- 27 Dec 19
Hello Darkness, My Old Friend: When pomp-rock supremos The Darkness invited Pat Carty to join their Irish tour - and celebrate their epoch-defining opus Easter Is Cancelled - it was an offer he couldn't refuse. Amidst the pinting, crowd-surfing, backstage badinage, and tourbus horse play, he gains insight into a band with an unconquerable belief in the rock n' roll dream. Photos: Jenny May Finn (the good ones) & Pat Carty (the others).
For many people – people of refinement, taste and breeding – rock n’ roll will always sound better with a feather boa around its neck and a leer on its face. If you’re inclined to run away with the circus, it may as well be a multi-coloured one, with all the lights on. Bearing this maxim in mind, it took me half a breath to accept the management’s invitation to join The Darkness Irish tour. I had visions of bacchanalian boogying that, as a once great man once nearly sang, would have Caligula blushing. I’m contractually obliged to say that out of that tantalising triumvirate of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, the important one is the music, and this year's Easter Is Cancelled is their best record since 2003’s debut Permission To Land won them a place in the hearts of true believers who appreciate a well struck Les Paul and a finely turned double entendre in the first place.
Billed as “An Evening With The Darkness”, the band had made the brave/foolhardy decision to play the new album in its entirety and then return with a selection of the fan favourites to close. When I arrived into Cork’s Cyprus Avenue the band were hard at work sound checking. There was a slight tension in the air as they practised switching from acoustic to electric instruments as the first song ‘Rock N’ Roll Deserves To Die’ requires but this dissipated quickly as the irrepressible Justin Hawkins bounded over to greet me. We’ve known each other a few years, he’s a gentleman who is never less than sparkling company. Pleasantries dispensed with, I stuck my professional oar in, asking why they were making things difficult for themselves. “There's lots of calamity potential but if it's too comfortable, it's not satisfying,” he says and continues, with one eye on the quote-o-meter, “It’s growth that we're all excited about! Prog can be challenging.” It can be a challenging listen too, I mutter, an utterance rewarded with a grin and raised eyebrow. They rattle through a Walls-of-Jericho shakingly loud ‘Growing On Me’, Hawkins saving his real screams for showtime, although he can’t help throwing a few shapes, and then switch instruments for the frankly ridiculous ‘Deck Chair’. “You hate that song” Hawkins will late declaim, pointing at me. “I’m not crazy about it, admittedly, but you can’t expect me to like it all?” “I expect you to love it!” The Mark Knopfler style guitar solo is a bit tasty though. “So you do love it!” We discuss Hawkins' entrance (Matron!) which he feels should involve hydraulics or, failing that, at least a zip line, but neither will be available or necessary.
Upstairs in the dressing room, I’m introduced to Justin’s brother Dan, bassist Frankie Poullain, and the newest member of the band, Rufus Tiger Taylor, a man so handsome, he is impossible not to hate, that is until he immediately suggests we seek refreshment. Upon my return, Hawkins corrals me into helping with a list of Christmas songs for a British magazine and considers an offer to appear on Eight Out Of Ten Cats which I think would be gas but he’s unsure. He doesn’t venture out before the show – “I don’t want a cold, I want to do a good show, I don’t want that reputation” – so we sit and get a few things straight. Rock n’ roll surely does not deserve to die, or does it?
“We saw a video, I don't even remember what the band was, and we thought "oh look, this band's gonna be exciting!" but when you looked at it, they were really struggling.”
All smoke bombs and young ones on car bonnets?
“And long hair”
What’s wrong with long hair?
“Nothing’s wrong with long hair! That was where they got it right! But there was nothing new, nothing challenging, nothing that made you go ‘I wish we thought of that’”
But people might point at you guys…
“But they’d be wrong, Pat, and you know that! You have to have more than one influence. For example, Frankie listens to Serge, that comes through. I am referring to Serge from Kasabian, of course!”
No, you’re not. They’re really edgy!
“Yes, that is the definition of edge!” Serge will pop up again in our story, but for now Hawkins continues. “The point is we’ve got a lot of influences and if you look for them, you’ll see them.” So it’s not just Queen and AC/DC? “Sometimes, it’s AC/DC and Queen.”
As well as playing the new record, the band bring out the immortal classics like ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’. A millstone about the neck, I wonder? I am quickly shot down.
“That’s never happened to me, It's the best song we've got, it's the best song anyone's got, tell me a better song than that?”
