Stage Times: Justin Hawkins

Lead singer of The Darkness and rock’s own Father Christmas remembers his best, worst and weirdest gigs

It’s that time of year again. Out of the light comes The Darkness – reminding everyone that Mariah, Bublé and Slade haven’t got anything on Justin Hawkins when he’s wielding a white Les Paul and a falsetto high enough to crack a glass of eggnog. ‘Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End)’ is also a handy reminder of just how good an album 2003’s Permission To Land really was, now celebrating its 20th anniversary with a 66-track deluxe record. 

The Darkness - Christmas Time (Don't Let the Bells End) (Official Music Video) [HD]

“I’ve no idea what 20 years is supposed to feel like,” laughs Hawkins, slowly rolling a cigarette as he tries to dig back through his memory. “The nearest thing I can imagine is having a child – a child who’s still living in the house and infuriating you. That album is the one constant. The music industry isn’t the same as it used to be. It was an album that came out in a time when people bought albums. It seemed like a body of work that mattered in a different way to anything that you might release today. So it feels a bit like a treasured artefact from olden times now. Like the, the Lost Ark or something.”

Landing right in the middle of a summer filled with Popstars: The Rivals and Dangerously In Love and The Strokes, Permission To Land felt like the slice of pure rock ’n’ roll that nobody realised they needed. “I don’t think any of us were particularly aware of the cultural surroundings at the time,” says Hawkins, leaning back in his chair. “I think the whole point of it was that we were doing our own thing. We didn’t care about reality TV. We didn’t care about The Strokes. We definitely didn’t care about The Strokes. We didn’t really have time for anything else because we were just too busy, you know?”

Now given the breathing space to pause and look back, Hawkins seems to view Permission To Land as a side of himself that he barely recognises anymore. “It’s obviously nothing like anything we’d make today,” he says. “I think every seven or eight years I go through a complete metamorphosis, and it completely changes me. The way I am. The way I look. I end up with more tattoos. And I just forget about everything that happened before. Then suddenly you have to listen to it again and it’s like, ‘who’s that guy?!’. It’s quite fun, looking back…”

Since he’s in the mood for it, we asked Hawkins to keep on looking back and share his favourite memories of the gigs that helped shape The Darkness.

The Darkness- I Believe in a Thing Called Love Live at Reading 2004.mp4

The gig that made you want to play music 

That would have been Thunder, at the UEA, Norwich University. I might have been about 15 or something like, and my god… They were awesome. It was so good. Like, I was already playing guitar and wanting to be in a band anyway, but not many bands that I was interested in came through East Anglia. It’s a bit remote, and you don’t always see those arena level bands, and the stuff that I was into wouldn’t have come anywhere near us. I couldn’t afford to go anywhere else to see gigs so when Thunder came I was like ‘yay, I’m going!’. Luke Morley is a guitar player I’ve always admired and he’s always been a white Les Paul man, which made me a white Les Paul man. That gig definitely influenced me.

I know Brian May was a huge influence too, do you remember when you first saw him play? 

F*ck, good question. I’ve seen him so many times I really don’t know. I remember seeing him on TV first. I mean, the first album that I probably consumed properly would have been Queen’s Live Magic. My auntie bought me that for my birthday one year, probably the year it came out, I suppose. And it was exhilarating. Brian is just brilliant, obviously. It sounds like one guy doing it all. And I love his touch – his vibrato is totally distinctive and unique to him. That was something that I was trying to bring into my own playing at the time.

The first 

That was in August 2000. We were opening for a load of other bands and we must have been on at about seven o’clock, and all of our friends were there. There’s actually a recording of that. I’m surprised it wasn’t part of this new special edition actually. But there was only one song that survived that first gig and ended up staying in the set. And that was ‘I Love You 5 Times’, which was the B-side of the Christmas song, originally. 

I’m short sighted, so I was wearing big, thick glasses. And my brother was like, ‘take your glasses off!’, so I took them off and I couldn’t see a f*cking thing. I remember I was kind of overweight at the time too. I got like three or four songs in and I was like, ‘f*ck this, I’m taking my shirt off!’. So I was just this blind, topless, overweight guy, kicking arse. 

A month later we did another show in the same place and we’d gone up a level. So there was an opener, and then there was us, And then a couple of bands afterwards… So we gradually sort of worked our way up to headlining that one venue. That was what used to be called The Barfly, but was originally The Monarch, in Camden. It was almost like we had a residency there. 

That’s a great venue. It’s The Camden Assembly now. 

