The Return of The Libertines

Last year The Libertines announced a new album for 2015 and their long awaited return to the stage of British rock and roll. And how it’s missed them…

People tend to dismiss The Libertines nowadays. This shouldn’t come as a shock when they broke up over ten years ago, and I suspect it’s also a reaction to one Mr Peter Doherty, whose publicised drug abuse and solipsistic junkie babble made him seem a right prick. His memoirs, absurdly named the Books of Albion, reads like a selection of Jaden Smith’s finest.

But personally I don’t think he was a complete prick. He seemed that way because he was an anachronism, the last of a long extinct generation of rock romantics (that and he was always really fucking high). But now times have changed and a reformed Libertines have announced a new album, due out this year. So what are our hopes and fears from a clean Doherty and co.?

What I loved about The Libertines was that they came with no agenda. They didn’t need a message; they didn’t need a story and they certainly didn’t need a purpose. You may find all these things in their songs but in my opinion, it’s artificial and ultimately for your own indulgence. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. For many that’s the beauty of music; it’s different things for different people. But I think all Doherty and Barat were really trying to do was offer fleeting glimpses of British life as they saw it. “The highs and the lows, and the to’s and the fro’s.” They sought neither rhyme nor reason, and didn’t patronise us with half-digested airs of morality. Rock bands free of this kind of pretension are hard to come by nowadays.

The cynics are raising their eyebrows now. Doherty’s drug-fuelled song writing could often come out a little abstract. But we shouldn’t confuse his simple brand of poetry with pretension. From the brash single What a Waster, Doherty sings: ‘Meanwhile from under the covers, she said “Save me from tomorrow, no. Save me from tomorrow.”’

It’s a vague line; the song offers no insight into who ‘she’ is, and what ‘tomorrow’ has in store for her. It sketches the outline of an image which we are left to fill in, if we so choose. Because we sort of know what she means, don’t we? Living in dread for the inevitable tomorrow is a bleak emotion we can all relate to. And I think it is kind of poetic in its own simple way. There’s no existential imagery or allegory in the lyrics (we get enough of that from Thom Yorke and Ed Balls); they’re simply singing about the England they live in.

And this, I think, is what we can expect from the coming album – the England we live in. I have no doubt that the blind love for Queen and Country will still be there, but the tone will have changed. We remember the subtle transition between their first and second album. Both were sung in that familiar drunken slur but the second time round was different – less the dancefloor debauchery, more the swaying post-lash. Cold chips and Carlsberg rather than Red Bull and vodka. The song titles What Became of the Likely Lads and Can’t Stand Me Now give away a sense of wistfulness. Both were references to the deteriorating relationship between Doherty and Barat. It was a wiser, more mature album and showed surprising signs of melancholy from such a young band.

I wouldn’t be surprised if, ten years on, we saw more of this. Some think that raucous garage rock is a bit beyond a clean Doherty these days. But I’m still hoping for the same unconventional song structures, key changes and idiosyncrasies which characterised their past work. I don’t want to say their style was unique but – fuck it, there I said it. There isn’t one like it and it’s this unique style and creativity which I’m hoping to hear again.

I’m also hoping they sing about 2015, rather than their heyday in the early noughties. The Britain they left is a very different one today. So too are the lives of the band members. All of them have children (yeah, you too Pete) and all have pursued their own careers. Doherty is still in rehab in Thailand but seems to be doing well (well enough to be advertising the rehab clinic on Youtube, a video I recommend). Barat has recently released a new album with The Jackals, called Let It Reign (which sounds as interesting as skimmed milk). Meanwhile Gaz is having a great time being a naff but thoroughly enjoyable DJ in Brixton and Hasall resides in Copenhagen, presumably with a ridiculously high quality of life. It all sounds a bit tame now, doesn’t it? If the boys in the band still want to call themselves libertines they’re going to have to redefine the term. There’s no use pretending they all still lead the anarchic, rock and roll, Dorian Gray lifestyle. Their music needs the frankness and candidness fans have come to expect. After ten years of waiting it’s what we deserve. No bullshit please, lads.

So I await the new album with excitement. It’s an anticipation which stretches beyond The Libertines to the rest of British rock and roll, which I feel has gone pale these past few years. I’m hoping the return of the old boys will spark a new vigour in the scene. Not necessarily heroin chic or stage fights but hopefully something a bit more audacious and a bit less Radio 1 Live Lounge. The return of The Libertines to rock and roll is like Star Wars: Episode VII to sci-fi cinema. We’re tired of the sham political allegories and over-used special effects. We want the old imagination back. But we want it to make sense today.

‘What a Waster’ live at Reading, 2010

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