I suggest ‘Solid Gold’ has more fellatio and people shitting themselves – “we wanted to call that album Royal Flush, with a turd made out of gold playing cards on the cover”, the record company, perhaps wisely, demurred - but ‘Thing Called Love’ will be the one they play on the radio in the morning if the bus crashes tonight and kills us all.
“The band and Carty die!” Hawkins guffaws. “We’ll all get Grammys, what will you get?”
A small footnote somewhere, I hope. “A blue plaque, surely?” Hawkins kindly responds. Dan leans in to add, “I hope they play ‘American Pie’” But then your relatives won’t get any money? “It doesn’t matter,” Justin flatly states, “we’re dead.”
This is the band’s first set of shows since performing on The Kiss Kruise, which is exactly what it sounds like, a trip around the Caribbean with Simmons and company. There was probably a nice cheque involved, but is this dodgy territory?
“Why?” cries Justin. “Because you’re walking amongst the great unwashed?”
I mean it’s end of the pier fare.
“Falling into the sea? You’re worried about dying. Why are you so obsessed with dying?!?”
It Was Pretty Spinal Tap
If there are jitters, they aren’t evident come showtime. The new songs go down like a winning lotto ticket, especially the tough as arithmetic one-two of ‘Easter Is Cancelled’ and ‘Heavy Metal Lover’ although, perhaps as expected , the Cork crowd react more to the older material, in particular the muscular ‘Get Your Hands Off My Woman’ and their ode to venereal infection, ‘Growing On Me’. I’m having a particularly good time, thanks to the free beer, but so is everyone else, and when the band finish with a bottom punishing ‘Love On The Rocks’, it’s grins and hoots all round. Back in the dressing room, the mood is jubilant enough, despite some minor grumblings about this and that. They’ll change the second set tomorrow but for now, thanks to Frankie’s charming brother Tim, a Cork resident, we head down the street for some liquid fuelled analysis, slipping in to the Crane Lane Theatre and then upstairs in Canty’s. There’s a single barman, working hard putting cocktails together, but libations are finally secured and we take a table in the corner. Almost immediately, fans approach Justin and he invites them to join us, which leads to a bit of a mini stampede. As soon as one bemusing admirer offers an alternate pronunciation of Old Spice (don’t ask), Dan gives me the eye and he, Rufus and I head back down the stairs, leaving Justin to his fate (“You fucking legged it!” he roars at me later). The sport is good, although they’re never left alone for long, requests for selfies mount, so it is left to Tim and myself to take up the drinking slack. Once we’re chucked out, we make our way back to the bus although Dan insists on a slice of pizza, forgoing his half-veganism, but then drink will do that to you.
The “relaxed” talk on the bus turns to the pros and cons of plastic surgery – “you’d fix a tooth!” – before Dan offers a foul tasting potion supposed to help one sleep. I question its validity but am soon snug in my bunk, which, at floor level, reminds one of the sweat box they used to put misbehaving prisoners in, in old war movies.
I woke late after our overnight drive to Belfast, which, if you get the chance, is a great way to cover that distance, to an empty bus. People were either off working, working out (Dan and Justin), or “exploring” (Rufus). I sat down for a bit of actual toil, posting a favourable review of the show. When I’d finished, Rufus had returned – “it was a massage, Pat!” – and told me about landing the gig.
“It was pretty Spinal Tap. I was in Sydney with my girlfriend at the time and I got a phone call “Hi, this is Dan from The Darkness, we’ve got a vacancy at the back of the band’ and I said ‘Ooh, I love it around the back, Dan!’ to which he replied ‘OK, we’re gonna get on!’”
Taylor took the overnight flight, learning the songs that Hawkins sent him on his knees “which pissed a lot of people off!” and went straight to the rehearsals to meet the band for the first time. “Justin said to me was ‘is it weird that your Dad’s on my hand?’” Hawkins has the four members of Queen tattooed on his knuckles and Taylor, if you haven’t made the connection yet, is the son of drummer Roger. You know, the good looking one. “Yeah, it’s weird,” Rufus told Hawkins, “but I’ll get over it.”
The band did a press gig that day, with Taylor round the back, and that was that. He’s very shortly going to be their longest serving drummer. He spent the previous five years with Queen, playing percussion and under study, lest his father fall ill, as well as appearing with Jeff Beck. It never worried him joining a band that obviously owe a debt to his father’s group though, “I never had that feeling going in, yes they’re heavily influenced but Queen were influenced by all their guys too, Little Richard is my Dad’s fucking hero!”
