OK, I confess: I used to be in a band. To paraphrase Spinal Tap, don’t bother looking for it on the internet: it’s not there anymore. Long time ago now, ended about 2002. Mercifully, this was long before the camera phone became ubiquitous, so the only footage that exists of us is safely locked away at home in my loft.
Due to this, and all the record labels failing to spot the planet-aligning potential of our wares (Depeche Mode playing Rolling Stones songs, lyrics by Richey Manic), we never progressed much further that the stages of London’s most salubrious toilet venues. And so when people ask me whether we achieved anything, my reply is always the same: “We supported The Darkness”.
There we are, lugging amps up the stairs of the Camden Barfly one Saturday night, when we catch our first sight of the headline act. Setting up their amps onstage are three roadie types and a tall guy with a moustache. We snigger together, as all bands do at each other when they think they’re en route to changing the world, and they see another bunch of losers to trample all over.
But then they started to play.
Alone, the crunch of their AC/DC boogie is impressive – they had it down, no question – but when the singer starts to sing, that’s when everyone in the room’s jaws drop. Yeah, its funny; but also a LOT more striking than the voice of yer average Camden joker.
Later, having finished our (as usual sparsely attended) set, and having lugged all our gear back down the stairs, we go back up to watch them. On entering, I see ALL of the 20-30 mates we had cajoled into coming down, stood in a row, grinning from ear to ear, devil horning, arms aloft. I turn to look at the stage and just see the singer – who I now deduce, thanks to a lighting bolt tattoo on his now-bare upper body, is Justin – riding around through a packed crowd on someone’s shoulders, playing a solo that would make Angus proud. In the Mecca of cooler-than-thou indie bands, it is truly outrageous. He brings the song, ‘Love On The Rocks (With No Ice)’, to a stadium-rock close and a roar worthy of Wembley goes up.
Next day, I ring everyone I know and tell them they have to come see this band. Turns out everyone else in the Barfly has done the same and over the next few months, they become a genuine word-of-mouth sensation in Camden: this is the best, most fun night out in town. At the next gig, at the Bull & Gate, they put on a buffet for the crowd; the following gig, they give out cheap Darkness tattoos, which everyone puts on their foreheads. At a Christmas show, back at Barfly, Justin disappears mid-set and emerges, for the first time, in a spandex catsuit. The rest of the band think this is rubbish, and make him promise never to do it again.
NME – before my time, I might add – are doing their best to pretend this is not happening, reducing them to a tiny live review that says: “For the sheer nostalgia and dorky Andrew-WK-getting-it-very-wrong schtick of it all (or if The Planetarium’s closed), go see The Darkness”. This gets put into block capitals and used on all of the band’s flyers as “GO SEE THE DARKNESS! – NME” which doesn’t help relations between the two camps.
But it doesn’t matter. Word is spreading like wildfire. There is little press at all, no radio and very little internet action. Purely off the back of the cycle of EVERYONE coming home from their shows and raving to ten friends about how ace they are, The Darkness progress to a sold out Astoria show in June 2003, as NME continues to hype The Datsuns as the future of music.
Inevitably, they get a record deal, they are no longer everyone’s little secret, and things get out of control. They are unfortunate to coincide with the Topshop-aided phenomenon of ironic rock t-shirts being worn by idiots, and before you know it people like Cat Deeley are on TV going on about how she was “rocking out” to The Darkness last Saturday. Snobbish? Maybe, but it’s more that with all their theatrics and flaunting of metal clichés, they accidentally became the perfect band for the irono-rock fuckwit generation, and thus “serious” music fans who like Joy Division think that they are insincere cockends who are taking the piss. In fact, their love of rock music is more genuine than anyone’s. It’s just they realise it’s supposed to be a laugh, that in fact having a blast and forgetting about life for an hour is the whole point.
Yeah, they did start doing rather too much cocaine and behaving in an obnoxious manner that didn’t become the Most Fun Night Out In Town. But I still maintain they were victims of circumstance: they started playing the music they loved because no-one else was doing it properly, then all of a sudden they’re on national TV, on coke, being asked by Fearne Cotton (wearing a Motörhead t-shirt) whether they’re looking forward to rocking up and rocking out at the T4 On The Beach rock show, while the rest of the serious music fans they once counted as friends pour scorn on them for ruining rock’n’roll. That’s bound to fry your head, right?
Really, it was all over when Frankie Poullain left. They never should have continued after that, or released a second album made on way too many drugs. Their charm was always that they were stadium fantasists trying to make their fantasies reality in rooms the size of the Barfly, and the first album captured that. Once they ACTUALLY started having expensive pyrotechnics, cocaine habits, model girlfriends, etc, it lost a lot of the charm. It was no surprise when they split up.
But now, it feels like there may be enough water under the bridge for them to get back to being what they were always supposed to be: simply the most fun, life-affirming night out on the block.