10 Years, 100 Songs: #86. “My Heart’s in Overdrive and You’re Behind the Steering Wheel”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 30, 2009
Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.
When The Darkness first came out, the most common discussion topic about them was always about whether or not they were being ironic. The snobbier critics and indie kids tended to want to believe that they were doing it as near-parody, and the classic rock true believers wanted to believe that they were totally sincere. Of course, both sides of the argument were totally ridiculous. They couldn’t possibly be doing it 100% straight faced, otherwise it’d look more like Jet or Buckcherry, whose intentions were too base and unremarkable to ever be questioned by anyone. And they couldn’t be doing as straight parody, either, otherwise there’s no way they’d be doing such a great job of it. Rather, the appeal of The Darkness was that they viewed classic rock the same way that most people in the 21st century with half a brain and half a heart did–a genre of occasional ridiculous, poorly-dated cliches, which nonetheless continued to tap more effectively into the pleasure centers of listeners than just about any other style of music.
And the crazy thing is that when The Darkness were at the very peak of their hype, they were about as anomalous among their supposed peers as was humanly possible. 2003 was the year of The Strokes’ Room on Fire, The White Stripes’ Elephant, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever to Tell–all bands celebrated for their relatively raw, frill-less, street-and-garage-level approach to rock and roll. And yet somehow the UK press still found time to help pitch US audiences on The Darkness, a band for whom “frill-less” will never be among the more fitting appelations. With their glammy get-ups, ripping guitar solos, and unabashedly corny music videos (to match their unabashedly corny lyrics), The Darkness were, for all their retro fixations, actually a breath of fresh air in the almost oppressively pretension-devoid stylings of the New Rock Revolution. (Though don’t worry, all three of those bands will be coming up at some point on this list as well.)
“I Believe in a Thing Called Love” was, without question, the defining moment of The Darkness’s brief reign at the top, and possibly the closest thing that our young century will come to our own “More Than a Feeling.” You know what you’re in for from the very beginning, as the at-first muffled opening riff explodes into your speakers in all its panoramic glory, the perfect introduction for lead singer Justin Hawkins and his classically-trained metaphor usage: “Can’t explain all the feelings that you’re making me feel / My heart’s in overdrive and you’re behind the steering wheel.” Like everything else about the band, Hawkins was big–big hair and big voice, shouting at the top of his lungs from the get, and racing further up and down his multi-octave range as the song goes on (“Touching you-OO-OOO-OOO-OOO!!! / Touching me-EEE-EEE-EEE-EEE!!!“)–hitting the highest registers in rock with the bravado of no one since Lou Gramm and Kevin Cronyn (if not, y’know, Freddie Mercury).
But everyone knows what classic rock is really about–the anthemic chorus, and “Thing Called Love” has a doozy. “I believe in a thing called love / Just listen to the rhythm of my heart / There’s a chance we could make it now / We could rock it ’til the sun goes down / I BELIEVE IN A THING CA-LLED LOOOOOOVE!!!” Pure and easy, a classic rock chorus of such high quality that it doesn’t for a second feel like a cheesy attempt to recapture the glory of a sound that went out of fashion over two decades ago–rather, it sounds like The Darkness bragging that even though they’re 20+ years late to the game, they can still do it better than most of the guys from the genre’s classic period ever could. Hawkins even uses the chorus–which is virtually impossible to sing along to in both its loose-lipped speed and its dog whistle-level pitch–to demonstrate the #1 rule of classic rock: the band should always seem like they can be properly imitated by anyone, ever.
Throw in a couple great double-tracked guitar solos, some more vocal trilling, and a video that really hits all the high points (Spaceships! Electricity! Giant spidercrabthings! That weird-looking dude with the moustache!), and in three and a half minutes,”I Believe in a Thing Called Love” made supposed classic rock lovers like Tenacious D look like rank amateur-poser-loser assholes by comparison. The best kind of tribute that can be paid to “Thing Called Love” to place it in the true ranks of its cock-rock brethren is that it continues to endure in the positive memories of everyone who was around for it when it came out, becoming a karaoke standard, a modern rock fixture and recently even a feature on VH1’s I Love the New Millennium. Even people who couldn’t name a single Boston or Styx song, and who wouldn’t normally come within half a mile of a mainstream rock radio station, still became converts at least for the duration of the song.
Of course, anyone who thought this song was the beginning of a long, beautiful career is far more of a true believer than I could ever hope to be. The Darkness only achieved a minor follow-up hit off Permission to Land (the mildly clever though somewhat less righteous “Growing on Me”) in the US, and then they only released one more album (the significantly less buzzed-about, albeit brilliantly titled, One Way Ticket to Hell…And Back!) before lead singer Justin Hawkins entered rehab, and left the band. But for a band whose greatest arena rock fantasies were all realized in their first big hit, I don’t think anyone was terribly surprised to see the Darkness quickly flame out afterwards. After all, it’s not like Boston ever topped their first album, either.