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‘Permission To Land’: Why The Darkness’ Debut Album Is Still Out Of This World
Warner Music
In Depth

‘Permission To Land’: Why The Darkness’ Debut Album Is Still Out Of This World

With an infectious sense of fun, The Darkness’ debut album, ‘Permission To Land’, led to a remarkable resurgence for rock’n’roll.


With the charts dominated by pop divas and boy bands, the commercial prospects for rock’n’roll appeared quite bleak in 2003. The golden age of stadium-rock showmanship had long since passed, and it seemed as if we’d never again see the likes of a Freddie Mercury parading across the stage in royal regalia. If anything, it all felt rather old hat – perhaps a bit too clichéd for modern times. And yet, just when we least expected it, a Suffolk four-piece calling themselves The Darkness crashed into the public consciousness with their high-octane debut album, Permission To Land, establishing themselves as a glorious exception to the rule…

Listen to ‘Permission To Land’ here.

Arriving with thunderous charisma and unleashing a frenzied onslaught of electrifying guitar riffs, The Darkness arrived on the music scene like a flying saucer from a far-flung universe, dazzling fans with otherworldly sonic laser beams. Issued in the summer of 2003, Permission To Land rekindled the flames of 70s hard-rock and 80s hair metal, boldly proving that rock’n’roll was far from dead… rather, it was being reborn.

Fast-forward two decades, and Permission To Land… Again celebrates The Darkness’ debut album with a 4CD+DVD box set that takes fans behind the scenes of the band’s rise to fame. This spectacular release not only features the original album in all its glory, but also collects rare B-sides, unreleased demos and live recordings from the band’s legendary performances at London’s Astoria, Wembley Arena and Knebworth.

This is the story behind the wild ride of creativity, ambition and sheer madness that brought Permission To Land to life, lighting the fuse of a rock’n’roll revival that continues to burn brightly to this day…

The backstory: “People seem to have forgotten that being in a rock band is by its nature ridiculous”

In 1999, Justin Hawkins sang a rendition of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody during a karaoke contest at a New Year’s Eve party. Instantly recognising his older brother’s frontman potential, younger sibling Dan promoted Justin to the role of lead singer in their band. Born in Lowestoft, Suffolk, the Hawkins brothers – both sharing lead and rhythm guitar duties – had relocated to London and formed a fledgling hard-rock group with bassist Frankie Poullain and drummer Ed Graham. With a keen sense of irony, they called themselves The Darkness.

They chose that name because it was everything their music wasn’t: a celebration of good-time rock’n’roll. The group’s influences, rooted in such legendary acts as Led Zeppelin, Queen, AC/DC and Thin Lizzy, recalled a time when music was a source of joy and revelry rather than funnel for despair and melancholy. “With today’s music, it’s cool to complain and feel sorry for yourself,” Poullain later told TODAY, summing up The Darkness’ philosophy. “I can’t stand it. I want to have a good time when I listen to music.”

Despite their growing talents and undeniable chemistry, The Darkness initially toiled away in relative obscurity. They honed their craft in the early 2000s by playing at various London venues, most notably in and around the East End. At this time, their focus was on building an audience, not chasing after elusive record deals. “We weren’t trying to get signed, really,” Justin later admitted in an interview with Loz Guest for Planet Rock. “We just wanted to know that we could exist without gatekeepers telling us it was OK to do what we were doing. We wanted to be self-sufficient.”

It was on London’s pub circuit that The Darkness began to forge their identity as a band: Justin would often leap around tiny stages in a spandex catsuit, treating each drinking establishment as if it were the largest stage in the world, and leaving punters wondering if they’d accidentally stumbled upon a time-travelling rock’n’roll carnival. “Stadium rock is only called stadium rock because that is the ideal location for it,” the singer told The Independent in 2003. “Pub rock has different connotations. We were only playing pubs because we had to. We were saying, ‘This is what we do. Right now we’re doing it here, but one day we’re gonna be doing it there.’”

Before long, The Darkness had graduated to a regular weekend slot at The Monarch, a venue that would later be renamed Barfly. The band’s vision was clear: to embrace the absurdity of rock’n’roll and prioritise enjoyment over coolness. “People seem to have forgotten that being in a rock band is by its nature ridiculous,” Dan Hawkins told The Guardian. “A lot of bands think being cool is more important than enjoying themselves.” With Justin unleashing falsetto shrieks like a eunuch on helium, pub-goers were understandably enthralled. It was only a matter of time before The Darkness would be sweeping across the nation…

The recording: “We wanted to make a record that was powerful in the way that AC/DC’s ‘Powerage’ is”

Despite boasting a metal-indebted sound that would have fit in comfortably in the early-80s era of Van Halen and Whitesnake, The Darkness had all the DIY ethos of an indie band. In February 2003, their debut single, Get Your Hands Off My Woman, was released on Must… Destroy!!, a label founded by Alan Hake, a former associate of Oasis manager and Creation boss Alan McGee. With thrashing guitar riffs and lashings of gleeful obscenities (“Get your hands off of my woman, motherfucker!”), the song peaked at No.43 in the UK and proved that The Darkness’ penchant for spandex-clad outrageousness had commercial legs.

