Jet, The Darkness, And The Art Of Dumb Rock
“Don’t you like rock music?” That was Jeff Tweedy’s answer to a quip about the band Jet during an interview with writer Chuck Klosterman, who was trying to goad Tweedy into bemoaning how lame the Aussie rockers were. Tweedy didn’t take the bait, not because he knows better than to talk shit about other musicians, but because he understands that a world without bands who make dumb rock music like Jet would be so boring.
Rock has a rich history of dumb songs. It’s part of what makes picking up a guitar so fun. If country music is “three chords and the truth,” then rock and roll is four chords, a good riff, and a whole lotta lust. Some of rock’s most beloved songs are just plain dumb. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”? Kinda dumb. “Walk This Way”? Dumb. “Smoke On The Water”? “Back In Black”? “Blitzkrieg Bop”? All dumb. These songs and these riffs are engineered to make you move without thinking. They make us dance even if we don’t know how to, with one hand holding onto a beer and the other pointed to the sky. There’s just something about a big ol’ guitar riff that taps into this primal pleasure center of our brains that turns us into Beavis & Butt-Head. And that’s okay! If a song is that immediate, why deny it? You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to enjoy these songs, but you’d be an idiot not to.
Looking back at the charts, alternative rock in 2003 was in a dark place. Maybe it’s the effect 9/11 had on our collective psyche, not to mention our world leaders launching us blindly into a never-ending war. Our shattered complacency had many of us seeking out music that suited a more dour mood. While the world waited for the Strokes to follow up Is This It (and they wouldn’t have to wait much longer), rock music was in a weird place. Chris Cornell joined Rage Against The Machine (sort of), Metallica released their most abrasive album, and while nu-metal was on its way out, post-grunge continued its infamous reign on the charts with songs cheerily titled “(I Hate) Everything About You,” “Send The Pain Below,” and “Stupid Girl.” When the #1 rock song on the charts at the end of the year is “Headstrong” by Trapt, you know something has gone catastrophically wrong (and to think that was BEFORE they racked up all those massive Pandora numbers). These songs were brooding and self-serious. Yes, they were dumb, but they were a scolding-the-barista-for-getting-your-latte-order-wrong flavor of dumb. That shit ain’t fun.
Alternative rock was so bleak in 2003 anything that deviated from it felt kitschy. Just ask Fountains Of Wayne, whose song “Stacy’s Mom” became one of the biggest crossover hits of 2003. Its bright power-pop sound stuck out like a sore thumb on alternative radio; it was a Barbie in a sea of Oppenheimers. What “Stacy’s Mom” signaled, however, was that maybe we still had an appetite for fun dumb rock songs after all.
Enter Jet and the Darkness, two wildly different bands from opposite ends of the world who shared a similar ethos to make catchy, throwback rock and roll. Jet’s Get Born and the Darkness’ Permission To Land turn 20 in the US this month. The biggest singles from those two records – Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” and the Darkness’ “I Believe In a Thing Called Love” – added a splash of color to the charts. Both songs are fun-loving dumb-rock classics, and both are better than you remember.
If music criticism is to be taken as a cultural barometer (please do not do this), then you’d be forgiven if you thought that everyone and their mother hated Jet. Critics LOATHED these guys to the point where you wondered if small animals were harmed during the recording of Get Born. Part of the criticism was that we’ve heard all this shit before, and that Jet were just cashing in on the throwback garage rock revival that the Strokes and the White Stripes originated. They arrived on time to be lumped in with that movement, but they were a little too late to be appreciated for what they were, which is a solid rock ‘n’ roll band and nothing more. Try as they might, Jet could never be as cool as those trendsetting bands. There’s a difference between not caring and trying to look you don’t care, and Jet wouldn’t know casual nonchalance if it hit them over the head with a Les Paul.
Listening to the album today, however, it’s easy to admit that Get Born has some enjoyable-enough gems, like “Rollover DJ,” “Take It Or Leave It” (not a Strokes cover), and “Get What You Need.” These songs strive for Exile On Main Street-era Stones, but without the sex, drugs, and tax evasion. Among those tracks you also had your Beatle-y ballads that would probably work better under Noel Gallagher’s supervision. To be fair, I could also be digging too deep into a record that has the depth of a kiddie pool to begin with. If you strip the context away from Get Born, you’ll find that it’s just a harmless but catchy throwback rock and roll album. And if it can make you dance, who cares about blatant imitation?
Speaking of blatant imitation: We wouldn’t even be talking about Get Born if not for the album’s swaggering hit “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” Just as the Great Garage Rock Revival of the early aughts started out with a riff explicitly ripped from Tom Petty, Jet’s most famous song rips off Iggy Pop ripping off the Supremes. To their credit as two of the coolest dudes in rock history, both Iggy and Petty were fine with their riffs being re-translated for a new audience; they were smart enough to know that all art – rock music especially – is borrowed in one way or another. What is rock if not a genre built upon shamelessly copying what came before? And if you’re going to swipe a timeless groove, you could do a lot worse than Motown, which gives “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” a bit of a glam-rock strut.
As with so many big dumb rock songs, there isn’t a whole lot to “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” Originally written by frontman Nic Cester while he was sitting on the toilet in his late teens, the song is an ode to the British Invasion and the art of trying to get laid. The production is fairly hands-off, which gives the song a sort of distorted, raggedy live feel to it. The first things we hear are a tambourine, a cleared-throat, and a curious bass line before the rest of the band bursts through. You can hear the amps buzzing in the space between Cester’s pleading verses, in which he plays the lovesick fool going after the girl with big black boots, long brown hair, and a get back stare. Although she’s with another man, he just has one cheeky question before he lets her get away: “Are you gonna be my girl?” Not much to dissect there, really, but the words were never the point. In fact, the band stage-tested the songs before Cester had any lyrics to begin with. “I would make stuff up,” Cester told Songwriting Magazine in 2019. “I knew it was more about the diction, so I could kind of get away with faking it a little bit.”
