It’s always heartening to see someone find their true calling. Soap actor or Disney star as pop royalty. Anne Widdecombe as bizarre, grumpy quiz show host. Brian Cox as starry-eyed scientific dreamboat. Donald Trump, just maybe, as Prisoner #983627. And now Justin Hawkins, frontman of hair rock pastiche act The Darkness, finally coming into his own. As a rock tutorial YouTuber.
Like Shaun Ryder and Bez before him, the cartoonishness of Hawkins’ character was always going to lend itself brilliantly to the small screen. After all, if enthusiastic self-parody has a limited shelf-life in mainstream music, its endlessly watchable online. And so it transpires on Justin Hawkins Rides Again, Hawkins’ YouTube channel whereon, in regular video posts, he sits with an acoustic guitar at a microphone like the bon viveur of a student house party ‘jam room’ and discusses traits of the music industry, details the pitfalls of performance and dissects other acts’ songs for their core influences and blatant steals.
There is a certain – let’s say irony – to the idea of Hawkins pulling up The Killers or Panic! At The Disco for pilfering from rock’s past. But given he’s something of a world expert in the field, what emerges is a masterclass of musical salvage hunting. Drawing on an encyclopaedic knowledge of rock and pop history, he goes far beyond the obvious Erasure nods on The Killers’ ‘Boy’ or the glam elements of the latest Panic! tune to astutely reference the likes of The Cardiacs, Spencer Davis Group and Bond theme chord progressions. And for all the clickbait episode titles – “Why Does Anybody Like This?”, “What’s Wrong With His Voice?”, “Dare I Critique Liam Gallagher?” – these aren’t vitriolic diatribes ranted from the dumper, but constructive, well-meaning appreciations of the song-writing or industry matter in hand.
Digging deep into song construction, Hawkins will often find himself discovering quirky B-majors or unexpected folk refrains that leave him mildly in awe of tracks he wasn’t expecting to like. Liam is apparently “really pushing himself” on ‘Everything’s Electric’, it turns out, while a post titled “Honestly? What’s The Point Of Yungblud?” ends with Hawkins describing everyone’s favourite Doncaster bigmouth as “actually punk rock” and “a great artist in the making”. “C’mon, Are The Foo Fighters Really That Great?!” asks one video. Yes, it ultimately decides, they bloody well are.
At times its truly hilarious watching Hawkins try to stick to his self-imposed “if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything” ethos. When watching a video of Puddle Of Mudd singer Wes Scantlin straining and gurning his way through their trainwreck cover of Nirvana’s ‘About A Girl’ as though beset by a million haemorrhoids, Hawkins finds all manner of excuses as to why Scantlin’s voice is so pained, from potential throat issues and touring exhaustion to, perhaps, even a lack of water. “The guy shouldn’t be working,” he concludes, but quietly admits: “I just want to hold him.”
It takes the hard stuff – Maroon 5’s ‘Moves Like Jagger’, say – to break him. Struggling his way through half-rhymes that would embarrass Elmo, he ultimately cracks, screaming, “IT’S JUST SHIT!”, before regaining his composure. The effect is that of a Russian state news broadcaster exposing the propaganda, Liz Truss declaring “I’ll be as evil as you like for votes!” or a superstar EDM DJ stopping pretending to mix anything onstage and taking to the mic to confess: “I’m just filling in the invoice!”
In his industry-centric videos, Hawkins is informative, analytical and illuminating, whether talking of the shark-like elements of contract law that screw bands over or the sort of sequinned flares that are going to make you fall on your arse onstage by providing an “unsafe work area”. Insights come thick and fast, from the various justifications for musicians walking out of press interviews to the territorial changes made to the naked woman on the sleeve of ‘Permission To Land’ (pixelated arse in the US; enlarged side-boob in Germany).
It’s all frankly crying out for a TV show, and one obvious idea springs to mind. Hawkins should team up with Tim Burgess and make Justin Hawkins Rides Again a kind of musical version of Bake Off: Extra Slice, the additional content for a TV adaptation of Tim’s Twitter Listening Parties. Tim plays the records at some wild house party while the band talk us through it real time. Then, for an hour or so afterwards on BBC3, Hawkins takes apart the key songs in his inimitably charming manner, perhaps with amateur asides from James Acaster. Come on, TV commissioners – the guy’s clearly wasted in music…