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Hard Times in the Uncanny Valley

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Dry-humping the line between irony and sincerity (again) with The Darkness and Andrew W.K.

What are we to make of Hot Cakes, the first album in seven years by the unitard-wielding British glam rock band The Darkness? Not just the music contained within, but the fact that it exists, in 2012, at all? In America, The Darkness is regarded as a novelty band that streaked like an extravagantly mustachioed comet across the starry expanse of pop culture back in the early ’00s; if you’re a raging ethnocentrist, the arrival of a new Darkness album might very well be the equivalent of “Wassup?!” making an uninvited reentry into the national lexicon. Serious rock fans will grudgingly concede that The Darkness put out one undeniably great single (“I Believe in a Thing Called Love”), but that’s the extent of the group’s rather meager Stateside impact. The train wreck sophomore album (2005’s One Way Ticket to Hell … and Back, which presciently featured an overheated locomotive on its cover) is remembered, if at all, as the Be Here Now of the ’00s, a pile of drugs and money set on fire. Its failure seemed to permanently relegate The Darkness to the dustbin of one-hit wonderdom.

But in the U.K., The Darkness was perceived as something else entirely. The group’s 2003 debut, Permission to Land, sold more than a million copies in Great Britain; while the record barely cracked the Top 40 in the U.S., in the U.K. it topped the album chart, won three BRIT awards (the British version of the Grammys), and is commonly seen as a contemporary classic that’s part of the country’s lineage of playfully mulleted fop rockers. For nostalgic Brits, Permission to Land was a canny combination of early Queen (specifically the songs “Keep Yourself Alive” and “Fat Bottomed Girls”), the ’70s proto-pop metal band Sweet (particularly the hysterical falsetto on “Love Is Like Oxygen” and the flared-pants sexuality of “Fox on the Run”), and pre–Mutt Lange Def Leppard (basically the entirety of 1980’s On Through the Night). When The Darkness got maniacally shit-faced on the success of Permission to Land and hired Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker to make their very own A Night at the Opera, it was a move as earnest and tradition-minded as Pearl Jam doing an apprenticeship with Neil Young. That One Way Ticket became mired in comical levels of self-indulgence — only a band living on a diet of champagne and blow would see fit to provide a prominent liner-note credit for “virtuoso pan flute” — was a weird testament to The Darkness’s cock-rock authenticity and genre scholarship.1 British rockers have always been especially good at this sort of thing: Just as the Rolling Stones pored over Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed records in order to learn how to walk, talk, drink, and drug the British prissiness out of their systems, The Darkness spent the early ’00s studying ’70s hard rock and ’80s cheese metal to distinguish themselves from the joyless ranks of this era’s British bands. Flaming out spectacularly on your own grandiosity was as “real” for The Darkness as covering “I Just Want to Make Love to You” with a fake Southern accent was for English rockers in the ’60s.

In the wake of One Way Ticket, The Darkness fell apart; lead singer Justin Hawkins checked into rehab and formed a new group, Hot Leg, while the rest of the band soldiered as The Stone Gods. And like that, more than half a decade evaporated like mist from a malfunctioning fog machine. Once Hot Leg and Stone Gods failed to ignite the next great Blur-Oasis-style rivalry — or do anything at all notable for the remainder of the ’00s — it became inevitable that The Darkness would eventually reunite. And in 2011 they mounted a tour.

That these shows eventually birthed Hot Cakes was a lot less inevitable; One Way Ticket appeared to have sated the public’s demand for a new batch of cheeky crotch-thrusters from The Darkness just fine. It shouldn’t come as a shock that Hot Cakes is an obvious attempt to craft a sequel (if not an outright remake) of Permission to Land that conveniently sets aside all the years The Darkness have farted away. What is shocking is that Hot Cakes pulls this off with unmitigated success.

Granted, enjoyment of Hot Cakes requires being on The Darkness’s perversely good-natured wavelength. When The Darkness perform a song like “Everybody Have a Good Time,” it must be accepted as a straightforward exhortation for everybody to have a good time. When Hot Cakes reaches its penultimate track, a cover of Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” that is run roughshod through C.C. DeVille’s amplifier, it needs to be recognized as a form of tribute, rather than a pisstake. Without these concessions, Hot Cakes will appear to be way more obnoxious than it actually is.

The problem people have always had with The Darkness (and will likely cause many to dismiss Hot Cakes out of hand, even if it’s the kind of super-catchy, metallic pop-rock record that people have wanted Weezer to make for more than 10 years) is the suspicion that everything the band does is ironic. Irony, obviously, is the most feathery arrow in The Darkness’s quiver, but this form of irony shouldn’t be confused (as it often is when we talk about irony in contemporary culture) with not being “genuine.” It is the irony that has long been hardwired into limp-wristed and big-balled British rock. When Hawkins claims in “Every Inch of You” that “every man, woman, and chile wants to — SUCK MY COCK!” it should be understood that he is speaking metaphorically, as opposed to literally suggesting that families are lining up to pleasure him orally. But the core sentiment is totally sincere: Hawkins is determined to hit all pleasure centers in the vicinity, with or without the assistance of his symbolic schlong, in precisely the way his heroes did. His knowingly flamboyant lyrics don’t mock arena-rock conventions, they exemplify them.2

There have been suspicions about The Darkness’s motivations from the very beginning of their career, and this is at least partly due to timing: The early ’00s heralded the joke-ification of rock, and many old-guard stars were the first in line to put on the dunce caps. Whereas popular rock bands in the past frequently had some element of self-mockery in their lyrics and iconography, this was something different and more nefarious: Now the very idea of rock stardom was being treated like a bad joke. Mötley Crüe came clean on decades’ worth of wanton debauchery and destruction in their memoir The Dirt and cinched their status as dick-waving caricatures. For his solo follow-up Tommyland, Tommy Lee penned a chapter from the perspective of his penis, which was more familiar to fans thanks to the world-famous Pam-and-Tommy sex tape than any recent Mötley Crüe album.

