Sunday, 22 August 2010

Libertine-age Kicks

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...

It is now only a few short days until what many are framing as the musical event of the year. The return of The Libertines, almost five years after they dissolved in a haze of boredom (Pete(r), as has been well documented, was fired in mid-2004), is being met with mounting hysteria in some corners of the music press. I wondered whether I ought to put fingers to keys in honour of this, as I once held the distinction of being seemingly the only person on campus not to think they were the saviours of modern British music. Five years on, I thought I’d go back and have another think about this.

When Up The Bracket and the small number of 7”s that went before were released, I had only one thought in my mind. “This,” went the thought, “is a fairly poor Clash tribute band. This will all be over soon. Put Is This It back on and ride it out”. I wasn’t entirely right about this, of course, as Pete(r), Carl and the other two went on to dominate British music for four years or so. They somehow managed to paint the most irresistible rock ‘n’ roll story of the past ten years without ever really producing the music that ought to be the basis for such a narrative. The crazy parties, the drugs, thespats, arrests, violence, celebrity affairs and general debauchery were all there, but they seldom hit the musical highs.

Up the Bracket produced a few good singles that could fill any indie dance floor, even today. Their second, self-titled attempt though, was far weaker (with the notable exception of Music When The Lights Go Out: by far their best recorded work). Ruined by poor production and a complete lack of ideas brought on, in part but not exclusively, by Doherty’s much-reported downward spiral, the album failed to scratch many people’s itches, and we were headed for Stone Roses territory. Eventually, the soap opera that surrounded them eclipsed, rightly or wrongly, their actual output. “Style over substance” would be unfairly harsh criticism but they became, to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, “a lifetime in their own legend”. This largely accounted for the drabness of Carl’s Dirty Pretty Things: they were musically not too different from The Libertines, but without the exciting backdrop, they were dull and unfulfilling. In the five years since the split, we’ve also suffered one of the worst albums ever created in the debut from the abysmal Babyshambles. It would be easy here to hold this situation up as proof that The Libertines were greater than the sum of their parts, or at least were perceived that way.

I never cared much for Doherty’s lyrics, for the man himself, or for the tortured poet image that he gave off, and there was one simple reason for this. In an interview at the height of his drug addiction, he made the throwaway remark that he wanted to rise again; to be, as he put it, like George Best in reverse. What he meant was that he wanted to do the dramatic fall from grace and then go on to have a sensational career that would cement his iconic status in the national consciousness. Unfortunately, I think he failed to realise that it just doesn’t work like that. Think of all the other rock stars whose lives have at one time or another been ravaged or ended by drugs, alcohol or the attentions of the tabloids. The key, unifying factor was that they were all producing work of incredible quality and ruined it all. It does not work backwards. This is all without even bothering to point out that Doherty hasn’t actually produced all that much work of incredible quality, even after his fall from grace had slowed slightly.

It would be churlish of me not to admit that when I saw them on the Evening Session Stage at Reading in 2002 they were electrifying, but I always found their recorded output completely failed to capture this. I would also acknowledge that Pete(r)’s track For Lovers is one of the most heart-rending things I’ve ever heard committed to record. But it seems to me that a band that’s been gone for a mere five years after producing only one decent record, and whose members have played together at a fair number of “emotional reunions” whenever their solo careers take a dip, doesn’t really merit the amount of attention they’re getting.

I think, in summary (and with maximum cynicism), they didn’t really change the face of British music. People always talk about a theoretical musical pendulum that swings from one side of the Atlantic to the other, and The Libertines never really pulled it back from The Strokes, Interpol et al. at any point. They always seemed to me to be no better than the many other “The” bands that characterised the music scene at the time.

So how will the musical community react to the comeback? I suspect that the hysteria will fade pretty quickly, unless they go on and produce more music. Led Zeppelin are the perfect example of this: one massive reunion, a bit of half-arsed speculation and now no one who wasn’t there can really remember it happening. If The Libertines make more music they might well be onto a loser anyway, since it is only ever likely to draw unfavourable comparison with their early work from fans and critics alike. Their place in the canon of popular music history and whether their legacy can be anything other than an extended buffet for the tabloids are still matters for debate, and this is therefore a reunion that might please fans, but might fail to convince those, like me, who are still wondering if it’s really worth all this hype.

Post Script
If anyone wants to write an article about why I really should be excited about this, I would be genuinely interested in reading it. Despite the overall cynical tone of this piece, I am relatively open-minded about the whole issue, and would happily read the counter-argument. Open goal here, ladies and gentlemen…

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