- 19 Dec 18
I See A Darkness. Sir Justin Of Hawkins Delivers The Full Story Behind A Christmas Classic, And Details The Continuing Adventures Of The Mighty 'Ness. Pat Carty Briefly Considers The Nut Cutlet Alternative.
I was due to speak to Justin Hawkins for about 15 minutes on the subject of The Darkness’s marvellous Christmas single, ‘Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End)’, which has been successfully bobbing back up on an annual basis since its original release, for our Christmas special. Such is the loquaciousness and generosity of the man we ended up speaking for close to an hour on a variety of topics pertaining to the season that’s in it and his band’s career as a whole. On several occasions I had to reluctantly steer our conversation back to the matter at hand. Ribald showbiz anecdotes were the cause of much amusement between the two of us but were I to relate them here, we would probably spent most of the next year in court.
Our interview had been due to take place on the proceeding afternoon, but due to unavoidable appointments, including the one where I had to go and see a man about a dog, we had to postpone. As soon as Justin voice came over the telephone, he made enquiries about my previous evening’s carousing. I pointed out that such behaviour was all in the past for Hawkins, who has been on nothing stronger than coffee over a decade at this point (he’s previously claimed to have spent £150,000 on cocaine between 2003 and 2006). “I know”, he ruefully replied, “but I always admire it when I see the troopers out there”
‘Christmas Time (Don’t let The Bells End)’, the beautiful bastard love child spawned as a result of an epoch-defining threesome involving Slade, Wham and the late, great Freddie Mercury, originally came out in 2003, but when was this masterwork put down on tape - just before release in a burst of creative fire, or as a pre-planed attack on the populace’s sensibilities?
“We recorded it in September of 2003, so at least it wasn’t summer - it wasn’t that cynical! We did our tracks during the day, went to the Kerrang! Awards that night while producer Bob Ezrin recorded the children’s choir and the bells and all that, then went back the next day with massive hangovers and recorded the B-side.”
When deciding to chance a Christmas record, were you in it for the laugh or were you eyeing some of that Slade perennial hit pension money?
“I think if we had a few albums out and then did it, it would have been a cynical thing, but at that time we were very new to money, and the money we had was so vast compared to everything we had earned up until then that we probably thought we would never need to work again anyway, so we weren’t thinking about the money. What we actually thought was, what is the last thing a band that has had the year we have just had should do? We wanted to do something that was a bit outrageous, and unexpected. When the label said to us “it’s been a great year, what do you want to do next?” We thought what’s the most stupid thing we can do?”
But you do hear the stories of the cheques Noddy Holder or Shane MacGowan receive around March, guaranteeing they never have to do anything else.
“Well that Shane MacGowan song is just a great song, you can listen to it all year round, it’s probably my favourite Christmas record. But we really weren’t thinking about that, and the record hasn’t really been like that for us anyway. You do see a little bump in the stats but it’s still nothing compared to ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’, which is lucrative all year round, even now it’s our biggest earner by a long way.”
‘Bells End’ is a song that sports all the requisite elements for a Christmas hit, did you have a preflight checklist?
“I remember when we wrote it, we had a loose concept for a Christmas idea, involving bell ends and ring pieces! We went to a rehearsal studio and really just nailed it down. We needed a slightly melancholy verse, a really uplifting chorus, sexual innuendo, a children’s choir and you must have sleigh bells. You need a key change, and for it to be a proper Darkness song, it’s got to have guitar solos in it. Bob Ezrin came to the rehearsals, just to make sure we had everything we needed. He popped his head in, listened to us play it a couple of times, and that was it, Pub! We were on fire in that year, and we couldn’t really do much wrong, to be honest. Every thing we tried landed. He was happy, and a month later, we were in Abbey Road, recording it, which was a dream come true as well.”
You mention the sleigh bells there, I refer you to ‘Mistress For Christmas’ by AC/DC. Hardly a Christmas record at all, but they throw a few bells in at the start and there you go.