What’s most remarkable about The Darkness is that all their early recordings were largely self-financed; in fact, recording sessions for their debut album was funded after Justin wrote a song for an IKEA advert and used the proceeds to book studio time. Recorded at Chapel Studios, in South Thoresby, Lincolnshire, with additional vocals recorded at Paul Smith Music Studios, in London, Permission To Land was a dream opportunity the group couldn’t afford to waste, with each band member assembling all the musical ideas they had successfully workshopped in front of pub-goers over the years.

The album’s second single – and still one of the best Darkness songs – Growing On Me would see The Darkness achieve their biggest chart success to date. Again released on Must… Destroy!!, the song masqueraded as a straightforward love song, but was really a loin-stirring ode to contracting an STD (“I wanna shake you off, but you just won’t go, oh/And you’re all over me, but I don’t want anyone to know”). Speaking to Planet Rock years later, Justin reflected on how The Darkness got the ball rolling entirely on their own terms. “Growing On Me was a hit, you know, it went to No.11,” he explained. “For a pub-rock band from Lowestoft that’s pretty impressive. And with no label. We were really proud of ourselves for achieving that.”

With production overseen by Pedro Ferreira, Permission To Land gave The Darkness the opportunity to indulge in their passion for rock bombast. Guitarists KK Downing and Glenn Tipton of Judas Priest were a key influence, as was Queen’s Brian May and AC/DC’s Angus Young. “We wanted to make a record that was powerful in the way that AC/DC’s Powerage is,” Justin later told Classic Rock magazine. “And we did it in a time when nobody else was doing that.” However, there were also hints of 80s jangle-pop among the torrent of riffs the band unleashed, with Justin affecting a vocal style that resembled Robert Smith of The Cure on songs such as Growing On Me and Friday Night.

After mixing the album at Roadhouse Recording Studios, The Darkness shopped it around various A&Rs and label executives in London. Despite many admitting they were fans of the band, The Darkness’ brand of guitar music was judged to be out of step with the then current trends for stripped-down rock, as spearheaded by The White Stripes and The Strokes. Eventually, however, the group signed a deal with Warner Records, who would issue Permission To Land on their legendary Atlantic Records imprint – the same record label once shared by the group’s heroes Led Zeppelin. The stage was finally set for The Darkness to live out their fantasies and soar to the top of the rock mountain.

The release: “Who gives you rock before breakfast? The Darkness”

Just over a week prior to releasing Permission To Land, The Darkness opened the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury Festival 2003, launching into a rollicking set at 10.15am, not long after festival-goers had emerged from their tents. “It was brilliant – the amount of people who got up just to see us,” Justin told The Guardian. “Who gives you rock before breakfast? The Darkness.” With anticipation building for their debut album, the band had benefitted hugely from the support of BBC Radio 1 DJ Jo Whiley, who afforded The Darkness national exposure by playing their songs during her lunchtime show.

Finally released on 7 July 2003, Permission To Land flew straight into the UK Top 5, bringing an otherworldly dose of classic rock back into the pop mainstream. Retro yet decidedly modern, the album kicks things off with Black Shuck, an AC/DC-esque song that Justin later said was “about an East Anglian hellhound with a red eye who attacked a church”. Elsewhere, the bouncy power-pop of Givin’ Up tackles the perils of heroin addiction with cartoonish abandon, its lyrics reportedly inspired by a friend of the band looking to kick the habit. Frequently over-the-top and hilariously tongue-in-cheek, Permission To Land was a delightful anomaly on the music scene of the early 2000s, though it transcended mere novelty value with assured songwriting and muscular musicianship.

Without a doubt, Permission To Land stood out from the pack, with Justin’s stage antics evoking a mix of nostalgia and affection from audiences. “I can hear character in the songs and the performances,” he later told Classic Rock magazine, “and it’s mixed in a way that makes the guitars really in-your-face.” Full of witty and risqué lyrics, the song Holding My Own is believed to be about masturbation, while Stuck In A Rut contains a hilariously purse-lipped opening line (“Oh, kiss my arse, kiss my arse goodbye”). Throughout it all, Justin is on top vocal form, deploying his hair-raising falsetto as if sticking his fingers in a plug socket.

