on Monday and the recent Mercury-Prize disappointment (despite being the bookies' hot favourites, The Darkness were pipped to the award by the rapper Dizzee Rascal) still fresh, both The Sun and The Star are championing the band for next week's number-one slot. It was practically a sure thing anyway and by Christmas The Darkness will have appeared on all the UK magazine covers that matter. A range of action dolls can't be that far behind. It's an awful lot of fame in a very short time. And as any Big Brother evictee will tell you, that's not always a good thing.
"At the moment the tabloid coverage is great," Justin grins. "When they are being nice to you, they are really nice. I get The Sun phoning me up saying 'There's been no one to write about except Liam Gallagher for 10 years and then you came along.' They even apologised for sending someone round to my mum's for baby photos. But we know it can't last and we are ready for people to turn on us; that's fair enough. Hopefully by then we will have found our audience and a whole load more people will know what we do."
There is another snag to the whole tabloid furore however. Every column inch they generate contains adjectives like "hilarious" or "camp" and is peppered with references to Spinal Tap. And with the Spandex cat-in-the-hat, camp suits and the vocal operatics there is more than a whiff of novelty about The Darkness, not least because grown men with bouffant hair and spray-on trousers are very funny. But when the novelty wears off, the immutable rules of chart lore are clear: from Dr and The Medics to Sigue Sigue Sputnik, you can never play the same joke twice. And after what they have been through, The Darkness are not going to be satisfied with just 15 minutes in the spotlight.
It's not something the band even contemplates. "We are not some novelty act or tribute band," Justin insists. "We don't spend our time on the bus reading rock biographies and we haven't decided that the whole misogynistic cliché of rock'n'excess is the way to live our lives. Guitar music has become so isolating and angst-ridden. Like anyone cares about your angst. Our music is inclusive. People come and see us and they have a really good time. We put something fun and exciting back, you can see it in their faces."
Then, opening a can of lager, Frankie, the tallest bass player in the world and only non-Lowestoftian on the bus, cuts in to settle the debate once and for all. "We are the revolution and have been sent to pull rock from it's own arsehole," he says with soft Scottish sincerity, mixed with just a hint of Spinal Tap. And with that, the band go to sound-check.
Backstage at Den Bosch's imaginatively named W2 Concerthaal, a strange strangled wailing sound emanates from The Darkness's changing room. "It's just Justin doing his vocal excercises," Tosh, the tour manager, explains, rolling his eyes. Inside the charmingly basic 10x8ft dressing cell, drummer Ed Graham and bass player Frankie Poullain lounge on school-assembly chairs nursing cans of Heineken while Justin cleans his teeth in the cracked porcelain sink, periodically unleashing banshee howls at his own reflection. "Still got it," he grins, as his brother returns from the shower and starts applying a very un-rock'n'roll lotion to his corkscrew curls.
In the main arena the world's worst drummer is driving support band Taxi To The Ocean through a desultory stoned blues jam for the 200 or so punters that have paid their £5 to catch the show. Hardly any of them have even heard of The Darkness. Compared to the mayhem that follows the band's every move back in London, this has to be demoralising. But that's what life is like for a breaking band. As soon as you taste a little success, then the record company ships you off to some rock-forsaken backwater to start the whole process again. The band, however, don't seem the least bit perturbed.
"You have to think of all gigs the same way," Justin says brightly. "And playing live is what we love doing best. Hopefully by the end of tonight we will have made a few converts." Then with a last gargle of TCP for Justin and swig of lager for the rest of the band it's show time.
Out front, even The Darkness's personalised back drop is too big for the tiny Dutch stage and their logo hangs lopsided, half obscured by Ed's drums. But as the band launch into "Bareback", Justin stripped naked to the waist and sporting an impossibly tight pair of silver sparkle pants, the effect on the crowd is peculiar.
For a few seconds the assorted Dutch punkers and white, middle-class teen dreads stand open mouthed as Dan and Justin segue into a dual guitar harmony that is pure Thin Lizzy. Then, one by one, they all start to grin. The nervous 15-year-old I auditioned for his first band 13 years ago is suddenly transformed into a bona-fide, puckered-up, cock-strutting rock star and everyone here knows it. Even me. By the time he changes into a tiger-skin cat suit and parades through the audience on the shoulders of a roadie, soloing with guitar behind his head, the grins have turned into air-punching howls of approval. They even sing along to "I Believe", although no one knows the words. Tonight the spirit of rock paid a visit to this small Dutch backwater and everyone in the room is grateful they were here.
When it's all over I head backstage to find Justin surrounded by well wishers before he has even managed to towel the sweat from his body. A group of Darkness fans from Glasgow have made it over and are relentless in their hero worship and thirst for photos. When Dan offers them beers from their changing-room fridge, one of the shaven-headed Glaswegians looks close to tears. Then suddenly it is 1am and time for the boys to get back on the bus and head home for England.
As they collect their stuff and sign a few last autographs, I ask Justin if all this is as much fun as he'd always hoped it would be. He looks at me laughing. "Mate, it's far better," he says. "I heard last week that there's an e-mail campaign to Tony Blair to get me included in the next Honours list for services to rock. Now that's fun." His bandmates regard their singer pityingly and bundle him out of the door.
"It was actually services to cock rock," Dan says as he follows his brother out. "Make sure you put that in
The Darkness's new single "I Believe in A Thing Called Love" is out on Monday, on Must Destroy Music/Atlantic Records
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