“Amazing! That’s a rhyme, basically. They’ve got that rhyme, and they’ve built a song up from there, and fair enough! But from the foundation up it’s got to be a Christmas song, and you’ve got to conceive it as such at the initial stages, otherwise people can tell. Anything could be a Christmas song – change ‘Chopped in Half by Butchery’ to ‘Chopped in Half…at Christmas time!’ and it’s a Christmas song! ‘Hammer Smashed Face…at Noel’ or something like that. But if you conceive of it as a Christmas song from the beginning, you can feel that.”
With the choir and the other components, you must have been thinking of the likes of Slade and Wizzard and their ilk?
“Definitely. We wanted it to sound like a classic Christmas song. It was funny, when we told the label what we wanted to do, they provided a list of producers, mixers and engineers, and we could pick anybody. We wanted Bob Ezrin because he knows how to record children, he’d done it before as the producer of School’s Out and The Wall, and he’s really good at getting the exact kind of tone and performance we were after. We really just picked the dream team for making that sound”
Bell Ends & Ring Pieces
The lyrics, as per usual, are full of sexual innuendo. Did you think to yourself, “Jesus, if I can get bell ends and ring pieces on to the Christmas Top Of The Pops, that would be a real and lasting artistic achievement”?
“To be honest, in those days I was putting so little thought in to what I could get away with, I was just pushing it as hard as I could, really. We had so much power because we’d had success – we’d already had a top twenty song where I was talking about a sexually transmitted disease in every word (‘Growing On Me’, the clue is in the title), it’s actually a favourite song amongst our hardcore fans. So we were getting away with a lot of stuff, ‘Get Your Hands Off Of My Woman’ had a lot of “motherfuckers” and a couple of “cunts” in it, and it was accidently played on Radio One or Two before being hastily swiped off the air, but there was no real repercussions from any of that stuff – we got away with murder. Nowadays people do try to rein me in a little bit, but it never used to happen back then. It was a glorious free-for-all!”
Back in those halcyon days when chart placements actually meant something tangible, ‘Bells End’ narrowly missed out on the Christmas Number one spot to the decidedly un-yuley, and quite dour, version of Tears For Fears’ ‘Mad World’ taken from the Donnie Darko soundtrack. How disappointing was it not to get number one, or was it something that bothered you at all?
“I thought it would probably go top ten or something like that but I didn’t expect anything else. We weren’t aiming for number one; we just wanted to do a Christmas song. We finished a tour at the end of that year, I was misbehaving terribly and I ran off with someone to France. I thought “I’ve been working hard all year, I’ll just stay here” so I was in the hotel in Paris just chilling and then I got a phone call – well it was several phone calls. “Where the fuck are you?!? The midweeks are showing us at number one, but the other one is gaining on us so if you come back over and do some press, there’s a possibility you might have a Christmas number one!” I had to go home, face the music, and do the promotion, reluctantly! It was only then I realised it was going to be massive, before that I thought it was just going to be a bit of a laugh.”
The track that beat you is hardly the greatest record of all time?
“I love the song, although I don’t think it’s very Christmassy. I always felt like The Darkness had a legion of haters, some of them in quite powerful positions, and it felt like a conspiracy to me. Now I was at my most drunk and addled, and I always used to think, “Well, the world’s against us, so fuck them!” I felt whoever playlisted that song, the anti-Christmas song, had it in for The Darkness. I took it really personally. I wasn’t disappointed at not making number one so much as I was disappointed that there seemed to be a movement against us. As if we hadn’t suffered enough, we had to work really fucking hard to get past all that shit before we had any sort of success.”
Are you serious? Did you really think that was going on?
“Well… that was how I felt at the time. People have said that to me, and it sort of rings a bit true. Someone tries to do something Christmassy and nice and there’s always something anti-Christmassy and anti-nice. It’s just the reality of trying to do something positive. There’s never a path of least resistance, and if there is, it’s always too watery for us, and we don’t like treading it!”
Even in the early days, as the band started to break through, a lot of people just refused to take you seriously.
“It didn’t help that we didn’t seem to be taking it seriously either. From the prospective of an outsider it might look like we were just a joke band, but we took every note really seriously, and that reaction hurt us, so when we became successful, it was like “Fuck You!” It’s very difficult to be gracious in that moment because we had been up against so much resistance. We ere trying to do uplifting rock music, to make people happy, and we were getting crucified for it – for want of a less seasonal expression!”
There’s a story about the band at the height of their success, turning down a big awards show to honour a booking that had been made previously, when the profile was not quite as high. A highly commendable, band-of-the-people way to do things.
“Whatever is in the book first stays in the book, that’s how it always works. We had a good year in 2003 so round about Christmas we started booking the festivals for the next year. My favourite festival has always been Reading, it always has a great rock bill and it’s the one I went to as a punter in the early nineties, so I was really chuffed that we had the opportunity to headline it. We took that, and it was really good money as well, a vast sum. We asked Glastonbury, as we’d had a really good show there, if they were interested and they said, “Nooo, The Darkeness won’t be around next year!” OK, we’ll do Reading then, that’s fine. Of course, we were still around, we had singles, there was still excitement, and we had an arena tour booked at the end of 2004 which sold out very quickly. So at the last minute Glastonbury came in and offered us the headline slot. Our response was “we’ve already booked Reading ‘cause they believed in us, so if you want us to walk away from that, you’re going to have to beat it by quite a lot of money”. Michael Eavis went to the press and said we were “mercenary”. I felt this was unfair, so I went to the press and called him a really bad word, which I think has really affected our ability to get that kind of slot now."
"I shouldn’t have jumped on Jools Holland’s piano, I shouldn’t have said that about Michael Eavis, I did a lot of things and I burnt a lot of bridges and I didn’t give a fuck. Now I kind of think that we might have maintained a slightly higher standing if I had toed the line a little bit more, but then it wouldn’t have been as much fun.”
There was a publicised run in with The Strokes too - a tiff over "disparaging remarks", apparently. They were seen as proper rock band but for whatever reason you weren’t.
“You’ve got to remember this was coming out of the nineties, and in that decade when Nirvana broke, it somehow made people feel ashamed to be able to play their instruments to any sort of technical standard. What became cool was a more primal expression and if you had any sort of finesse or vibrato in your playing you were obviously just a nerd or a metal head – you weren’t cool and you weren’t real. Naturally, this really annoyed me because I’d spent too much time trying to learn how to play the guitar. There was no place for bands like us in the nineties; we didn’t have a fucking chance because of that attitude. But then it comes to the noughties and suddenly people are ready for it. If we had started about five years earlier, I think we would have broken through in 1989. Although I was only fourteen, was I a good-looking kid? I was not a good looking kid!”
Yes, but look at the swan you blossomed into. “Indeed, yes! I was the ugly duckling and people would have been able to see that transition in all its glory!” Like a metal Michael Jackson? “Exactly. That’s what our parents thought we were going to be, Dan and I, with our sister on the keyboards. But then Hanson came along and fucked it all up!”
One of the highlights of the summer gig season gone by was the trip to Marlay Park to see what remains of Queen, supported by the Darkness, although some people might have been surprised to see Hawkin’s mob opening before The Boomtown Rats.
“I didn’t mind about that at all, I thought it was because Geldof’s a local and he’s a legend. He’s had an extreme life and I was really happy to get a chance to watch him from the side of the stage without having to do my warm up exercises. For me it was a really good day out. Our Dad came along, he brought us up listening to Queen, we watched Live Aid together, and then to be in that situation where he’s hanging out with Brian May and Roger Taylor was just really cool. It was one of my favourite weekends of the year.”
Rufus Tiger Taylor – yes, that is his real name - current Darkness drummer and Son of Roger, coming back on stage to help Queen with ‘Under Pressure’ was pretty spectacular.
“Doing that additional percussion was Rufus’ gig before he came to play with us. He’s had to turn away all the money to come along with us and be real!”
Let’s drag ourselves back to “Bells End” again. According to Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge, you re-recorded the song in 2013. What was going on there?
“We changed labels, so after ten years we were allowed to make a new version and try to exploit it. But it turned out to be a complete and utter waste of time, the original was just a great recording in a great environment.”
