The Ridiculous Falsetto heavyweight title has had surprisingly few champions since its inception in 1968. Tiny Tim, without question the Muhammad Ali of the division, reigned for 20 non-consecutive years, from his first performance on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, through 1989 (he lost the title briefly to Robert Plant in 1970—“Immigrant Song,” y’all—only to take it back in ’71). Michael Matijevic of Steelheart took the belt in 1990 and reigned, unchallenged, for 12 years (even when he was sidelined by a bizarre lighting rig injury, no one could touch him).
Along came Justin Hawkins in 2003, prancing around in his catsuit and warbling “Justlistentotherhythmofmyheart” on his band The Darkness’ single “I Believe in a Thing Called Love.” Matijevic went down in the first round and never got back up. Hawkins celebrated his victory by strutting around the ring like a chicken (or Mick Jagger) before climbing the ropes and ripping a two-handed tapping solo on a silver Les Paul that appeared in his hands as if by magic.
Aside from a brief, awkward period of co-championship in 2005—Springsteen fought him to a draw with “All I’m Thinkin’ About,” then relinquished his share of the belt almost immediately—Hawkins has defended the title ever since, through two bands (he bolted The Darkness in ’06 and currently fronts something called Hot Leg—more about them later) and a stint in rehab. As long as he keeps recording and no one like James Hetfield or the scary muthas in Mastodon decide to go Bee Gee on us, Hawkins will likely stay on top for a while.
Hawkins’ falsetto was only the most prominent in a litany of affectations that made The Darkness so strangely alluring in the early years of the millennium. Apparently, in 2003, folks on both sides of the Atlantic were ready and eager to embrace a band that unapologetically flew the flag for mid-70s glam and arena rock. To see The Darkness perform was to be transported back to a time when Blue Oyster Cult and Ted Nugent rocked stadiums, Queen were the champions, Angel played the hockey arena down the road, and the guys in Aerosmith were coked up and cool.
The Darkness’ first album, Permission to Land, was a jumble of these and many other influences, but the average listener had trouble determining whether Hawkins and company were serious in their embrace of their forebears or perfectly playing the irony card. Hawkins’ keening vocals and silly/cool lyrics were the focal points of the mystery—musically, the band just plain fucking rocked. I mean, rawked. Though I came to love it, I hated the record at first, because Hawkins was sufficiently ridiculous to make me wonder whether I was being seriously spoken to or seriously made fun of.
Case in point: the glorious “Love Is Only a Feeling.” At first blush, it’s a terrific example of the power ballad arts—medium tempo, power chords out the yin-yang, and a cool dual guitar solo; and that’s just the intro. Then Hawkins comes in, acoustic guitar strumming along behind his most sensitive singing. And out of his mouth comes this:
The first flush of youth was upon you when our eyes first met
And I knew that to you and into your life I had to get
I felt light-headed at the touch of this stranger’s hand
An assault my defenses systematically failed to withstand
This ain’t no hey-diddle-diddle-witcha-kitty-in-the-middle. The second line actually takes pains to be grammatically correct. And this is rawk? Hell to the yeah, apparently! ‘Tis a mouthful, to be sure. He does it again in the bridge:
‘Cos you came at a time
When the pursuit of one true love in which to fall
Was the be all and end all
“The pursuit of one true love in which to fall!” My fourth grade teacher—the one that beat prepositional phrases into my skull like Hong Man Choi smacked down Jose Canseco—would be proud. What makes it even better is the fact that it leads into a magnificent chorus:
Love is only a feeling
When I’m in your arms I start believing
(It’s here to stay)
But love is only a feeling
And thus begins the conundrum at the heart of this bit of Bic-flickin’ goodness: he sings of this love as a transcendent, grammar-enhancing thing, but acknowledges, perhaps grudgingly, that it’s drifting away, it’s “only a feeling.” ‘Tis no longer the “be all and end all,” and that’s sad, so sad, in fact, that he explains it all in that falsetto we either love or hate. We want to know more, and Hawkins is happy to give it to us, man-in-catsuit style:
The state of elation that this unison of hearts achieved
I had seen, I had touched, I had tasted and I truly believed
That the light of my life
Would tear a hole right through each cloud that scudded by
Just to beam on you and I
Another mouthful, but it works, doesn’t it? His twelfth-grade vocabulary and perfect diction have married, though, for the first time, his grammar has faltered. I is a pronoun that must be the subject of a verb; the pronoun in the line “Just to beam on you and I” is actually the object of the verb, and thus should be me, not I. That is your power ballad grammar lesson for the day. You’re welcome.
Of course, me doesn’t rhyme with by, so the error goes by the listener without much notice. The chorus repeats, followed by a cool guitar solo, and then the final chorus, which ends things on a somewhat somber note:
Love is only a feeling
And we’ve got to stop ourselves believing
(It’s here to stay)
‘Cos love is only a feeling
Aw shee-yit! Did you see what he did? He switched it up! “We’ve got to stop ourselves believing / (It’s here to stay).” Love is not the ultimate expression of affection between two people—it truly is only a feeling. And, as if to punctuate his point, Hawkins closes the song with a slammin’ solo, complete with bent-note wailing and a display of two-handed tapping prowess.
And if the solo sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same one he performed when he won the Ridiculous Falsetto title from the dude from Steelheart. It’s a title Hawkins defended last year with his new band, Hot Leg, and the chorus of their single, “Chickens.”
Long live the champ: