"Ooh, my nipple," says Darkness singer Justin Hawkins, rubbing himself after a soccer ball ricochets off his pierced chest. He smiles. No blood. This is how his band wanted to start an evening of clubbing: by challenging a hastily assembled Rolling Stone team to a game of soccer. And who are we to disappoint Britain's biggest act, whose debut album, Permission To Land, soared to Number One in the U.K. after just one week? Who have revived an age of Zeppelin-esque rock & roll decadence? Whose cat-suited front-man wails "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" in a spot-on Freddie Mercury falsetto and bears a tattoo of his own name? Anyway, we lose. They use the YWCA sink as a shower, and we hop into our van. They're thirsty.
Tonight, getting into clubs will be easy. Arm yourself with models, have friends in high places or just roll with the Darkness and chances are you'll be in the corner booth, sipping free alcohol. Lines are cut, waitresses flock, girls stare and tabs disappear. "We've been desperately hungry to make it for about ten years, and now we have our chance," says Justin's younger brother, guitarist Dan Hawkins. "We're part of this aristocracy of classic rock, and there's no competition, because classic rock has been dead for so long. I take comfort in knowing that Brian May, Roger Taylor and the Young brothers from AC/DC really appreciate what we're doing."
First stop on this cold Friday night is Crobar, Manhattan's trendiest new club, barely a month old. Aside from their entourage, which includes a manager, a producer and a publicist, the Darkness boys travel light. I quickly realize that none of them are carrying any cash. "All I got is a packet of fags and a posh lighter," says Justin. The group is whisked through a side door, past a throng of about 100 hipsters freezing their asses off. We're led to the corner table, where we have a bird's-eye view of the dance floor below.
"He's a fucking amazing dancer, real hilarious," says Dan, wearing one of his twenty Thin Lizzy T-shirts and motioning toward his older brother. "We used to go to rock clubs and indie clubs, get completely assholed, and go crazy." Four years ago the band was stuck searching for a frontman until a New Year's party at their aunt's pub just outside the band's seaside hometown of Lowestoft. "At about 12:30, 'Bohemian Rhapsody' came on, and Justin just started acting out the words," Dan says. "It was one of those moments where you realize what music is all about — having fun, but rocking at the same time. And that's what we planned to do."
Bottle service — a luxurious staple for the high-end clubber — arrives quickly, but the boys want beer. A small throng has casually surrounded our table. "You guys are fucking hot!" one girl yells, over OutKast's "Hey Ya!" "The ones that throw themselves at you aren't necessarily the ones you want," says drummer Ed Graham, who, like his bandmates, has a girlfriend at home in Britain. "You'll see tonight — you can't beat them off with a shitty stick." A bucket of beer arrives. Dan estimates that he and Ed began ordering pints at 13 or 14 and have worshipped the nectar ever since. In the realm of the Darkness, egregious spilling of beer is a capital offense. "A lot of bands pour it over themselves during a gig," Justin says, shaking his head. "But there are so many starving people in the world that could really do with that Special Brew. Wasting it is like shoving food down a toilet, or beating up your wife in a pub. It's just disrespectful."
After we've given our waitress a healthy tip, we pile back into the van and head to the Whiskey at the Times Square W Hotel, where we are to watch the band's performance on David Letterman's Late Show on a 19-foot screen in the club's private room. A rep explains that the satellite feed is down and we must watch from a penthouse suite. Bottle service arrives promptly at Room 5709. The entourage has inexplicably doubled in size, and a group of 20 plunks onto the master bed. The band celebrates its Letterman triumph by cracking open a bottle of bubbly, the cork bouncing off bassist Frankie Poullain's head.
Back outside, where the temperature has plummeted to the single digits, Justin dreams about his ideal party atmosphere: "It would be just like New York, with the weather of Los Angeles. And a few palm trees." Bungalow 8, one of Gotham's most enduringly hip nightspots, is reminiscent of an LA. club: Palm trees line opposite walls, and towering ceilings give it an outdoor feel. Britney Spears and Madonna are rumored to be showing up, but upon hearing this the Darkness feign disinterest. The velvet rope is raised, and while we wait for a table to be cleared, two bottles of champagne arrive, and then a bill for more than $650.
"A celebrity should expect to be treated like everybody else," says Amy Sacco, Manhattan club maven and owner of Bungalow 8 and Lot 61. "We're expected to give so much away, but celebrities are usually in a better financial position than any club owner." But what about the unconnected? How does the average clubber get into exclusive joints? "It's an advantage to dress to impress," Sacco says. "If you're a rock star, be a rock star. If Prada is your look, wear it. If you're into hip-hop, pull it off." And slipping a Jackson (or even a Benjamin) to the bouncer is a bad idea. "That just tells a doorman that you think you can buy them," says Sacco. For those light on funds, she also suggests arriving as the doors open (to bypass cover charges), printing coupons from Web sites for reduced admission and schmoozing at gallery openings. "They're a fabulous, cheap way to go out and have fun and find out what's going on." Girls: "Go out on a Monday night. You'll probably be one of the few out there, and everyone's going to want to buy you a drink."
Justin Hawkins has seated himself at a booth, watching people get assholed all around him, with his eyes bugging out of his pale and sunken face. Hawkins' intent stare and shit-eating grin are reminiscent of Alex, the lead character in A Clockwork Orange. And Dan explains that the band's camaraderie and commitment to one another are not unlike that of the four droogs. "We have rules of engagement," he says. "The general rule is that if there isn't a gig the next day and you want to go for it, anything goes. But everyone knows exactly where the line is. No one gets sympathy if they cross it. It happens to everyone, though. It's just not in our nature to say no."