It’s February 2006—Aerosmith’s Love in an Elevator blasts from Belfast’s Odyssey Arena speakers. For three rock and roll-obsessed fourteen-year-olds, the evening could already be considered a success. But the main event is still to come.
The Darkness are in town and touring off the back of their latest effort, ‘One Way Ticket To Hell… And Back!’: the band’s difficult second album which left critics unimpressed and the music-buying public generally tired of their glam rock pastiche. Only three years earlier, they had cut through the burgeoning Strokes-inspired UK indie scene straight to the top of the UK pop charts. Permission to land? Yes, but then kindly fuck off.
In a majestic display of pop eating itself, the sight of charismatic frontman Justin Hawkins greeting the adoring Belfast crowd from atop a gigantic pair of floating tits as the band belted out the muscular ‘Knockers’ said it all. Even a fourteen-year-old could see the writing on the wall.
February 2022. Three thirty-something childhood friends stand at the bar of The Limelight club in Belfast, politely chattering over slowly drunk pints of Guinness. There is work in the morning. Tonight, however, The Darkness are back in town. Touring off the back of an assumed new album that failed to make an impression on anyone but a modest-sized core fan base of Darkness-heads. No inflatable cleavages tonight and no arena-sized speakers pumping out 80s-era anthems to rile up the crowd. One thing, however, remained. The spirit of rock and roll is alive and kicking, and although not ‘arena rock’ per se, Belfast’s Limelight provides the perfect mixing bowl.
It is a curious thing, the trajectory of artists who stick around long enough to experience the highest of highs: selling out concerts worldwide, to the inevitable downslide back to the same club-level venues where dues were once paid.
Jon Bon Jovi once asked Alex Van Halen: ‘Do you know what colour the seats are in Knoxville, Tennessee? Orange. How do I know? Because when we played there, no one was in them.’ This anecdote, apparently in response to the Van Halen drummer appearing nonplussed to the fact that they weren’t selling out venues on a 1995 tour, is a stiff reality check. The mid-1990s were not kind to bands making the type of music favoured by Bon Jovi and Van Halen. Both bands, however, weathered the 90s alternative rock storm. Although Van Halen has long since ceased as a touring unit, due in no small part to the untimely death of legendary founder and guitarist Eddie Van Halen, Bon Jovi sits legitimately alongside mammoth touring juggernauts such as U2, Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones. Not bad for a band who could once see so many empty seats in an arena; they still remember the colour of them.
After the disappointing impact of ‘One Way Ticket…’ The Darkness followed the well-trodden path that so many of their peers had done before. Through lineup changes, a generous dose of lead singer syndrome and an eventual disbanding, they became the embarrassing embodiment of the genre they had previously been so successful in sending up.
The next time I saw The Darkness after that Odyssey Arena show was in December 2011. I was at University in Belfast, and on a hazy, stumbling walk home from town, I spotted a poster on the facade of the iconic yet modestly sized Ulster Hall, advertising the show. Presuming a non-sellout, myself and a couple of friends successfully acquired last-minute tickets and, the next night, headed to the gig. The show was understandably scaled down from the arena show of just five years earlier. Touring budgets obviously dwindled in size to what they had once been; chart success a relic of the recent past, just a wall-to-wall rock show with little room for air. When gone are the bells and whistles; what remains is the music.
In Belfast, The Odyssey Arena (now SSE Arena) boasts a capacity of 11,000. The Ulster Hall: 1,000 seated, or 1,850 standing. The Limelight: 1,500. Notwithstanding the assumed anxiety and stresses on a group of musicians who primarily rely on the live touring circuit to make their living, it has been fascinating and impressive observing this band move through varying degrees of popularity. I have witnessed how, no matter the size of the crowd you are lucky enough to attract, a great music city such as Belfast will always have a home for you.
I don’t need to see this band again. I have seen their show at every level, and it has been exceedingly fun each time. I admire the fortitude of a band who once knew the feeling of headlining thousand-seater arenas in bringing that same show to an 800-capacity rock club. This year marks the 20th anniversary of The Darkness’ seminal debut album ‘Permission To Land’. As is the trend for acts of a certain vintage, an anniversary tour is to follow. Myself and those same two friends who watched Justin Hawkins appear above the crowd in a huge set of inflatable breasts in 2006 will be there. Where?
The Telegraph Building, Library Street, Belfast. Capacity: 1,800.