Everything you’ve heard is true. All of it. The exhaustion and the fear, the pressure, paranoia and pan pipes, the breakdowns and break-ups, the sackings, sitar solos and endless studio sessions, and now ultimately – with this, their second album – the rebirth and redemption of The Darkness.
ONE WAY TICKET TO HELL…AND BACK is the conclusion of a year-long journey from Lowestoft to London and from Monmouth to LA to prove to everyone (and themselves) just how utterly irrelevant every other band is right now. To create the album they simply had no choice but to make. To prove The Darkness are still the world’s greatest band.
Lest we forget, since they released their first EP in 2002, The Darkness have achieved more than most bands could ever dream of. Over 3.5 million copies of their number one debut album (2003’s PERMISSION TO LAND) sold world-wide, with 1.5 million in the UK alone, an unprecedented three sold out nights at Wembley Arena, four Top 10 singles, three Brits, an Ivor Novello ‘Songwriters Of The Year’ award and a Reading & Leeds Festival headlining slot. This was success on a scale not witnessed for generations.
But the demands, as vocalist Justin Hawkins puts it, ‘Of proving again and again every single night that we’re the best band in the world.’ especially for a group with such unparalleled stagecraft, were becoming increasingly apparent. After four years of incessant touring and unremitting media scrutiny, the band retired to guitarist Dan Hawkins’ countryside studio near their hometown of Lowestoft in late 2004 to start work on a collection of songs that had to stand up under the considerable weight of their own achievements, and huge public expectations.
‘We’d walk to the studio each day,’ remembers Dan, ‘Past all these awards, and I’d think, ‘f**king hell, I’m not even sure if we can even write another song’… I should’ve put those awards somewhere else I s’pose. There’s the pressure right there, that’s why it sounds like it does; we concentrated on writing f**king awesome songs that sound like rock classics.’ But that meant finding an extraordinary producer that could realise their ambitions.
Let’s get this clear, Roy Thomas Baker isn’t an ordinary producer in the same way that The Darkness aren’t an ordinary band. He’s been responsible for crafting some of the most impressive and influential records of all time with a CV that includes Queen, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Free and The Who. So finally, after chiselling name after name off the hallowed marble pantheon of the world’s great and the not so great rock producers (and a grim-faced, swiftly aborted session or two) The Darkness were introduced to RTB in Los Angeles, instantly bonded over a mutual love of rock and were able to start assembling the album together. ‘Roy Thomas Baker is a genius, that’s all there is to say about it.’ Justin declares, ‘It’s been a privilege to watch that man work, his ear is perfect, his instinct fabulous.’
But it’s never that easy. Tensions within the band had grown to unbearable levels, and under the strain of increasing friction during recordings at Rockfield studios in Monmouth, the group literally separated with Justin abandoning the sessions altogether. ‘The band was in bits and virtually split up for the making of most of the backing tracks,’ explains Dan, ‘So I was dealing with the break-up of the band, while still trying to make a hit album, essentially.’
‘I was ready to f**k The Darkness off,’ Justin confesses, ‘But when I realised what – or who – the problem was and then I heard what the others had been up to in the studio, I realised it was so important I couldn’t walk away. Just from the early backing tracks it was obvious it was something I had to be involved in and play on. It was really special listening back to it.’
So, bassist Francis Poullain was dismissed and a new one, Richie Edwards (Dan’s former guitar tech, a steadfast presence during the sessions and someone who, by his own admission, was ‘baptised in a font of rock’) instated. Re-bonded, revitalised and refocused, the band once again set to completing their masterpiece. ‘No idea was rejected,’ explained drummer Ed Graham, ‘There wasn’t a single idea suggested, no matter how outlandish, that Roy and us didn’t try. Balls of steel.’
Indeed, ONE WAY TICKET TO HELL…AND BACK sees The Darkness at their most ambitious and imaginative, encompassing vast orchestras, Mellotrons, Moogs, sitars, flugelhorns, saxophones, bagpipes, Freddie’s grand piano, walloping drums, monumental walls of guitars and a performance by the world’s greatest pan-pipe player recorded up a mountain in Peru. And all this without ever sacrificing the hook-heavy choruses and thunderous riffs that saw the band stride into the hearts of the world in the first place.
Likewise, the vocal performances are immense, incredible even. With Justin’s inimitable trademark hard rock histrionics and lyrical mix of honesty and humour, touching on broken hearts and betrayal, regret, virility and even Scottish folklore, but, more than anything, The Darkness’ favourite subject, love triumphant. From the balls-out rock of ‘Knockers’ and ‘Is It Just Me?’ to the widescreen pomp and lavish balladry of ‘Blind Man’ and ‘Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time’, it’s a massive record, with the album’s opener, title track and first single, ‘One Way Ticket’ especially setting the tone of the whole proceedings.
‘It’s a song of salvation,’ Justin explains, ‘You can get carried along by external events, and you may develop certain behavioural patterns or habits, but it’s never too late to turn round and say ‘No, I want my life to be different’. It’s an anti-drugs song offering some advice to people who feel they’re helpless, their lives are empty or their whole existence is governed by a drug that they had no intention would take over their life, and it’s not too late to change that.’
‘In all it’s a redemption album, that’s why it’s called ONE WAY TICKET TO HELL… AND BACK, continues Justin. ‘It’s full of apologies and explanations, but hope as well. There’s a lot of serious lyrical content…and a couple of knob jokes.’ ‘The general feeling, listening to the record and knowing how difficult it was to make the f**king thing, is that we all think we’re in the best band in the world again.’ counters Dan, ‘We’ve been waiting to make this album. There’s a sense of release that we managed to get it done, but there’s no escaping what we’ve achieved.’ ‘World domination,’ Justin grins, ‘Is inevitable.’
ONE WAY TICKET TO HELL…AND BACK is a big f**k-off rock album about faith lost and restored, and about love lost and found. The Darkness really didn’t have any choice but to make a record this good. The stakes were too high and the sheer, superhuman feat of pulling it back from the edge (an effort that would most likely kill any lesser band stone-dead) has done nothing but steel their resolve and drive them to make what had to be – and is – the finest rock album of the past twenty years…their debut aside, of course.