From the moment British rawk 'n' roll brigaders the Darkness came riding up on their white swans with their magnum opus Permission to Land and monster single “I Believed in a Thing Called Love,” they went against the grain. And 16 years later, not much has changed. The controversial cover for band’s excellent, operatic sixth studio album (and third since reuniting in 2012), Easter Is Cancelled, depicts lead singer Justin Hawkins trading his famous Spandex catsuit for a loincloth as he breaks free from his shackles on a cross, while guitarist Dan Hawkins, bassist Frankie Poullain, and drummer Rufus Taylor (son of Queen’s Roger Taylor) battle Roman guards with swords and drumsticks.
“When I tried to slim down for the artwork, that's the best I could do,” Justin Hawkins chuckles, having a sense of humor about the potentially shocking image. “Because basically my body composition is probably 4 percent bone and then there's about 90 percent muscle, and the rest of it is brain. So, yeah, that's the best I could do.” That humor is also evident in the selective pixelation of the overseas version of the album art.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the artwork has been banned by some overseas streaming platforms for its religious connotations and allusions to knife crime, beheadings, and confrontational issues. Hawkins concedes that he always expected some people to be offended. (“That's true. I think they will be. And there are people who need to close their laptops and look around at the world,” he deadpans.) But he insists that it was never intended to promote violence, and he makes no apology for the record’s imagery or title, explaining that it’s all part of the message of Easter Is Cancelled. It’s a complex concept album loosely built around the idea that in a parallel universe, Jesus avoided his crucifixion, and it is described in an official Darkness press release as a “parable” about the “slow death and eventual glorious rebirth of rock ‘n’ roll” and a “literally Biblical record” aimed at “those who have said that rock ‘n’ roll is the Devil’s music… [they] should listen and understand that it is, in truth, the voice of God.”
“There's a bit of science fiction in there, which I think allows us to get away with the Biblical content,” the frontman tells Yahoo Entertainment. “We're not saying this is what should happen or what did happen. We're saying that if we're allowed multiverse theory, then let's talk about denying the crucifixion and not letting that happen in the first place. I do understand why people are offended by it, but I don't actually apologize for it, because I don't think it's blasphemous to ask a question like that. What if there is a universe like that? Because obviously if the good Lord creator — the design fellow up there with his beard and all that — if He created one universe, and we're now saying that He's created an infinite number of universes, so that every possible outcome of every decision that everybody's ever made since the beginning of time is even better, and in one of those, there’s a son that has been sent to save us all, then I think that's a beautiful thing.”
Hawkins explains, “The album is book-ended by two songs [the incendiary call-to-arms “Rock and Roll Deserves to Die” and the glorious love ode to six-strings, “We Are the Guitar Men”] that talk about my relationship with music and how all the tribulations and all the things we've been using to glide you through” — this winding the conversation back to the album’s core idea of rock ‘n’ roll as its own religious experience. “Rock and Roll Deserves to Die” is certainly a bold statement, particularly coming from a band that it could be argued has been rock alive practically singlehandedly for years. But the song is not an ironic statement — despite its wacky video or the characteristic colorful way that Hawkins describes its storyline.
“When I was a kid, there was a cartoon that had Penelope Pitstop in it, Wacky Races,” Hawkins begins. “And she was always in peril. She always put herself in situations where she's getting tied to the train tracks, or she's being lowered into a molten pot of broth, or she's dancing around showing cannibals her leg. I do think that rock ‘n’ roll is the only genre that does that. It's like rock ‘n’ roll must be done the way that the Rolling Stones did it between 1971 and 1973, and anything else is not acceptable. And so, I partly think, ‘Well, it deserves to die, then.’ If it's going to reduce itself to a state of creative inertia, if it's not prepared to broaden its horizons or expand its boundaries or look beyond things that bands have been doing for 40 years or more for inspiration, then yeah, it deserves that.
“I'm not saying it's going to die, though, because there will always be the Darkness. If rock ‘n’ roll is always tied to the train tracks, then the Darkness always comes along to loosen the tethers and let it run off into the bushes going, ‘Yay, I've been saved again!’ But we're doing all the heavy lifting. You know, you never hear people saying, ‘Who's going to save jazz? Who's going to save hip-hop? Who's going to save oompah music? Who's going to save yodeling?’ The answer to all those questions is the Darkness, by the way.”
Going back to that whole against-the-grain thing, the Darkness even had their haters back in 2003, when the musical category "metal" was usually accompanied by "nu," a prefix that implied mopery, misery, and an all-around of lack of fun. And there in the middle of all that doom and gloom was the unitarded Hawkins, with his Rapunzel hair, flying V, and Freddie Mercury-on-helium falsetto. The Darkness seemingly arrived from one of those above-mentioned alternate universes, some sort of rock 'n’ roll Xanadu in which Diamond David Lee Roth never left Van Halen and Headbangers Ball aired on MTV on a constant loop. Many rock fans didn’t take the Darkness seriously at the time, although there are many modern artists, ranging from the Struts to recent tourmates Lady Gaga and Ed Sheeran, who are now big fans.
“If you try and do anything [different or risky] in rock, it's like, ‘Oh that's not proper look.’ People are very particular about how ‘n’ and roll should be done. I've experienced it myself; it's just snobbery and it's elitism,” says Hawkins. “From our experience, if you do rock ‘n’ roll and you're wearing a catsuit and you say some stupid stuff in interviews, they're going to think you're joking about everything: ‘That's not rock ‘n’ roll, that's joke music!’ But I'm wearing a catsuit tonight, actually, and I'm quite happy with that.”
Hawkins admits that the fact that “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” went straight into the Top 40 pop radio charts at the time probably damaged the Darkness’s cred among those rock snobs. “I think that having a crossover hit single made it a bit more difficult for the rock crowd to get on board what we were trying to do, really. We should have saved that for the second album or something,” he laughs. “‘Love Is Only a Feeling’ [from the Darkness’s debut album] was the one we thought was the best song and should be the lead single, but we were advised against that by friends of ours. And they were right.”
There may have been a backlash at the time, but Hawkins points out that the Darkness “have been around long enough now to survive the backlash and the frontlash and the medium-side-lash or whatever it is.” And “I Believe In a Thing Called Love” lives on, getting covered by Adam Lambert on Glee, soundtracking a Hugh Grant/Colin Firth Bridget Jones 2 romp and a famous Apple commercial starring Taylor Swift, and landing in another commercial, for Samsung, that played during the Super Bowl and starred the Darkness themselves. “Sometimes the pop thing's the way to do it. It really paid off, and still is paying off,” says Hawkins. “There's food on my table — and my estranged wife’s table, as well. It's brilliant! It puts food on two different tables! I don't know how many more wives I'll have by the end of this, but they'll all be set by that one song.”
Speaking of second albums, the Darkness’s Permission to Land follow-up, the Roy Thomas Baker-produced One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back, may not has been as successful as its predecessor, but it definitely solidified the band’s status as serious rock ‘n’ roll heroes — even if they remained, in true Darkness style, a polarizing act.
“Everyone picked a side, really,” Hawkins recalls. “I remember the Kerrang! saying, ‘Oh, this is the best album of the last 20 years.’ And then when it sold ‘only’ a million copies, they went, ‘The second album wasn't as well received critically.’ Um, we had a sticker from your f***ing magazine on the front of the album saying it's the best album of the last 20 years! So who are they f***ing trying to fool? They're so revisionist and s***. And I've never really had a problem telling them that. It’s insane, when the press talk about it being a critical and commercial flop, when it got ‘10 out of 10’ all over and sold a million. I'd give the whole right-hand side of my body to sell a million albums now. And I'd give the other half for another million. And then what I'll do is, using the proceeds from album sales, I’ll get a prosthetic half-body put on so I could just look like a metal version of me and then I could use it in live sets. I could do ‘I Know Him So Well’ by Elaine Page and Barbara Dickson, but it would be me.”
On a more serious but somehow still semi-related note, Hawkins does confess that he had an “identity crisis” when the Darkness reunited seven years after One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back. “You come back and say, ‘What is it our audience wants to hear? What do they want me to do?’ It's quite a tricky balance, actually. You get too much of one thing and it sounds like you're moaning; too much the other way, and you sound like the parody band that everyone thinks you are. So it's been difficult to get it right.” But with the uncompromising Easter Is Cancelled, Hawkins feels the Darkness have gotten it very right. “It has genuinely taken years to find [that balance] again. I think I'm happiest when I'm writing stuff that's really from the heart, super-challenging, doesn't flinch — and is funny as well.”
And that takes us right back to the grand concept of Easter Is Cancelled. “There might be universes where I'm dead. But in a way, that's comforting as well, because in those universes, the people who are mourning my demise can feel comforted by the fact that there is another universe, right here, right now, where I'm alive and sitting talking to you,” says Hawkins. “It’s all multiverse theory, where we are comforted by the fact that there's a universe somewhere where everything hasn't just fallen to pieces, and perhaps there's a universe where the Darkness are still a stadium rock band.”
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:
Want daily pop culture news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Entertainment & Lifestyle’s newsletter.