The cover art was provided by none other than local hero Jim Fitzpatrick, quite rightly famed and fêted for his work with the mighty Thin Lizzy.
“That’s definitely through the Thin Lizzy connection. Years ago, we played with Metallica at the RDS, that’s where we met Jim, and Phil Lynott’s daughters, and we’ve been friends ever since. We always wanted to do some work with him because he’s amazing.”
Your brother Dan regularly sports a Thin Lizzy t-shirt. I presume those guys were a big deal to you growing up.
“Yeah, it was them, Queen, Fleetwood Mac, a bit of Tina Turner, and a bit of ABBA. And a lot of reggae, which you probably can’t hear, but our Mum was a real reggae enthusiast with a proper coloured vinyl collection from back in the day.”
What about the version of Fleetwood Mac going out now with Neil Finn and Mike Campbell from the Heartbreakers filling in for Lindsey Buckingham?
“Mike Campbell is awesome, but what I love about those records is the Buckingham/Nicks chemistry, but I’d be delighted from the point of a performance to see the Heartbreakers guy doing it. I really loved Tom Petty.”
We’re drifting off course again. The Live At Hammersmith album came out this year, with ‘Christmas Time’ on it. Do you play it regularly, throughout the year?
“No, actually. That show was recorded in December. We start playing it around the middle of November, and we’re pretty strict about that. Sometimes, when we play at festivals, you get people who only know the two songs and they start shouting for… “Christmas Song”, which is a bit rude!”
How does the song go down when you do actually play it?
“It’s popular but people don’t go mad, it’s a bit of a waltz. People sing it, but we always put it at the end of the set as a kind of a “Goodbye and happy Christmas”.
Before I let you go, give me your five great Christmas songs, presuming that ‘Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bell’s End)’ is the number one greatest seasonal piece of wax of all time.
“Yes, that would be number one, so let’s do the top six! I did another Christmas record, by the way. Years and years ago there was this thing called Billy The Big Mouth Bass, or whatever it was called, a stupid singing fish toy. And there was this comedian who did an anti-Billy song and I did it with him, it was back when I was doing jingles. So there’s a dodgy CD in the world somewhere with me doing that on it, I think the first line was “Children roasting on an open fire”, which is lovely.”
But that wouldn’t be in your top five?
“Yes, let’s put that at number two cause I’m on it, so we will now have a top seven. You’ve got to have ‘Fairytale Of New York’ – if I said anything else I’d be lying. Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’…”
There’s definitely a bit of Wham in ‘Bell’s End’, a similarly tragic lyrical conceit. A deliberate lift, surely?
“Oh yes, I wanted the melancholy. I wanted the man comforted by Christmas jumper as he opened up about his dodgy year!”
So what else?
“Mistletoe and Wine”
Oh for fuck’s sake!
“Ha, ha! OK, I’ll try again!”
If you’re not going to take this seriously, then…
“Well, I’m not talking about the record itself. That’s a nice song to sing, my brother and I harmonize beautifully on that. As a song, it’s super simple and anyone can sing it. Mistletoe and wine are a great combination – there’s a kissing opportunity with alcohol added in, it just sounds like a lot of my life.”
I didn’t think about it that way…
“Children singing Christian rhyme.. oh wait, no! I’ll put it in there because the couplets remind me of living in Lowestoft and going out to the brewery on Christmas Eve. Stick the Slade one in too. I actually used to date Noddy’s daughter. Imagine that! It would have been the wedding of the year! What’s the one ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’?”
“Yes! The Boss! That’s a great one. I’ve just learned that to play with the Spike Edney Band.” (Edney was Queen’s backup keyboard player from about the mid eighties onward). “He came up to me at the Queen show in Dublin and said “’Ere, do you do anything on your own?” That depends entirely how I feel, I replied, rubbing my fingers together in the cash motion. So I’m doing some Christmas shows with them, standing in the background, playing acoustic guitar, and I had to learn that one. It’s a really, really great song.”
