It’s 9 AM on a bright, frigid October morning in Greenwich, South East London, and a Thames Clipper river bus is floating gently down the water, past St John’s Wharf, carrying a few dozen bemused commuters to Waterloo. At the front of the boat, with the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf glistening in the background, The Darkness, once Britain’s biggest rock band, are playing “One Way Ticket.” Justin Hawkins, the band’s frontman, is dressed in a brown leather catsuit open down to his crotch, miming air bass, snarling a little, walking his fingers along with the beat about two inches to the right of his genitals.
When the song ends, Hawkins looks up at the dozen or so commuters that remain. A few people are taking videos on their phones, but just as many are sitting at the back of the boat, staring out the window, pretending that this isn’t happening. Hawkins looks to the back of the floating venue, towards a barista behind the bar. “Is there any alcohol here?,” he asks. “I’ve been sober for 11 years but…” A few nervous laughs. Right now, he says deadpan, he wouldn’t mind a drink. “At least until the memory of this excruciating experience fades.”
There are two ways of explaining why The Darkness have ended up here, on a commuter boat, early on a Friday morning. The short way of putting it is that the band’s fifth studio album, Pinewood Smile, is out today, and this seemed like a good way of celebrating. The latest single from the album, “Southern Trains,” is a dig at the mundane frustrations of travelling with a British railway company. An alternative mode of transport made sense.
The other way of putting it is that The Darkness—completed by Dan Hawkins on guitar, Frankie Poullain on bass, and Rufus Taylor on drums—are trying to return to the public consciousness on their own strange terms. A surprise show on a river bus is attention-grabby, silly, awkward, fun, and therefore perfectly suited to a band who have built a career by resurrecting, reshaping, and lovingly parodying the most ostentatious clichés of classic rock. They became bona fide rockstars after breaking out with their third single, “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” in 2003. Their debut album Permission to Land went to number 1 in the UK and then four times platinum. But, quickly, things fell apart. The band’s second album, 2005’s One Way Ticket To Hell… and Back, was a patchy affair that didn’t sell nearly as well.
And while the Darkness were lovingly borrowing pieces from from their heroes—AC/DC riffs, Freddie Mercury poses, Def Leppard bombast—they’d also fallen into the familiar traps of rock stardom themselves. Hawkins left the band in 2006 and checked into rehab, later saying that he’d spent £150,000 on cocaine a year at the peak of their success. The remaining members of the band went on to start the more metallic Stone Gods and Hawkins made odd synth music as British Whale before they all got back together in 2011. But the band has never returned to its glory days.
The Darkness first broke out during the garage rock revival, when The Strokes, The White Stripes, and Kings of Leon were on the rise and emo was starting to dominate. In the context of all that sincerity, The Darkness were seen as a “joke” band—four men from the decidedly uncool town of Lowestoft in Suffolk who favored spandex over leather jackets and falsetto over pained emotional candour. With the passing of time, that’s only solidified.