I haven’t been there for a while. What’s it like now? 

It’s a lot cleaner than The Monarch used to be. 

Maybe that’s a good thing. It couldn’t really get any dirtier.

The smallest

We have done weddings, and sometimes the function room isn’t that sizable. But probably the smallest gig we’ve played as The Darkness would have been a pub in Valentia Island. That was kind of at the beginning of the process of making a documentary about us, and that was one of the first things they filmed us doing. We were playing these pubs in Ireland, and that was the smallest of them – on a little island in the Atlantic. It’s a really beautiful place and the people are cool, but it’s really, really small.

The thing is though, there isn’t a room that’s big enough for what we do. I mean, even when we were playing arenas we had inflatables that we couldn’t inflate because they were too big for the room. We were built for stadiums from the very start. 

The biggest 

We played to a lot of people over the course of the Robbie Williams weekend. The Lady Gaga tour was massive. We played a lot of big stadiums in South America. But I think the biggest thing we ever did was this thing called The Polish Woodstock. I think it’s in Warsaw, and it’s a free event. They estimated that we probably played to about half a million people there. And it was really cool because it didn’t have that thing that big gigs sometimes have, when you lose the connection to the audience because there’s such a great big gap in front of the stage, all full of cameras. Those gaps are important, because you need medical assistants and stewards, of course, but this one in Poland just didn’t have any of that. It was just a really, really high stage and I was able to jump off and do a dive into the crowd. There was no barrier, nothing. Right underneath for as far as the eye could see – and not just my eyes, I mean a normal pair of eyes. It was incredible. Really, just so much fun.

The Darkness - Get Your Hands Off My Woman (Official Music Video) [HD]

The weirdest 

We did some touring with Johnny Depp’s band, The Hollywood Vampires. It was kind of like arena-sized crowds, but they always did it in interesting places like castles and walled gardens and things like that. In Germany it was sort of like this Aryan trot through historical landmarks, with us playing heavy metal and rock music. It was really cool. It was fun. But the weird thing happened before we turned up. I live quite near that part of Germany anyway, in Switzerland, so I just rocked up and met the bus there. I looked at the buses and I said, ‘I’m not getting on that’. It was a piece of sh*t. It was designed for people who go on Stag Dos in Holland, you know? It had a trailer on the back for all the gear, but normally that would hold the bouncy castle. It was a booze cruiser. Far too small and uncomfortable. So I just went up to Johnny Depp and asked if I could use his private jet instead of going on the tour bus. And he said yes. So I flew to the castle sat next to Alice Cooper. 

What about the rest of the band? 

They went on the bus. 

The worst 

When things go wrong, that’s usually a good thing, so I can’t really answer that. If everything is going right, I have to sabotage it. But then I guess there’re the times when nothing goes right and you injure yourself… That’s happened a few times. I hurt myself in Chicago. And Brisbane. I’ve had some pretty bad injuries, like broken ribs, and that’s happened twice on stage. I broke a foot on the Def Leppard tour. I broke a finger the day before a whole lot of touring, so everything went wrong for weeks because I couldn’t f*cking play my guitar without searing agony. I didn’t even realise it was broken until after the tour either – I went to the doctor and he told me I should have come to him when I broke it. And then, annoyingly, I’ve had a tendon injury from the Dave Lee Roth high-kick mistake. You’ve got to warm up for those things, especially at my age. 

The Darkness - Friday Night (Official Video)

The best

There was one, I think I must have been pretty young, and Ed [Graham] was still playing with us. We played this festival and I woke up with no voice. I was just scrambling around trying to find holistic remedies to get myself singing, and I’ve finally got enough out to be able to do the gig. The gig was great. Like it properly kicked ass, but I had this amazing voice for the whole thing. It was a really gritty, throaty voice – I had vocal fry and distortion on everything I sang. I sounded like Steven Tyler or something. 

At the same gig, we had a video wall behind us that just had our logo on there. We’re an old-school band without all the flashy graphics, and I was explaining that to the crowd right when our lights man was on the ball enough to press a button and flip the logo upside down. By the end of it, we had the whole crowd chanting “logo! Logo! Logo!”. It was awesome. Things like that just make gigs extra special. And I’m always trying to find moments like that, moments that that are unique. You’ve got to keep it interesting every night. We can’t be The Barron Knights and do the same jokes every night. 

The Darkness end their UK tour on December 22 at London’s Roundhouse, before playing the Isle Of Wight festival in June 2024. Find tickets here.

Permission To Land… Again! The 20th Anniversary Reissue is out now.