Hotleg, Saving Aimee
30th October 2008

Hmm, oddness. Being the privileged sort, I tend to forget sometimes that I can walk in to the Forum whenever I feel like it and perhaps I’m a tad overused to not having to stay outside queuing with the plebs. I daresay I’m just a bit spoilt on that score, so occasionally forget that in the absence of the public, when I wander in, more often than not, musicians and assorted crew from the headline and support acts are hanging around at the closed bar, or soundchecking, making last minute preparations, bawling for leads or other bits of assorted gubbins or simply trying to discuss things with each other before the doors open. The point is, when you’re used to it, you tend to ignore whoever’s there because they’re usually looking busy and one hairy muso looks very much like another after a while. I’ll just park my expansive arse on an available stool, frown at the Pepsi (look lads, its Coke we want, so please bring cans of it back to the bar. Pepsi is the devil’s diarrhoea. Nobody in the world has ever asked for a vodka and Pepsi) and chat to whomever’s guarding the bar from thirsty people. On this occasion, I enquired of young Tom “not gay, just well groomed” Riddlemetimbers as to whether the band have actually turned up (because, sadly, big headliners occasionally don’t) and was pleasantly surprised as he poured my pint of Beelzebub’s arse gravy, when he pointed out what I had utterly failed to observe: Justin Hawkins was standing but a few feet away with his back turned.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m seldom starstruck and I’m not this time, but the other half is a fan (of sorts) and feeling a bit guilty about not bringing her, I reckoned it might be put me in good stead if I ask him, nice and respectful-like, if he could just record a brief video ‘hello’ on my phone. Not that I’d have bothered normally, but one’s lady, you know. So, feeling no end of a tit, with a gentle “Excuse me Justin…” I prompted him to turn round and holding my phone up, asked with all civility whether he would be kind enough to record a brief hello for her as she can’t be here tonight, or words to that effect. You never know, I thought, he might give her one of those trademark saucy feline growls that he does so ‘ironically’, which would guarantee my (hot)leg over when I got home. But no sooner had the words left my lips and the phone was raised, his smile morphed into a pale wide-eyed expression of pure terror, and in a high pitched shriek, stuttered “No! J-j-just – NO!”, turned and ran stagewards to hide, as if I’d suggested he snort a line of charlie from my cock, or handed him a writ for unpaid taxes or a paternity suit.

Tom reckons I frightened him, which I consider to be quite an achievement if I did. This isn’t going anywhere as a story and kinda ends there with no climax or drama, but I record it because a) it happened, and b) because other than this momentary attack of the jitters, Justin Hawkins is perhaps the bravest down-on-his-luck rock ‘n’ roll star on the toilet circuit right now, and it’s high time he was recognised for it. Even if it is on a more modest scale these days.

You may have refused to buy the records on general principal and might even have feigned despair at hearing “I Believe In A Thing Called Love” for the hundredth time in a week, but the odds are you secretly liked The Darkness, or at least begrudgingly admired them. I did. So did countless others of all ages and tastes, especially that summer, and we’ll always remember them with fondness for that, and for the genuine excitement and fun they generated on festival stages, rather than for the appalling bilge that preceded their demise and giant inflatable body parts. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we, the public, want it all over again. Once was enough for many of us, but the rest don’t seem to be shutting up about it.

Yes, The Darkness could reform at any time, or they never will, depending on which rumour mill you believe, and certainly many, including their bank managers, would welcome such a move. Nevertheless, there also exists a diehard segment of fans sincerely hoping that The Darkness don’t bury the hatchet, because it’s better to remember them for how they were in all their innocence before fame chewed ‘em up good n’ proper.

