Give me Libertines…or give me anything else

THE Libertines reunion has been the talk of the music industry this week. How excited should we be? Two writers agree to disagree…

• The band in their heyday. Picture: Complimentary


MY OVERWHELMING feeling about The Libertines, ever since their inception over a decade ago, has been "so what?" The recent announcement that the band, based around squabbling brats Pete Doherty and Carl Bart, have re-formed to cash in on their inexplicably burgeoning reputation at this year's Reading and Leeds festivals was greeted in some quarters, specifically the NME, as the second coming of the messiah. What on earth is the fuss all about?

It's utterly unfathomable, certainly if you listen to the rather feeble music. Two thoroughly mediocre albums, which were largely ignored on their release in the early 1990s, for good reason, because they were full of turgid reworkings of lo-fi indie punk-pop with very little by way of lyrical insight or musical energy.

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I met the band once, in La Belle Angele in Edinburgh, not long before it burned down. It was just before the release of their debut album, Up The Bracket, and I interviewed Bart and Doherty in the dressing room. Bart was standoffish and aloof, Doherty was charmless and arrogant. They were already living the rock'n'roll myth, despite not even having a record out. Nothing wrong with that per se, as long you have the musical chops to back it up. The Libertines never did.

Later that night on stage they were a total shambles, playing to a virtually empty venue, Doherty too loaded to strum his guitar. The act they reminded me most of, with their mockney blether and jaunty guitar noodles, was none other than Chas & Dave.

In fact, that thing about the rock'n'roll myth is key to The Libertines' current popularity. Right from the start of the band's career, they have been extremely canny about positioning themselves within a tradition of iconic British rock music. Getting The Clash's Mick Jones and Suede's Bernard Butler to produce their records immediately associated them with a greatness they didn't deserve, and enlisting Alan McGee as manager gave them a kudos they hadn't earned.

And then there was all the scandal: Doherty's drug problems, and the continual spats between him and Bart (which culminated in the admittedly fantastic episode in which Doherty was arrested for breaking and entering Bart's flat while the rest of the band were on tour in Japan without him). Then, of course, Bart met him at the prison gates upon his release, with journalists in tow, and they went off and played a set in their local pub. It couldn't be more horribly contrived, all of it.

And that has continued ever since the band split in 2004. Some of you might have seen Pete Doherty in the tabloids once or twice over the past six years. How could you miss him? The man is a stumbling, mumbling, drug-addled, jailbird self-publicity machine, being accused of making his cat smoke crack one minute, falling out with Kate Moss the next (coincidentally, one of the most over-exposed women in the world), only stopping to drop heroin out his coat pocket while in court.

The Libertines' ever-growing status as a legend of modern British music can be seen as the ultimate triumph of style over content, the vanishing point where the music completely ceases to matter, and where attitude is all. And they know it, too. Just check out the cover of their eponymous second album, a drug-chic snap of Bart and Doherty looking beautiful and wasted and showing off their tattoos. They mean it man. If only they had music worth caring about. And if all that doesn't persuade you, they're also responsible for inspiring The Kooks and The View. I rest my case.

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• Doug Johnstone is a musician, author and freelance music journalist.


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THIS week, after hearing that the Libertines were getting back together, my friend Lisa e-mailed me: "If I miss the Libertines' reunion I will actually, literally kill myself. They are pretty much the reason why I listen to real bands instead of still thinking that Robbie is the dog's bollocks and Sugababes are, like, totally ahead of the pack."

Lisa is just one of a whole music-obsessed generation whose world was set alight when Pete Doherty, Carl Bart and co came stumbling into their lives in 2002 – all doe-eyed romance, back-alley poetry, guerrilla gigs, matching tattoos and wild, stuttering riff-fuelled abandon.

They were a beautiful bunch, scruffy yes, and in need of a good wash no doubt; but there was something about this London-based four-piece and their way with melody and storytelling that captured people's hearts. Critics and kids alike swooned, and some truly great British pop was penned.

Now after six years in the wilderness following a very messy split, and more time spent in tabloid newspapers than making music (Doherty becoming the Daily Mail's poster boy for rock'n'roll depravity), the foursome are set to reunite with the original line-up of Pete'n'Carl, John Hassall and Gary Powell at this year's Reading Festival in August.

At their peak the chemistry between The Libertines was magical and utterly exhilarating to watch. Even if their timing and tuning was all over the place they could still put on a cracker of a live show, centred around the dynamic between the charismatic frontmen.

Pete and Carl's meeting could not have been more fortuitous; the singers were a perfect match personality-wise – both precocious talents, seemingly holding each other from teetering completely over the edge while spurring each other on creatively.

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At their best you didn't know where one started and the other began. And it was compelling to watch; their intriguing brother/lover relationship stirring up a have they/haven't they debate which was all part of their allure.

The result of this pairing was two brilliant albums (Up The Bracket and The Libertines) that made people believe in British guitar music again. And most importantly at the time, their raw sound and inclusive myth-making (off to Arcadia on the good ship Albion, anyone?) gave the mighty Strokes a run for their money and put the likes of Starsailor and Turin Brakes out to pasture where they belonged (somewhere near Radio 2, I imagine). As well as being damn catchy – tracks like Don't Look Back into the Sun and Time For Heroes still sound fresh today – The Libertines' music also gave their fans a reason to get off the internet and form their own bands; it's thanks to them that we have Arctic Monkeys today. Most interestingly, even if they don't sound a lot like them, many of today's young musicians still cite The Libertines' DIY ethic and punk spirit as the reason why they started. So it's for all of these reasons, plus the possibility of some long-awaited new material, that makes me utterly overjoyed at the thought of seeing Pete, Carl, John and Gary share a stage again. Of course it's very fashionable to re-unite at the moment, and yes, OK it's becoming a little predictable.

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But when you're talking about a band of this calibre, so sadly cut off in their prime, getting back together for a few nostalgic nights of big-hearted sing-alongs, now that is something worth getting excited about. Perhaps we'll get to Arcadia after all.

• Camilla Pia is a freelance music journalist, and live editor of The Fly magazine.