Justin Hawkins rocking the Wiltern. Photo by Bob Lee for the LA Beat.
It’s a strange thing, watching the Darkness play a full show in celebration of a twenty -year-old record with a fifty-year-old sound. Their appeal is easy to understand: high energy rock with riffs solid enough to compete with the bands they make fun of, and the over-the-top delivery of frontman Justin Hawkins. combined with some gentle larfs of the old-fashioned showbiz variety. Once considered a throwback, they have now stuck around long enough to become respectable, like all the other rock and roll whores in the Hall of Fame. And with the 20th anniversary of their legit classic Permission To Land, they decided to indulge themselves and their fans with a set of songs from that album, and the singles surrounding it, at the Wiltern.
For a band hitting it’s twentieth year – roughly where the Who were at the first time they split up – they are well preserved. Hawkins still looks all right without a shirt, and those startling, emphatically delivered high notes are still part of the program, still piercing and unmistakable. Drummer Rufus Taylor looks fitter than he did then. They’re playing as well as they probably ever did, which makes this dip into the past worth taking. This album presented a fully-formed vision of a hard rock band that can hit every pleasure center, an ethos and style that they have only honed in the decades since.
I can still recall those heady days of 2003, driving to work listening to “Get Your Hands Off My Woman” on the car radio, wondering “did he just say the M-F word on the radio?” As rock has evolved, so has our ability to assimilate elements that are outside of the sixties-seventies time period into our collective appreciation of “classic rock”, if attention to linear time is important to you (it should be). In the same way swing dancing was able to have its moment with the youth of 1996, soo too did glamorous rock have a second or third or eighth wave in the early 2000s. Bands with matching suits and zingy choruses were getting time on the MTV Awards. The Darkness slid right in there with a shtick only slightly more specific and hit the sugary sweet spot with “I Believe In A Thing Called Love”, the third single from the album.
This track, which Hawkins said “changed my fuckin’ life” while introducing it to end their set, is probably going to always be their single biggest/ most recognizable moment, their “Don’t Fear The Reaper” or “Green Eyed Lady”. If so, that’s fine, because it really represents what they do well. They’re capable of being quite silly, even funny, but they’re not stupid. They find the meaning in the corny shtick, which is maybe their canniest impersonation of Queen- they have that “Death On Two Legs” intensity in their most compressed, saturated moments.
Hawkins has caught a bit of Paul Stanley’s disease, in which the afflicted recognizes that people enjoy what he has to say in between songs, but perhaps overestimates the length of time that they enjoy hearing it. What’s important though, when they got on with it, it was worth waiting for.