Nut Cutlets & Special Brew
That’s the sound track sorted, what is Christmas like then, around at the Hawkins’ house?
“I’m not a religious person or anything but I always look forward to it as it’s the one day where it’s just all about chilling. My brother was looking though the loft and found the box with my grandmother’s plastic, Argos-bought, Christmas tree with the LED lights built in that she used to put on all year round. She passed away in 2006 so I’m going to take that home to Switzerland and have that as my centrepiece.”
Sounds delightful, what do you mean she had it on all year round?
“She just loved the look of it so she never took it down! Her thing was an LED Christmas tree and then some shells with Dolphins carved in them. That’s all she wanted from life. Oh, and Special Brew!”
The more Special Brew she had, the better the tree looked?
“Yes, sat there bewildered as the light danced around her, can in hand. Everyday was Christmas! Actually, in Switzerland, they don’t do it the same as us. On the 24th they have a big fondue, which is not my thing. I’ll be doing it old school which means over gloves and apron, and full nut cutlet!”
You’re a vegan of course, that admirable physique is hardly the result of a diet of corned beef and suet.
“I am, yeah, for about five or six years now, but I’ve been having the occasional meat craving, although I’ve managed to resist, four time out of ten.”
Was it a health thing or a conscientious decision?
“It started off as a health thing and I felt better immediately, and it sort of bled into a conscientious decision. You don’t have any cholesterol in the diet at all and you’ve got to, at our age, be worried about what goes in your veins. I find it very difficult to train effectively when I’m not super full of vegetables, and I like being fit.”
It’s worth considering, I suppose, next year, perhaps. Is Switzerland as expensive as we’re led to believe?
“It’s probably more expensive than anywhere apart from maybe Oslo or Moscow. If you go to Starbucks, and have an extra shot in your fancy coffee, like I do, you’re looking at fifteen to twenty euros for two of them. The only thing that’s sort of cheap is cigarettes, but I gave them up!”
Venereal Disease & Fellatio
Once Christmas is over and done with, and the plastic tree returns to the loft, what’s next for The Darkness?
“We’re in the studio making the sixth album. We’re doing a week on – writing and recording, and then a week off, doing absolutely nothing, until June when we deliver the album, which should come out in October, then a big tour at the end of the year and everybody’s happy! We’re gonna make sure with this album that every song on it can be selected by independent experts to work as a single. We’re not going to stop until we completely believe in everything we’ve done. We’ve got four in the bag at this point. We’re recording straight to tape instead of what we usually do which is make demos, which we love because there’s something about “hearing our fingers discover the songs for the first time” But then you go in an expensive studio and you can’t recreate it. So this time we’re going straight in the studio and the first time we record the stuff, it’s on the album. ”
Are you implying then, when you say you want every song to be worthy of being a single, that there were other albums by you where this was not the case?
“There was some songs on recent albums where we thought, “this should be a bonus track, or this is an album track” and then the label turns round and says “that should be a single” and we reply, “No, it shouldn’t!” (It’s going a bit Christmas panto here) “It sounds like Weezer!” We never quite see eye to eye but because we’re in these joint ventures and partnerships now, we have to sort of believe in each other and trust their judgement a little bit. It’s their job to promote it and it’s our job to create it so you realise if decisions go against you, it’s because you haven’t done your job properly. You’ve got to give them stuff and say you can do what you want with it. If you believe in every note then you should be alright.”
Is making an album at all in this day and age a fool’s errand, no matter who you are?
“I know what you mean, I have a really detailed break down of my income and I’m starting to see a lot more stuff generated by streaming, I think people have become more proficient at collecting it, so it matters a little bit less that nobody buys anything anymore. I think it’s really important to create stuff; we’re an albums band. If you’re an algorithm band, you might make an album but you’ll also have a constant stream of “content” that can go into people’s playlists. I think that’s a bit of a cynical way to approach the new market. We like the old school album cycle and we just about survive doing that because we have a fan base that invests in everything we do. What we’re hoping for is to have a hit and then there’ll be a broader group of people who get into it. We haven’t had any luck with getting things on the radio for the last three albums, but we’re still going, they can’t kill us!”