Although there have been a few tentative stabs at the limelight since, Hawkins has been trying to live down those early days and make something of the opportunities that have come his way, and despite one or two less than salubrious moments, he’s come out with a fair bit of respect intact. In his own daft and limited way, Hawkins has become a bit of a national treasure, and he knows that for some bizarre reason, the more of an ironic rock ‘n’ roll fuck-up he is, the more we like it. He might be a cock, but he’s an amusing cock and a British cock, so even in these difficult times, his stock might be trading lower than it was, but warrants a watchful eye, because you never know what the bugger’s going to do next. It would be a shame to throw that away by pandering to pressure and reforming The Darkness, as that would be accepting that Hawkins can’t do anything else, when he clearly can.

Hotleg are not The Darkness in either style, attitude or budget and that’s a good thing. However, their prime commodity is The Darkness’ legacy. Hardly anyone would want to see them otherwise, so of course, despite the quality of Hotleg, who are – it has to be said – more technically proficient than The Darkness ever were, the fact remains that although the crowds are happy to lap up Hotleg and have a great time accordingly, it’ll take a Darkness tune or two to make ‘em go home really happy. So much for a clean break.

There’s a reason that that tune has been found tacked onto the end of previous Hotleg set lists as “the ultimate song”, because it’s Justin’s finest few minutes and he’ll be trading on it all his life, like so many jaded rock stars before him. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t of course, as it’s a tune he has a perfect right to perform and it has ensured his immortality, but Darkness tunes will always get the biggest cheers no matter how good Hotleg’s other material gets. For example, let’s take Hotleg’s Xmas single “I’ve Met Jesus” , or rather, don’t, as you’ll find it an utterly ghastly business. It’s marginally less embarrassing than that abominable “Don’t Let The Bells End” nonsense, but which of those tunes is going to be on every seasonal compilation alongside Wham, Slade and Mariah Carey, until the end of time? He’ll still be asked about The Darkness in interviews and badgered by fans even if his ‘solo’ career lasts 20 years, because the 21st century has proved so far that the only thing preventing a band’s reunion, for pretty much anybody, is death. And even that’s not much of an obstacle if enough money’s involved.

So, with regard to his pop star past, Hawkins has a tricky decision to make: to play, or not to play what people want to hear. Sure, Hotleg played ‘that’ song in the earlier gigs, but would they carry on doing so, knowing that it would somehow be a millstone around their necks? Will they let go of the past completely in order to embrace the future in their own right with no ghosts hiding in the machine? That would be the most principled thing to do, and the happy throngs demanding his falsetto yelps on a song they know, well, they can go hang. But people know that Hotleg have used Darkness tunes as their set climax in the past and as such, they may feel disappointed if Justin & Co refused to delve into Darkness tunes at all, so does he play them with pride and subsequently get accused of being a spent force with his best work behind him, or stubbornly insist that Hotleg is the future and let the past go? It’s a decision that can’t have been very easy to make: damned if he does, damned if he don’t.

Hotleg don’t intend to be rock’s next big noise and know that they won’t set the world aflame, but they’ll get out there and do it well regardless, because, well, they have some pride, and it’s what they do, even if they look a bit silly doing it. Hawkins and fellow guitarist Pete Rinaldi, despite trying to out-‘Eighties’ one another, are a quite mesmerising double-act, assuming the roles of Fun Revivalists par excellence and doing their damnedest to ensure that they drag out the degenerate side of any witnesses even remotely so inclined. So certainly, for as long as Hotleg lasts, they’ll never try to get too serious on us. And why should they, when the public appetite for reviving the fortunes of the forgotten is so strong? The Darkness were hardly a critics’ band and Hotleg aren’t either, so if they gain momentum it’ll not be due to miserable cynics who dismiss Hotleg as a cant method of keeping the fire stoked until the point in the not-too-distant future, when The Darkness can undertake an appropriately funded and marketed return, no doubt championed all the way by Classic Rock magazine or the Daily Star, with Justin re-entering as an elder statesman to all those celebrity parties and trendy haunts that keep the tabloids in business.