Taylor, a fan of the band since hearing them at fourteen “’Growing On Me’ blew my mind, there was nothing else like that, it was just fucking Nickelback!”, agrees with my assertion that this is a band who belong in arenas if not stadiums, although it’s a joy to see them in smaller venues, and he’s determined to get them back there.
“What annoys me is we did shows like the Download festival in my first year, a secret show, packed that tent out and it was double packed outside.The entrance was one of the coolest things I've ever seen, We had ten vikings, extras from the TV show, who walked us from the dressing room. Every other band was there, Slash, all of them, and Justin went with these Vikings right to the back of the crowd. They hoisted him up on a shield, in this turquoise suit, of course, and then carried him right through the middle and he was giving it all this” – Taylor makes a face like a nobleman at a particularly fine feast – “We started 'Barbarian' and the place fucking erupted! A great show, we absolutely smashed it but we never had a fucking offer back, and we did that for fucking free! I don't get it. Coldplay do Glastonbury and they bring on Michael Eavis every time, and it is sickening.”
I remind him that Justin once called Eavis a very rude word in the press. “Oh yeah. No. We're banned from Glastonbury!”
Another sound check, in Belfast’s famed Limelight, this time with a rough run at Zeppelin’s ‘When The Levee Breaks’ because it’s a more relaxed affair than yesterday’s. What’s evident is that the engine room – as it is with any great band – is being driven by the interplay between Dan and Rufus. Dan has the right hand of God, pushing things along like Keith Richards and Malcolm Young before him. When he tells me that he “just likes hitting the same thing again and again” he’s selling himself short, but he acknowledges his debt to the DC. “I listened to them a lot, with the speakers switched entirely to the left, just to study Malcolm’s playing. I could play along exactly like him because it’s all open chords, simple but brilliant. Technically, I’m appalling, but I’ve got really good rhythm.” Frankie had introduced us to the joys of his bass synthesiser at last night’s show, and it rears its ugly head again today. “That’s a horror show,” says Dan, shaking his head slowly, “but it’s a horror show played by a man in a dressing gown! Frankie’s a great bloke, it wouldn’t be the same without him, and it wasn’t for a while.”
Once the work is done, Rufus gives me the international sign for pints, and he, Frankie and I head off, loudly declaring to anyone who’s listening that we’re “going for something to eat”. Over a quick one or two, they regale me with stories of Johnny Depp, Jeff Beck outrunning the police in his hot rod, and a gig near the old Spandau prison in Berlin where Justin loudly asked “does anyone speak German here?” I, reluctantly, returned to the venue to have another word with the singer, a man who could talk for England.
We cover a lot of ground: his phrase “Rise Of The Arse Clowns” which sums up the world today, “I see this as a period where the arse clowns are having their way, but I look forward to the eventual arse clown downfall!”, and his trepidation at providing a V.I.P. experience for the more well-heeled fan, which will commence with the Dublin show.
“It's mystique chiseling, music used to be an aspirational vocation. You want to be the rock star, you want to drive the big car, live in the big house and the big high fence that nobody can see over. You don't see the real legends farting in the bathtub or posting selfies, you don't get to watch them prepare for their show in their civilian clothes. I've never wanted access to the artists I've admired. I don't want to see Abba having a bickering match or see Steven Tyler choosing his Hawaiian shirt. I don't want to meet them. I want to appreciate the art. I really think it devalues what we're doing, from art to either a service, or even worse, content.” This last word drips with disgust before he continues. “That’s why being a rock star is just something that people don't aspire to anymore. There's no money in it. Unless you're in Coldplay. And if you're in Coldplay, that's not living You don't even want to go on the road in case you knock over a tree or crash into squirrels.”
Hawkins’ well-publicised problems with the rockin’ perils brought the band to a halt around 2006. He got help and pulled himself back from the brink. “There was a rock bottom but I just can’t tell you about that, it makes me hate myself and whenever I think about it I want to cry.” He threw himself into fitness, a habit he maintains to this day. “I was basically a muscle with some sounds coming out of the hole in the middle of it.” There’s an album cover of nightmares. He’s in a better place now with a better band “It’s the magic The Darkness has, there’s a certain chemistry between Frankie and the brothers and the times when it is glorious have always been Frankie times” and the addition of Rufus “has only enhanced that, it feels like something totally new”, although he still has plans.