The laid back approach benefits a song like “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?,” which sounds less labored over than most of the other tracks on Get Born. It succeeds as a no-frills, danceable rock song with a great groove, some dusty rock and roll riffage, and a snappy tagline. The simplicity is part of the charm. In the United States, “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” reached #29 on the Billboard Hot 100 — higher than most rock songs this century — thanks in large part to a spot on one of those dancing-silhouette Apple iPod commercials. It was their first top-40 hit and remains highest charting single. People have done a lot worse on a toilet seat.
The Darkness, on the other hand, were anything but simple. What started as a prog-rock/heavy metal cover band by brothers Justin and Dan Hawkins, the English combo leaned into the over-the-top classic rock thing with glee. It certainly helped that they could play the hell out of it too. Justin Hawkins, in particular, is everything you want in a frontman – bombastic and funny with elastic vocal chops to boot. Their debut record Permission To Land – which also turns 20 in the US this month – sounds just as vivacious as it did when it touched down in 2003.
From the revved-up glam metal of “Get Your Hands Off Of My Woman” and “Black Shuck” to the witty power-pop gems “Growing On Me,” “Love Is Only A Feeling,” and “Friday Night,” the album hasn’t aged a bit, which speaks to how much fun it sounds 20 years later. Where Jet tried their damnedest to sound cool, the Darkness sound like they’re not trying hard at all. When you listen to both albums 20 years later, which band sounds more at ease?
It’s telling that when writing what turned out to be the band’s biggest hit, “I Believe In A Thing Called Love,” the brothers Hawkins were trying to write the dumbest shit they could think of. “We didn’t labor over it,” Justin admitted to The Guardian earlier this year. “We didn’t toil and look for the ultimate riff. I was just following my fingers, really.” In the same piece, his brother Dan adds, “We were having a conversation along the lines of: ‘Why don’t we just write the stupidest song ever?'”
Their indifference is what sells “I Believe In A Thing Called Love.” None of it sounds belabored. A great dumb rock song like this is supposed to feel carefree, and what’s more carefree and universal than a joyful love song with some guitar solos mixed in for good measure? If you’ve ever been in love before, you know exactly what Hawkins is singing about when he says, “My heart’s in overdrive and you’re behind the steering wheel.” You don’t need to think twice about that. Love will turn even the most brilliant person into a mindless idiot. “I Believe In A Thing Called Love” sounds like falling in love for the first time, when you find someone who makes you believe in love and all it has to offer.
The Darkness’ greatest asset on Permission To Land – aside from the absurd vocal ranges and their Thin Lizzy-indebted guitar riffs – is their ability to not take themselves so goddamned seriously. Just watch the space-invader themed music video for “I Believe In A Thing Called Love,” which was the opposite of Jet’s black and white “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” performance in just about every conceivable way. Then again, a lot of videos would look stiff compared to this one.
Justin Hawkins first appears on a spaceship, naked in a heart-shaped bath, before being dried off by some furry Grimace-like creature. From there, he struts, prowls, and fights a giant crab on a pink Mars-like planet. There are slow-mo scenes highlighting the band’s flowing hair (and they really had EXCELLENT hair), and guitar solos are performed in front of an infinite stack of Marshalls. The video’s finest scene is its climax, in which the band shoots lasers out of their instruments to defeat a giant squid attacking their spaceship. Although they didn’t opt for any “nipple pyrotechnics,” the whole thing is fucking funny, and the Darkness were in on the joke. They indulged in rock’s ridiculousness, and “I Believe In A Thing Called Love” is better for it.
It’s hard to envision songs like this breaking through today as much as Jet and the Darkness did two decades ago. Rock songs like theirs don’t capture the zeitgeist quite like they used to — although we did come pretty close in 2021 with Wet Leg’s “Chaise Longue,” a delightful and utterly silly addition to the dumb rock canon. Remember how nuts everyone went for that song? A lot of people didn’t get it, but even more people went batshit for it. Though presented with an innate cool that Jet could only dream of, at its core “Chaise Longue” is a loopy rock song that quotes Mean Girls, and its origin story is a dumb-rock tale as old as time. “We wrote it in one an evening, just writing for fun and being silly,” Wet Leg’s Rhian Teasdale has said about the song. “It was a song that never really was supposed to see the light of day.” It’s also about a chair.
That’s the good stuff, when an artist writes something so tossed-off and stupid that it speaks to something universally primal in our brains. Not every song needs to be toiled over. You don’t need to rewrite every little take. Rock doesn’t have to be perfect because it never was. It’s allowed to be sloppy, silly, and dumb. This isn’t meant to be some grand Dave Grohlian/School Of Rock-type statement about the “Power of Rock ‘n’ Roll” or an assertion that rock is the only genre that matters. But there isn’t much to dislike about “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” and “I Believe In A Thing Called Love,” two songs that disrupted the monotony of the alternative charts in the fall of 2003. What the Darkness and Jet had in common was that they were solid rock bands who were good at creating memorable hooks. They weren’t exactly changing the world with their music, but their biggest hits encouraged plenty of rock ‘n’ roll hopefuls around the world to pick up a guitar and write some dumb shit themselves. And what’s so wrong with that? You like rock music, don’t you?