Having been greeted warmly by the music-buying public, The Darkness supported Robbie Williams at Knebworth in August 2003, playing in front of 120,000 people – their biggest audience to date. Now performing to massive crowds, the band had become Britain’s hottest rock property in years, and they quickly garnered cross-generational appeal. With the halo effect of Knebworth still surrounding them, the band’s third single, I Believe In A Thing Called Love, was released in September 2003, its terrific showcase of Justin’s inhuman falsetto helping it become their biggest hit, peaking at No.2 in the UK.

Featuring the band in a flying spaceship, firing laser beams from their guitars and battling giant octopuses in space, the promo clip for I Believe In A Thing Called Love was easily one of the best 2000s music videos. “All the monsters were created by a bloke called Jim Friedlander, whose father was a props man at the BBC and he actually made K9, from Doctor Who,” Justin told YouTube host Professor Of Rock. “There was real proper British science fiction heritage in that thing and I think that’s why it was so great.”

Yet another highlight from Permission To Land was undoubtedly the song Love On The Rocks With No Ice. Over a Metallica-sized riff, Justin explores feelings of complacency as a romantic relationship reaches equilibrium, before howling like an angelic choir boy who’s stubbed his toe. “I wanted it to be about one of those relationships where it’s OK: it’s working,” he told Planet Rock. “That is a position that you never hear songs about. And it’s a reality of a lot of relationships that get to that stage where there’s a kind of boredom, and I wanted this big heavy dramatic piece of music to be about a relationship that’s… alright.”

Before the year was out, The Darkness had yet another surprise up their sleeve when they released a festive single, Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End). Though it wasn’t included on the original album, the song makes an appearance on the Permission To Land… Again box set, and there’s no denying it finds The Darkness at the peak of their powers, with Justin continuing his mission to smuggle double entendres into the pop charts. “We managed to get ‘bellend’ into a Christmas song without it getting banned!” the singer later noted in a TV special. Still one of the best alternative Christmas songs ever made, Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End) peaked at No.2 in the UK and has become for The Darkness what Merry Xmas Everybody was for Slade.

The legacy: “As if by magic, rock wasn’t dead! Fun wasn’t banned!”

Going on to sell over three million copies worldwide and 1.4 million copies in the UK alone, Permission To Land was easily one of the most successful British rock records of the 2000s, if not one of the best debut albums of all time. After winning three BRIT Awards (Best Album, Best British Band, Best British Rock Act), The Darkness capped off the album campaign by releasing as its final single Love Is Only a Feeling, a majestic power ballad that peaked at No.5 in the UK in March 2004. “It’s got a lot of Greek-style guitar playing on it,” Justin told Planet Rock’s Loz Guest, “and we were trying to simulate the sound of a bouzouki on one part of it, and yet it’s just a lovely ballad about love.”

Having already bagged themselves a Mercury Prize nomination back in 2003, The Darkness would go on to win an Ivor Novello Songwriter Of The Year award in 2004. And then, almost 18 months after Permission To Land’s release, the group staged a three-night residency at Wembley Arena. Within the space of two years, The Darkness had gone from pub-rock outsiders to bona fide stadium rockers, rapidly establishing themselves as one of Britain’s best rock’n’roll bands in a generation. “We were bathed in shock and awe,” Justin recalled in a press release accompanying the album’s 20th-anniversary reissue. “As if by magic, rock wasn’t dead! Fun wasn’t banned! And spandex was almost acceptable again…”

Recalling those heady days, the Permission To Land… Again box offers fans of The Darkness a chance to discover many hidden gems from the group’s breakthrough era, from demos to B-sides, as well as live recordings of their shows at Knebworth, London’s Astoria and Wembley. Given fresh airings, the lesser-known instrumental cut Bareback – originally released as a B-side for Growing On Me – emerges as a highlight of many of the group’s live shows during this period. A further curio is Curse Of The Tollund Man, a song about a mummified bog body discovered in Denmark in the 50s. “I sort of say it’s like the curse of the Egyptian pharaohs when they get dug up – the same sort of thing happened to the people that dug up the Tolland man,” Justin explained. “Well, that’s what I say in my song anyway.”

From their meteoric rise from pub-rock obscurity to the glittering heights of Wembley Arena, The Darkness rewrote the playbook with a flair that bands of the era had all but forgotten. Their infectious energy, extraordinary musicianship and unabashed love for the spectacle of it all not only breathed life back into rock’n’roll but also injected a spirit of fun back into the music industry as a whole. Over two decades on from its original release, Permission To Land is a reminder that The Darkness were always destined to shine.

Buy ‘Permission To Land… Again’ here.

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