“I intend to get fucked up if I get to 60.” This, he insists, possibly incorrectly, is still 32 years away, but the intention is to go bananas, is he going to give me a shout? “Yeah, man! I need someone to write about it!” So I have to work as well? “This isn’t work, Pat. We both know that.” To be serious, although I certainly will await that call, it is music that matters. “When I was at school I wanted to be a pilot, I wanted to do something that was really thrilling, something where you feel totally alive. Live music and touring gives you that. If you’re a footballer, it's all about focus, there's a ball there and absolutely nothing else matters. Sports and music and flying are the three things that every kid should be looking for because that's living.” Is he talking about freedom? “Yes, freedom is when nothing matters apart from the thing that you're doing, there’s freedom in that.” All the clowning has gone out the window; this is how the man really feels. “That's what I look for. Anything that interferes with the one moment of my life where I'm totally focused has got to go. It is the first and most important thing.”
Belfast’s show is even better than the night before. The band seem more assured, the new album rocks and there is a sense of fun to the second set, nowhere more so than when guitar tech/multi-instrumentalist Ian ‘Soft Lad’ Norfolk has his beard ceremoniously shaved into a moustache, an event that Justin, after crowd prompting, decides should be for charity. He ill advisedly calls for donations and a barrage of coins rain down on the stage, money which will later be ceremoniously donated to a near-by barman. Hawkins does headstands, flicks plectrums left right and centre, and plays his guitar in every conceivable pose. The band brings out ‘Solid Gold’, much to my delight (“it’s Pat’s fault!”) and even introduce this writer from the stage. Tumbleweeds blow by and a city, as one, goes “Who?” Before they finish, Hawkins encourages two audience members to fight to the death to decide if there will be another song. They are a phenomenal live act and they kick every arse for a mile around.
Being introduced by Justin brings its own problems. I’m cornered by fans of the band, one in particular who insists I deliver a book to Frankie to sign, which I politely refuse. He’s a good chap though, and buys a drink, unprompted, before I head back to the dressing room. The mood is ebullient, pints of Guinness arrive, and once the crowd has cleared a bit, Justin, Dan and I move to the main bar, taking another corner table with The Rews, a fine band providing excellent support on the tour. There are still a few people knocking about, including my friend with the book, and several drinks are sent over. Justin is, of course, on the alcohol free stuff, but he seems to take joy in the fact that Dan and I, not wanting to appear rude or ungrateful, are trying to drink everything that’s put in front of us.
Because of this amiableness, possibly my only fault, I awake in the bunk the next morning worse for wear, and stark naked. Not normally a problem, except I’ve no idea where my clothes are. Not hearing any sound, I roll out on to the aisle from that bottom bunk, my only means of egress. Carved as my arse is, by artisans, out of the finest Irish granite, the world does not need to see it. I move swiftly towards the front lounge but I hear voices, so that won’t do. Thankfully the back lounge is empty, and my clothes are in a ball on the floor. Once decent, I leave the bus and run into Rufus, having a pick me up. Justin comes around the corner, fresh from a morning run, surveying these two wrecks with a pitiful eye.
We’re parked out at the Dublin docks. Over a cup of coffee, Rufus laughs at the memory of a contretemps I apparently had in the street the night before. I have no memory of this, but Rufus is amused “Two Irish fellas shouting fuck you at each other for five minutes!” In the taxi to The Academy, I bring up the VIP experience, mentioning Justin’s concerns. Rufus admits it was his idea, all these other bands are doing it, and it greatly adds to the band’s take home pay. This seems fair enough and if fans want it, then who’s to argue? There’s a great story about why he loves Frankie so much. The band was doing a show in Sweden and a football was lobbed up on the stage. Justin, being Justin, did a few tricks before kicking it back into the crowd. The balls makes its way back, landing in front of Frankie, whose steel-toed cowboy boots dispatches it, with great force, into the face of a woman in the front row, leaving the band both mortified and in tears laughing. There’s another yarn involving a run in with Serge Kasabian in Japan, but it’s quite possibly libellous so let’s just say there’s no love lost between them.
