The Darkness

I Wrote That: Christmas Time (Don't Let the Bells End)

With Christmas upon us, M Magazine speaks to Dan and Justin Hawkins of The Darkness about the making of a modern festive classic.

Liam Konemann
  • By Liam Konemann
  • 8 Dec 2022
  • min read

It’s hard to write a new Christmas song in the 21st century. Such a vast catalogue has been written already that just about every festive angle has been covered. The snow has fallen, the sleigh bells have been rung. We’ve said both Merry Christmas Everybody and Merry Christmas Everyone. The canon is so well established that it’s near-impossible for a song to shoulder its way in.

But in 2003, The Darkness managed it. 

Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End) is a festive classic, Darkness-style. All the key elements are present and accounted for – gifts, snow, mistletoe – but with a twist. The gifts are terrible, the weather is cruel, and the mistletoe gathers dust after the love interest leaves the scene. Also, there’s a choir of children singing the word ‘bellend’ in the background. Merry Christmas indeed. 

This foray into festivity was almost entirely unplanned. About two years before Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End) made its way onto the charts, an unsigned Darkness came up with the chorus during rehearsals. To guitarist Dan Hawkins, the melody didn’t sound especially festive. Frontman Justin thought it did. Was this the beginning of a Christmas miracle? 

Not quite.  

‘We didn’t do anything with it. It was the last thing on our agenda,’ says Dan. ‘At that point, we were trying to get a set together that would bring people into clubs.’ 

It wasn’t until years later, when Dan was drinking in late 90s haunt Met Bar with A&R legend Max Lousada, that the idea of a Christmas single came back around.  

‘We’d had a few hits already, and we were coming towards the end of the year, and he asked me, “What are we going to do next?”’ Dan says. 

‘I was like, “Yes, we’ve got an amazing Christmas song.” I didn’t even remember the fact that we’d written the chorus for a Christmas song years earlier until Justin reminded me.'

Max suggested releasing Love Is Only A Feeling as a Christmas single, with a themed music video to match.  

‘I was fairly inebriated at the time, and I said “Screw that” – or words to that effect – “let’s do an actual Christmas song.”’ says Dan. ‘Let’s actually compete for number one, rather than just put a song out and add some snow in the video. He said, “Oh brilliant, that’s a great idea. Have you got a Christmas song?”’ 

‘He was drunk as well,’ says Justin.  

‘I was like, “Yes, we’ve got an amazing Christmas song.” I didn’t even remember the fact that we’d written the chorus for a Christmas song years earlier until Justin reminded me,’ says Dan. 

At the end of the conversation, the band had a week to come up with a demo. Their next commitment was supporting Metallica at Dublin’s RDS Arena, which meant they had one shot at being together and actually writing the song.  

‘I bought some Christmas jumpers, and I put loads of fairy lights up in the in the bus – this was way before Christmas, by the way – to get in the mood,’ says Dan. ‘Justin reminded me of the Christmas chorus that we had, and then we kind of just fleshed the rest of it out there and then on the journey up to supporting Metallica. It was done and dusted really quickly.’ 

With the song written and ready, the band were given their pick of producers, engineers and studios to mix and match as they pleased. They chose Bob Ezrin, Cenzo Townsend, and Abbey Road.  

Bob Ezrin is known for his children’s-choir-wrangling abilities, having worked on classics Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) and School’s Out. He handled that part of the recording without the band, who were otherwise occupied at that years Kerrang! Awards. Justin’s only note before he left was on the subject of the backing vocals. The lyrics there were non-negotiable.  

‘The thing that was important to me was “bells end” and “ring in piece”,’ says Justin. ‘Okay, they’re nearly rude. But what we had the children’s choir sing was bellend and ringpiece.’ 

When Justin explained it to him, Bob was wholeheartedly on board.  

‘That’s one of the things I love about Bob. He was the first upper echelon big hitter that we’d worked with, and it’s like when you see people who are inspired by The Beatles being all po-faced and kind of self-important, and then you actually see any footage of The Beatles and they’re just having a piss around and a laugh. That’s what Bob Ezrin is like,’ says Justin.  

When Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End) was released in mid-December 2003, it was the odds-on favourite to go to number one. Considering the song partly existed because of Dan’s decision to make a decent run at the Christmas charts, it was a gratifying result. 

‘It was very ambitious at the time. We weren’t making it to come in at number two, we were going for it,’ Dan laughs. 

Justin’s memories of the release are a little more complicated. ‘It’s funny really, because we were at the back end of our most busy year. There was a period of time when our lives changed dramatically, really – chasing momentum, building a campaign, doing a lot of it on our own,’ he says. 

The band signed to Atlantic just before I Believe in a Thing Called Love came out, by which time they had already put a lot of work into the campaign on their own. Much of their early success was off their own backs, and by the time they got to Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End), the work was starting to wear on Justin. 

‘By the time it got to the week of release, you know, leading up to Christmas, I couldn't have given less of a fuck,’ he laughs.

'I got a phone call on the Wednesday saying “You’re number one in the midweeks, and we want you to come back and do some promo."'

He wasn’t interested in the pageantry. In the midst of a personal crisis, Justin decamped to France for a week.  

‘Then I got a phone call on the Wednesday saying “You’re number one in the midweeks, and we want you to come back and do some promo,”’ he says. ‘I came back and did a couple of interviews in a bitter fashion. And it went to number two.’ 

They had been beaten by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews’ cover of Mad World. A surprise contender, the cover had gained mass popularity following the runaway success of Donnie Darko on DVD, and was released as a standalone single the same day as The Darkness’s entry. 

But all’s well that ends well. Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End) is a solid seasonal favourite, appearing on many a holiday playlist to this day. It topped the 2003 year-end Rock & Metal chart, is certified platinum, and returns to the official charts every Christmas. The bells haven’t ended yet.