But if and when they do, with their youth gone and their naivety kicked into touch, they would be trading on memories alone and they can never again hope to be the same band of spandex-clad goons because everyone’s greyer and podgier now, so they’d be, well, a bit ridiculous. Sure, they would celebrate the old tunes and that long-awaited third album would probably be hailed by fans as a return to the form of “Permission To Land”, but we’d all know inside that it’s cabaret and baksheesh, wringing the remaining life and lolly out of a five-times platinum legend-that-was, nothing more. The magic would be gone, and all that bouncy enthusiasm and camp glamour that they did so well would become self parody. Back then they were new and cheeky and impudently astounded by the scale of their own success, flaunting their hair and codpieces, frequently stealing the show from their betters, giving us instant pop classics that even your granny liked, and we equally loved and loathed ‘em for it. But whether we were twelve, twenty or ninety then, everyone’s five years older now and to the new generation they’d be little more than a novelty. When what was initially rock ‘n’ roll fun becomes corny and stale, as they proved it had on the last Darkness album and tour, it’s impossible to get it back to any significant degree, and no matter how strongly a reunion might be trumpeted, however hard they might try, they’ll always be trying, and failing, to party like it’s 2003. Not unlike a drug addict hardened to his poison, trying in vain with an ever-dwindling circle of friends to achieve the memories of those glorious early highs and never getting there, yet still living in hope that one day, he might.

A bit saddening when you think about it.

It’s a problem that Saving Aimee don’t have, yet, and praise be to that. With haircuts apparently stolen from Guitar Hero characters and a logo nicked from Aerosmith, The St Albans sextet have spent the last three years since their inception, touring and gigging pretty much constantly, hammering the toilet circuit with nobodies and grabbing fortuitous slots with the likes of Enter Shikari and McFly, so with their Hawkins-produced debut album due for release early in the new year, they’ve earned their place at the fringes of the new glitterati through sheer sweat and it shows. Saving Aimee, you see, are simply quite ridiculously good.

Boasting the rare Forum quality of a crisp, clean sound, Saving Aimee whip in and out of tonight’s show like gung-ho guerrillas, coming in to brighten our existence by blazing splendidly for 20 minutes, leaving our ears all tingly and a bewildered “what the fuck ?” expression on our faces. And how do they do this? With wit, bounce, and the skilful application of geeky, freaky, punky emo with electro bits, riffy bits, drummy bits, funky bits, melodic shifts, wonky loops to die for, rich tunes that stay with you like a winter cold, and all polished as brightly as a guardsman’s shoes, that’s how. Should you need much more, we have frontman Luke, a floppy haired urchin with a clipped home counties accent but the dress sense of a bag lady, so naturally the girls love him and the lads think he’s a wanker. Nevertheless he’s got a well seasoned versatile vocal technique, able to croon, rap, scream and holler like a beered-up teenager having the worst tantrum of his life, so he’s certainly not going unnoticed.

The rest are colourful enough goblins, being sufficiently less flamboyant than their leader but happy, tight and absolutely effortless in their ability to enjoy themselves and tease out the fun in others. Be sure of it, Saving Aimee have practiced stagecraft and audience involvement as vigorously as the songs themselves, so we can stand up with ‘em to milk every last tingling drop out of free download single “Small Talk” and “We Are The Good Guys” celebrating the sheer joy of girls, gigs, guitars and grog with as much clapping, chanting and sweating as we can muster, and during that time, Saving Aimee can make you feel as if you both have limitless reserves.

It won’t be long before Saving Aimee’s hearty ability to bend a whole room to their feel-good whim becomes an extremely bankable commodity, so although we may not expect gargantuan success for ‘em in 2009, they’ll keep popping up and getting better each time until you can’t ignore the little buggers.

