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The Darkness: A real life Spinal Tap?

The band counts Prime Minister  Tony Blair among its fans
/ Source: The Associated Press

Retro rockers The Darkness want to lighten up rock music.

So far the London-based band appears to be succeeding with “Permission to Land,” their Atlantic Records debut CD inspired by ’70s and ’80s rockers. It features a peculiar mix of songs, about a mythological hellhound, a lover’s spat and genital warts.

The band has a leading four nominations going into Tuesday’s Brit Music Awards — the equivalent of the Grammys. Dido has three nominations.

“We don’t do generic music,” said bassist Frankie Poullain during a recent interview.

Critics have compared The Darkness and its act to the fictional ’80s hair band in the movie parody “This Is Spinal Tap.”

It’s an easy comparison when you take into account Darkness frontman Justin Hawkins’ voice, his plunging, chest-baring catsuit and, well, big hair. Then there’s the music, a throwback to arena rock, and their over-the-top stage show complete with David Lee Roth-like leg splits.

A real life Spinal Tap?Fans, among them British Prime Minister Tony Blair, have been snapping up thousands of copies of the album since its U.S. release in September. It’s No. 43 on this week’s Billboard magazine album chart.

“Many people are calling them a throwback ... to the Led Zeppelin era. But for today, they are wildly unique,” said Ron Shapiro, the Atlantic Records co-president who oversees marketing, sales and promotional efforts.

“Part of the fun with The Darkness is the debate: Can it be fun and funny and be legitimate and serious? The Darkness is the answer to that,” he said.

Already a hit in England, the band’s single “I Believe In A Thing Called Love” has begun heavy radio rotation in the United States. Its music video — punctuated by laser shooting guitars, a giant crab and a furry monster — also has earned regular play on music television channels.

Although the music may be light, the band is serious about its act.

The people making “Spinal Tap” comparisons “don’t know what we’re about,” said Hawkins, 28.

“We’re not some made up band,” Hawkins said. “We write our own songs. We perform our own songs.”

The Darkness got its start from the ashes of Empire, a rock band fronted by Hawkins’ brother, guitarist Dan Hawkins, and included Hawkins and Poullain.

But Empire fell almost as soon as it was raised.

From karaoke to actual bandOn New Year’s Eve 1999, Justin Hawkins was performing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” as part of a karaoke contest when his brother struck on the idea of putting Justin up front. They were soon joined by drummer Ed Graham, 26, and Poullain, 33.

The four chose the name The Darkness because they said it was the opposite of what the music was about — good-time rock.

The band’s choice of music was a natural for the four of them, who came of age listening to Queen, AC-DC, Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden.

“With today’s music, it’s cool to complain and feel sorry for yourself. I can’t stand it,” Poullain said. “I want to have a good time when I listen to music.”

The band says its lyrics are intentionally laced with humor and irony, such as “Love On the Rocks With No Ice,” but they are songs people can understand. There are no political messages, no double meanings, no questions.

“That’s really the art form, isn’t it? The songs are a bit timeless,” said Justin Hawkins.

The brothers also said they knew what they wanted from the beginning with The Darkness — a focus on showmanship.

Catsuits with attitudeFor the band, image is everything.

“Who wants to watch some bloke stand there in jeans and a T-shirt and just sing? Your image is your ambition,” Hawkins said.

But why catsuits?

“I like catsuits,” Hawkins said simply.

By 2002, the band was making so much noise record executives started to listen. The Darkness, which released an EP in 2002, opened on tours for Metallica, Alice Cooper and Def Leppard before releasing their debut album.

Even while seriously discussing themselves, the band members were, well, funny.

“There are bands that are all icing and no cake. We are the cake that gives you icing,” said Dan Hawkins, 26.

Graham chimed in: “And we’re not cheesecake either.”

The debate continued: Carrot Cake. No, chocolate cake. No, rum cake.

Somewhere The Darkness may still debating the answer.