Is it, like it is for so may other bands, playing live which keeps the wolf from the door?
“Absolutely. We do a lot of touring, a lot of festivals, and we keep the set fresh by making new music. But it would be great to have an album that connects, and we’re young enough and stupid enough to believe that it’s still possible. Our set didn’t change for a long time but now we’re writing stuff that can stand up to the old gear.”
Talk of algorithm bands brings the spectre of Greta Van Fleet to mind. (“I knew you were going to say that! We’re on the same page.”) There’s a recent article about them, which claims their whole existence is based around sounding like classic bands in order to fool those algorithms, thereby earning recommendations to rock n’ roll fans though the online platforms.
“That does sound a bit like a conspiracy theory, but you wouldn’t put it past them! They’re a good looking band, there are handsome brothers in it, just like The Darkness!”
But they don’t have your songs.
“That’s the big problem, if they worked with someone who could write songs, they probably take over ‘cause they can play a bit. I suppose what annoys me is when you see the singer – his modulation, the way he stands, the way he points upwards – it’s really Robert Plant. And the guitarist is doing the Jimmy Page leaning back rocking movement…”
Hold on a second, you’re not above a bit of that yourself!
“No! But they’re pretty shameless. You have to blend your influences. I completely concede that I’ve copied Freddie, but I’ve also copied Angus, so at least I’ve got two influences! There are only a few things stopping Greta Van Fleet from being really good. The rhythm section needs to be putting more pushes in. Everything starts on the one and that’s just pub rock, you have to syncopate it a little bit. John Bonham wouldn’t be satisfied playing those songs because there’s no space in it, and if they had that, they’d be Led Zeppelin”
I’m still far from convinced.
“I mean that stuff is the foundation of Led Zeppelin. And if you haven’t got any of that, you’re just not very good!”
It’s the kind of thing they used to say about Oasis – although The ‘Sis are vastly superior to The ‘Fleet. The Beatles were influenced by everything – from music hall to Edward Lear. Oasis were just influenced by The Beatles.
“ I see what you mean, although I do think Oasis did bring their own thing to it. Great Van Fleet are very young. I can sort of imagine them being great one day, but it’s not happening yet. They sound like we sounded when we started rehearsing, but we had fifteen years to gestate, because of the climate.”
From gestation to a glorious flowering! And now, just keep going?
“Hopefully, something good will happen, and failing that, yes, just keep going!”
Even if this album comes out and fails to break through beyond that faithful, you’ll still be able to carry on, as a unit?
“Definitely, I don’t think we’ve got anything to lose at this point. We always think we’re doing outrageous stuff, but really it’s not. We might do a really experimental album, our fan base would still want it, they would still make it number one in the ‘rock’ charts, there’s always that audience for us, but what we want to do is have a mainstream hit, and we know now that you do that not be making mainstream music but by doing something that challenges people and captures a moment. Permission To Land isn’t a mainstream rock album, it’s full of swearing, and it’s recorded cheaply. It’s a rock n’ roll record!”
I’ve asked you about this before. Take ‘Solid Gold’, the lead single from your last studio album, the thoroughly excellent Pinewood Smile, as an example. It’s a fantastic song, but if you start swearing in the first line, you know that radio is not going to play it.
“Yeah, I suppose so. Dan (Hawkins, Justin’s brother who plays the other guitar in The ‘Ness) was despairing because he thought this was going to be a real good pop/rock boogie number and then he heard the lyric and he went “Oh, fuck!”
Exactly, you’re after a mainstream hit so perhaps you should avoid subjects like venereal disease and fellatio?
“To be honest, I have tried to second guess it, and I have tried to make something that works in that way, but I’ve realised by now that I’m wrong about everything. I don’t know what a good single is. Other people know that stuff so I’ve given up on it, I just want to be happy with the stuff we do and that should be good enough for me.”
That should be good enough for anyone really. I offer Hawkins the best of the season and he replies in kind, like the gentleman he is, before going about his business. For those continuing to rock, we salute you.