As Hotleg take to the stage amid a perspiring mob of punters trying to fondle bits of his costume, Justin Hawkins stands alone for a few seconds, basking in the adulation before getting down to business. His arms are a mass of tattoos, the dark roots are showing in his bleached shaggy barnet and that guitar’s hung so low it keeps whacking him in the knees. But then, with heads down and knees apart, they roar into life like a buzz-saw and the chances are, you’ve not heard or seen a more scurvy bunch of gutterdogs since The Glitterati: squealing brash guitars, a touch of ironic kitsch, pale skins, cigarette burns, bleach, eyeliner, designer stubble, bandanas, spandex…you know the score if you’re old enough. Think back, if you can, to those heady days of 88 –92, when the likes of Rich Rags, Tattooed Love Boys and Soho Roses dominated the club scene, with bands everywhere desperately pretending that they came from Hollywood. Or if you aren’t that old, think Rachel Stamp, or The Glitterati after soap and water. But essentially, if it wasn’t for that outrageous falsetto vocal, Hotleg would look and sound just like a Hanoi Rocks tribute band.

You’d be hard pushed to fault their enthusiasm for the era though, and as such, expecting anything more challenging than celebrations of sex and loud guitars would be foolish. Take new single “Trojan Guitar” for example, which as Justin helpfully informs us is “downloadable free, no tax, no obligation, just listen as loud as you like!”; it’s rolled out to hollering aplomb and gets a mass clapalong out of sympathetic support, but as songs go, it’s a bit of a turkey, being a typically clichéd bit of softcore that bursts into Crue-esque glam metal exactly when you expect it to , and ultimately as forgettable as a cigarette. Their debut download single “Heroes” is more tautly angry degenerate sleaze, and damn good it is too, but it’s “Gay In The Eighties” that really divides opinions on Hotleg, because this retro-styled celebration of camp nostalgia is comical, catchy and as corny as a Mexican turd. It’s a tune so instantly despisable that those who aren’t jumping gaily about are by-and-large making forced affectations of nauseated derision to one other, no doubt sighing to themselves that it was exactly what they expected and feared from Hawkins and Co, with a self-satisfied sneer, and making mental notes to use the words “Darkness-Lite” on their blogs later.

So much for the material, then. But as a practiced and slick band, Hotleg can hold their heads up high. Hawkins’ guitar work in Hotleg is precise and dextrous, leaving none of the room for fucking about that he had with The Darkness. You’d probably be forgiven for thinking that he was trying to be taken seriously, because Hawkins seems exceedingly comfortable thrashing around with Hotleg, and even that high vocal technique doesn’t sound like he’s taking the piss any more. That being said, they do practice a lot of cheeky things for the amusement factor, such as when JH busts a string. At a given signal they all stop – and I mean stop dead on a note with absolute unified precision and total silence – while they swap axes over, and when he’s ready to strum again, they burst smugly back to life without missing a beat, as if someone released a pause button. Style, you see. It might not be influential or unique or even desirable style, but it’s flash, and though JH might not be the most eloquent of frontmen, where showing-off is involved, he’s a master of the art.

A Xmas single and lots of booty-shaking later, it’s “mega-ballad” time, in that good old fashioned Eighties way. Yay. Big guitars, waving lighters, the odd hurled glowstick and guys drilling their erections into the spines of whichever female is in front of them, just as tradition dictates. But are we going to get a Darkness tune to top it all off? It could arguably be our little treat for being so appreciative while Hotleg strut and frolic in approved rock n roll fashion, making time honoured squeals with lots of grimaces, tart Tap-isms and grunting noises. No we’re not, despite the cat-calls. And neither will anyplace else. Why? Because JH is brave enough to stick to his guns and treat Hotleg as a band with a future rather than yet another publicity platform. This is a man, remember, who absolutely clamours for an adoring audience and to please crowds, so he’ll upset a sizable proportion of his fanbase (who missed the early shows featuring Darkness tunes) by not performing “I Believe In A Thing Called Love” on this short tour when they’ve been expecting it, but fuck ‘em. For now and for the foreseeable future, he’s finally leaving The Darkness behind him, thinking of Hotleg as a band he’s in rather than as a star with a supporting cast, starting at the bottom, looking straight ahead and damn the consequences.

Fortune favours the brave, they say, so perhaps by the summertime everything will have worked out and their gigs won’t be full of people continually spouting the D-word. But I doubt it, I really do.

Paul Mills