Ozzy Osbourne — a man with a genuine artistic legacy as the leader of Black Sabbath — similarly played up his party-hearty dullard side as the star of The Osbournes, paving the way for similarly cartoonish ’70s rockers like Ted Nugent and Gene Simmons to play the jackassiest versions of themselves on reality TV. Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro planted the reality-TV flag for ’90s rock stars on ‘Til Death Do Us Part: Carmen & Dave, but he really outdid himself as the host of the awful American Idol knockoff Rock Star, a talent competition that turned the devil horns hand gesture into a stage move no more dangerous than the pop-diva theatrics promoted on Idol.

All of this fundamentally changed how this kind of rock music is regarded in American culture. Now everything about this era (or influenced by this era) seems at least a little ridiculous.3 It’s not that these bands suddenly became insincere; it’s that the audience was conditioned to accept insincerity. And that means The Darkness will always have a hard time getting credit for doing what it does really well, because there’s a presumption that any band attempting to make music like this simply can’t be serious.

Hot Cakes is — truly — a good enough album to ask some important questions: Is it inherently “funny” in this day and age to write a soaring power ballad like “Living Each Day Blind,” even if it’s one of the best examples of the form since The Darkness’s own “Love Is Only a Feeling” from Permission to Land? Is “Keep Me Hangin’ On” an excellent example of the metal-country hybrid that Lange perfected with then-wife Shania Twain in the early ’90s, or is it merely a reference to a cheesy, disreputable subgenre in heavy-duty quotation marks? Is it automatically jokey to put three bikini-clad women lying on top of a stack of pancakes on your album cover, or have you merely produced a less scandalous version of something that once regularly emblazoned Scorpions records? Even if it is jokey, does it really matter? How exactly do you make an “honest” arena-rock record that’s not silly in a self-conscious way, since that’s what made those original arena-rock groups so much fun and enduring in the first place?

If you were a preternaturally happy musician, motivational speaker, and television personality from Michigan named Andrew Fetterly Wilkes Krier, these questions would be pertinent and yet also completely irrelevant. Irony requires a presumed level of intellectual vanity that is the polar opposite of the knuckle-dragging majesty that Andrew W.K. achieved on his 2002 debut, I Get Wet. W.K. was as much a student of bare-chested dude-rock as Justin Hawkins, but his approach to the source material was thoroughly postmodern: He transformed glam metal into a skeletal chassis of throaty vocals, synths that swarmed like chirping bats, rapid-fire body-blow guitar riffs, and lyrics about partying, puking, partying until the onset of puking, and loving New York City, oh yeah, New York City. Andrew W.K. was to arena rock what the Ramones were to The Beach Boys and bubblegum pop — he was true to the spirit of his influences, but musically he was jock-jamming a stadium in a whole other dimension. “Party Hard” is one of the only true arena-rock anthems to be produced in the last 10 years, but it is a 21st-century creation through and through, taking a grandly oversize institution from the past, removing the fat, amping up the energy 1,000 times, and spitting it back out as a warped and more brutally efficient beast.

Like The Darkness, W.K. sort of fell off the face of the planet musically after releasing his second record, 2003’s underappreciated The Wolf. He’s released a few rock albums in Japan, and an instrumental piano LP, 55 Cadillac, in 2009. Now, rather than try to repeat the formula he’s best known for, he’s merely re-released Wet in a new two-disc 10th-anniversary edition. You wouldn’t think that a record conceived as a Spartan belch of simpleminded purpose would benefit from the “outtakes and stray live cuts” treatment. But considering how polarizing Wet was upon release — “Alright, this is bullshit” began Pitchfork’s famously venomous 0.6 review — the reissue suggests that W.K. did put some honest-to-goodness craft into his jean-jacketed Up With People anthems.

As W.K. told Grantland earlier this year, the village-idiot starkness of I Get Wet came about after two years of meticulous woodshedding. This seems impossible to believe — the supremely dunderheaded “Girls Own Love” does not immediately suggest months upon months of musical refinement — but the expanded I Get Wet provides the audio evidence with a bountiful offering of live cuts and demos. The “1999 versions” of songs like “It’s Time to Party” and the sort-of ballad “She Is Beautiful” (sample lyric: “She is beautiful / she is beautiful / she is beautiful / she is beautiful”) are far more conventional than the final Wet versions. The demos sound like a bargain-basement version of Theatre of Pain; it’s a young metalhead fumbling about and acting like a mundane mental case. By the time of I Get Wet, Andrew W.K. was more machine than man, twisted and ebullient, and battering out his songs with inhuman precision. On the record W.K. and his backing musicians became mechanical animals, like Chuck E. Cheese’s animatronic band after one week with no meds. This is evidenced in Wet‘s inclusive but somewhat sterile sound. It was the Billy Squier/Donald Fagen amalgam nobody thought they wanted.

Hot Cakes is a record that probably should’ve come out in 1978, but I Get Wet still sounds not of this time, like an extraterrestrial re-scrambling of 20th-century rock music that’s been beamed back to us a couple of decades later. It speaks the language of our long-lost spandex-and-frizzy-hair fantasies, but the cadence is off and the words are slightly out of order. It might seem funny at first, but this is merely what we as a culture once longed for pieced back together more or less the way we left it.

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland. He is currently writing a book on pop-music rivalries.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden

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