The first order of business is a radio interview that Justin insists I sit in on, much to the bafflement of the genial interviewer, but she’s a good sport. There’s nothing wrong with the questions, but we’re like a couple of schoolboys, and I am naturally in tatters, although Justin will later declare it good work. Once the sound check is half completed, The VIP punters are brought in. “I want things to be perfect as a cut diamond, not a piece of old coal. I live for my fans, write that down!” Justin bellows beforehand and, if the band feels uncomfortable in anyway, it doesn’t show. They give out a song and then pick some names out of the hat to play with them. Two likely lads – Dazzler and Foxy, apparently – add guitar and vocal to ‘Get Your Hands Off My Woman’. Disappointingly, for the sake of this story, they’re great, and Justin is grinning throughout, wondering if he might get a night off. The question and answer session is a bit stilted; perhaps the fans are slightly nervous, but we do get a shocking story about some unnamed “rock legend”, who apparently tore up a photo offered to him for signing by a terminally ill child. I say unnamed, but I’m not naming him here, although he possibly employs his own hairdresser. Rufus throws another dig at Serge and Joe Eliot’s good egg status is confirmed. Ally, Justin’s hard working and long suffering assistant - a woman who could not have been nicer to me if she tried - hands me the microphone to help out. Because of where we are, I ask Dan about Thin Lizzy as he regularly sports their familiar logo on his t-shirts. “We were really into ABBA as kids, and whenever there's a guitar solo on an ABBA song they're always harmonised, with a similar kind of tone, so when I heard Lizzy for the first time I thought “great, all the best bits of ABBA, without the flabba!” I was pissed in Camden and my mate had the shirt on which I thought was cool so we swapped. That was the only good t-shirt I had for the early gigs, so people saw that as my trademark, which meant I didn’t have to worry about it!”
The photos taken care off, Frankie and I go down to the corner for a glass of wine. A thoughtful and considered man, he regrets the split, “Male pride is an awful thing, that caused a lot of the problems, that and bad management” but he’s enjoying it now. “Touring is harder when you’ve done an album where you realise after a month that it’s not as good as you thought it was, but I think this album stands up to the first one.” You hear stories about bands with brothers – everyone knows who I’m talking about – who just can’t get on, how do the Hawkins men do it? “The have great parents so they’ve got very strong ideals and principles. I feel very privileged to be working with these two amazing, talented guys, and if you wished for someone to play drums for us, you couldn’t have imagined anyone more ideal than Rufus.”
Young Rufus, a veritable horse of a man who hits harder than the death of a pet. With his background, the potential to be an arsehole was enormous, but he’s an incredibly nice fellow and a credit, as my Ma used to say, to his parents. Frankie is quick to agree “Of all the people I know, he just has no arsehole in him. He’s able to be very mature and immature and Justin has that too, the ability to access his inner child, which is so important when it comes to being creative, that’s what we all love about him.” Frankie Poullain - does that translate as ‘The Frenchman who loved chickens’? - reserves a special appreciation for Hawkins’ lyrical acumen, “I'm always so surprised that people don’t read Justin's lyrics and appreciate how brilliant he is, he's such a great lyricist and it is very nuanced humour. If he were French they'd love him, Serge Gainsbourg was celebrated for that, the word play”.
Let us examine the evidence by allowing the Book Of Hawkins to fall to the barroom floor, letting fate pick a random song. Yes, this will do nicely. “Lily-livered land lubbers, I put them to the cutlass, the greatest seafarers of lore wish they stayed ashore, and studied the atlas” (‘Buccaneers Of Hispaniola’) Ha! Take that “Dylan”, if that’s your real name! And Dylan, as far as I know, has never willingly managed the splits whilst standing on his head.
The Dublin show is a riot. Hawkins seems to be having the time of his life: “I feel like I’m on fucking fire, if you could hear what I hear, if you could see what I’m seeing, you would understand!” There are handstands, guitar wrangling, a cavort into the crowd on shoulders, he even does a few push-ups, much to his brother’s amusement. Worryingly, he points at me during the fellatio section of ‘Solid Gold’, which engenders some strange eyeballing from the front row. A note here again about their instrumental prowess – the outro to this song has subtle rhythmic guitar interplay which they do not get enough credit for. Justin introduces me as the greatest writer in the world, which even I think is over playing things. The smattering of slow claps that follows is the sound one might hear on mentioning beastiality in a eulogy.
There’s a ferry to be caught, I say my goodbyes and thanks to the brothers with vague promises to meet up in London, get a hug from head honcho Andy Shillito, a lovely man who gave me a well-deserved bollicking on night one for being over-eagerly stupid, and receive a treasured Darkness tea towel and mug set from Jo, who refuses to take any cash, because that’s the kind of decent people I’m dealing with. I say there was a ferry but that didn’t stop Frankie and Rufus for venturing out for one last drink. Poullain gets mobbed in the pub and Rufus politely fights off the affections of a very ardent admirer. When we get a minute to ourselves he discusses his Dad with obvious affection – “why wouldn’t they go out on tour and have a good time? He’s still a bit of an animal and he introduces me as his wild child.” The time has come, they’ve got to go, we embrace and Tim and I return, rather enthusiastically, to the bar. The circus is leaving town, but this clown doesn’t want to go home.