By Manuel Gemperli
This is a story about friendship, about love, about passion, about near-death, about betrayal, but also about forgiveness. It’s the story of England’s best band of the 2000’s: The Libertines.
In 2003, Peter Doherty was sent to jail for breaking into his bandmate’s and friend’s Carl Barat’s apartment. Apparently, the break-in was an act of revenge for being kicked out of the band due to his drug addiction that was starting to get out of control. Rock N’ Roll, baby. It wouldn’t have been surprising if he had pawned the stuff that he stole to get money for drugs, because at the time, few things Pete did were surprising. You would think that was the end of the band and Pete’s and Carl’s friendship. But Carl forgave Pete. The following year, The Libertines returned with their second (and for a long time last) album and went all the way to number 1 in the UK charts. This is the story of how it came to all of that and what happened next.
The Libertines were formed in 1997, the year that saw the first signs of the impending decline of Britpop mania. It was the year that Tony Blair got elected Prime Minister of the UK, ending an 18-year reign of the Conservative Party. Blair was smart enough to align himself with the Britpop stars of the moment and portray himself as the candidate of the youth. It was the time of Cool Britannia. Waving the Union Jack was hip again and it was time for change. Noel Gallagher of Oasis seemed just as happy to align himself with Blair as vice versa. He certainly loved the attention. He was now even more than the rockstar he always wanted to be. He was a political force. The picture of Noel sipping Champagne with Tony Blair at the Labour Party’s victory celebration ended up being a symbol for the beginning of the end of Britpop. As is often the case: once the establishment embraces and sucks the life out of a musical or cultural movement, the end is near. 1997 is also the year Oasis released “Be Here Now”, another nail in the Britpop coffin. It was the follow up to their 1995 album “What’s The Story, Morning Glory”, a record that transformed them from British to global superstars. You might have heard “Wonderwall” before. “Be Here Now” is what happens when rockstars can do whatever they please including ridiculous amounts of cocaine. In short, the songs get unnecessarily long. 1997 is also the year Blur became known in America as the band with the “woo hoo” song – a tune that is now mostly played during hockey games. I’m cool with that. I never liked Blur anyway.
The Libertines had some things in common with Oasis. Their music was gritty and dirty but also at times simply beautiful. Hooligans with a soft core. They both liked to party hard. Really hard. And both bands technically had four members, but only 2 of them really mattered. For Oasis it was the Gallagher brothers. For the Libertines it was Pete and Carl. They shared guitar, vocals and songwriting duties and had a - let’s say – complicated relationship. They bonded over their love for music and art, created a shared mythology of the good ship they called Albion which is sailing to Arcadia, their idea of an idealized England. Or something like that. Not everything needs to make exact sense when you’re young, wild and ready to take on the world. They were romantics and that’s one of the things people – including me – loved about them. The first few years after their formation though, they operated on a mainly local level playing many shows in their own apartment, dubbed the “Albion room”. Often accompanied by the police. I guess their neighbors weren’t their biggest fans. Those shows would become part of their legend building though. Mainstream rock at the time was dominated by bands like Creed or for the little more aggressive bros: Limp Bizkit. But then in 2001, the world of rock music changed. The Strokes released “Is This It” and became the hippest band in the world - practically overnight. England needed an answer and Rough Trade found it.
In 2002, The Libertines released their debut album “Up The Bracket”. It was a revelation. Invoking English legends such as the Kinks or the Clash, it was retro, but it still sounded fresh and untamed. Both Pete and Carl write wonderful, at times off-kilter yet catchy melodies and their shared love for poetry shines through in their lyrics giving them an artsy aura without losing the streets. When Pete was 16, he won a poetry competition and embarked on a tour of Russia organized by the British Council. He was once a good school boy. While The Strokes were so damn cool that they almost seemed apathetic, The Libertines were wildly passionate. There was a sense of adventure surrounding them. They felt dangerous, just like rock bands should. Even though they were heavily influenced by the past, this was a band for the youth. Garage rock was all the rage now and it became pretty much mandatory for new bands to use the definite article in their band names. Should have been great times for the “boys in the band”, but Pete’s drug use started to get out of control. The classic rock n roll story. He became unreliable to a point that Carl kicked him out of the band. That’s when Pete sought revenge and broke into Carl’s apartment. Instead of that being the final nail in the coffin of the band, it marked the beginning of their reunion. Carl has a sense for theatrics, so of course he didn’t just forgive Pete quietly. He staged it. As Pete was released from jail, he was waiting for him at the prison gates along with countless journalists and arm in arm they went their way back to freedom. This is when the photo was taken that ended up being the cover of their next album. That night they played an intimate, spontaneous gig to celebrate. Just like in the good old days.
Shortly afterwards, they went back in the studio to create the follow-up to “Up The Bracket” and hired none other than Mick Jones of The Clash to produce it. Sonically, it showed a wider array of influences while maintaining their core sound. The album felt urgent, immediate. The songs were basically recorded as they were written. It sounded like a band on the verge of falling to pieces but somehow pulling it together and making it to the end of the record without passing out. Probably because that’s exactly what they were. Many of the lyrics were about Pete’s and Carl’s complicated relationship, most notably the album opener “Can’t Stand Me Now” and closer “What Became of the likely lads”. The perfect bookends for this album. Pete and Carl sing in direct response to each other, like bickering lovers, a drama of tumultuous love turned into song. The album starts with Carl singing “an ending fitting for the start. you twist and tore our love apart” and ends with both of them asking “What became of the dreams we had?” “What became of forever? We’ll never know”. In America that would be called a bromance, but that term wouldn’t capture the grandiosity on display here. This must have been love. The album was a great success. It went to number 1 in the UK charts. Despite all the chaos, they had managed to get even bigger, but the fragile harmony wouldn’t last long. Before the year was over, they broke up again. What followed was the public downfall of a young rockstar who had the world at his feet but seemed to be throwing it all away.
In 2005, the Daily Mirror, one of the UK’s most infamous tabloid newspapers, ran a cover story accompanied by a photo of supermodel Kate Moss snorting cocaine. My first reaction at the time was: is this news? I just assumed she and all her model friends would be on coke. How else could she be that skinny? But that’s besides the point. The photos were taken at a recording studio where Pete’s new band, the Babyshambles, were working on their first album. Pete was now dating Kate Moss. And the UK tabloid press loved it. The beauty and the beast. Pete became more famous for this relationship and his drug antics than for his music. Scandal followed scandal. For a while, it seemed like we were watching a young musician die in public. Much like Amy Winehouse a little bit later. Miraculously, he still managed to put out great music during that time. The first two Babyshambles albums at times rivaled the brilliance of the Libertines output. Carl still made music as well, but the spotlight wasn’t as bright anymore. The two likely lads seemed worlds apart in the late 2000’s, but this drama actually has a happy ending – something Pete had probably hoped for when he sang that happy endings never bored him in the Babyshambles song “Fuck Forever”. In 2010, they celebrated their big reunion. First just for live shows but in 2015, they even released a new album. It was well received, by fans and critics. The record proved that they were more than their own mythology and theatrics. They are an amazing rock band, one that brought a sense of adventure and danger back into rock music. And somehow, they survived it.