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Praise Your Music Heroes Before They Die: The Libertines

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I meant to get to this post a while ago, as the stench of 2016 (the year of shocking deaths and depressing Facebook posts) was still in the air. As I read the outpourings of appreciation for David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Glenn Frey, Leonard Cohen, George Martin, Merle Haggard, Alan Rickman, Carrie Fisher and other people who were important to my people, it occurred to me that it usually takes a hero’s death to bring people to their keyboards to write out what they appreciated about that person. It’s disappointing that the artist can’t receive any of it, and that for those discovering these artists for the first time, it was just as the artist died. Boo.

That’s why I decided to fire up this ancient blog and start a new series called “Praise Your Music Heroes Before They Die.” I plan on gushing without reservation (ok, maybe a little reservation) on the bands that are important to me — before they’ve gone and kicked the bucket in headline-grabbing rock-star fashion. This way, if you’re not already familiar, you can start getting into them while they’re, you know, actually doing things (1).

But here’s the bigger picture: If someone reading one of my diatribes is inspired to gush about one of their own favorite artists, then someone else, and so on, then the act of writing out our appreciation for great artists will extend beyond the event of them dying. And that will be cool.

Now on to the Libertines.

My first entry is on probably my most treasured music hero. The Libertines are a London indie group consisting of dual singer/guitarists Pete Doherty and Carl Barat, drummer Gary Powell, and bassist John Hassall. I found them in college, reading about them in Rolling Stone while sitting on a friend’s couch with a chinchilla. Something struck a chord, and I grabbed their I Get Along EP at a Tower Records the next day. They blew a refreshing blast of unpretentious, foreign indie rock into my universe, which at the time was crowded with overproduced emo bands, metal-ish aggro rock, and punk bands that swung dangerously close to being cute. Hey, it was NorCal.

Today, the Libs continue to take up valuable real estate on my phone — and trust me, storage on that device is at a premium when baby pictures are in the mix. Even the Zombies and the Beatles suffered deletions to make space. Not them.

Here’s why:

They’re rough … but fun rough. I don’t mean sucky. I mean too busy having a good time to worry about acoustics.

To the first-time listener they sound like someone put the Clash into a blender, poured in a crapload of gin and narcotics, and cranked it to Puree. (Mick Jones was behind the mixing board, if that gives you an idea.) The guitars are dry and fuzzy, like they were channeled through tiny amps turned up to 10. Powell’s drumming is extraordinary, but it sounds like it’s mic’d from across the room. Doherty and Barat, though it’s clear they can perform while wasted, are definitely wasted. It took me a few listens to get past the knee-jerk reaction of “holy shit, what did I just buy?”

Up The BracketBut something in these ragtag recordings grabbed my attention. It was like I had just been handed a demo CD by some new, secret, small-time band (2) that hadn’t yet been marred by the homogenizing machinery of the music industry. Two days later I bought their first album, Up the Bracket (which, by the way, is British slang for doing coke).

Time for Heroes” was stuck in my head so thoroughly I had it figured out on guitar within a day. “Skag & Bone Man” made me laugh out loud: it sounds like the band’s drinking buddies are literally partying in the studio with them. After the second chorus the song ends prematurely, Doherty informs the band that they fucked it all up, and they simply start playing again. Once I reached the realization that, wait, this band is actually amazing, their discs didn’t leave my car stereo for a year.

See, when you’re not actually being handed band demos every day, hearing an unadulterated, underproduced recording is night and day from hearing a band on Spotify, or buying a new album through iTunes. Somehow, it seems like a filter has been removed, and what you’re hearing is the most honest possible reproduction of the band itself, rather than a meticulously rehearsed, suit-approved version. I know from experience that putting them on the stereo at a mellow party will kick it up a few notches just for the sudden infusion of raw id. They seem to connect directly to the part of us that also wants to be out of control; they literally make you want to party. Yet their messy, unfiltered, demo vibe — even though many other bands have used it — became a kind of signature. There are other, safer indie bands who seem like they’re trying to sound just like the Libertines. “No, no,” I say when I hear those bands. “You must be drunker, much drunker.”

They’re, like, street. Brandon Flowers, before being the lead singer of the Killers, was a Las Vegas Mormon kid. Matt Bellamy was an instrumental virtuoso before he became front man for Muse. Pete Doherty, during the Libertines’ prime, was frequenting drug dens, addicted to both heroin and crack, simultaneously. This obviously created issues within the band, especially since both Doherty and Barat are bisexual and were deeply in love with each other at the time.

the libertinesSo sometime after their first album was recorded, tensions grew past Smashing Pumpkins status, and even beyond Brian Jonestown Massacre code-red status. The band started touring without Doherty, whereafter a miffed Doherty burgled Barat’s flat, selling whatever he could steal for more chemicals. He then went to jail for two months. This was all shortly before the band recorded their 2nd album.

On that album, The Libertines, a less-than-healthy Doherty sounds like he is breathing through half a charred lung as he sings, “I’d quite like to make it through the night, my heart beats slow, fast, it don’t feel right / with a slight of hand I might die.” The opening track “Can’t Stand Me Now” has Barat and Doherty arguing in back-and-forth metaphor. Barat: “An ending fitting for the start, you twist and tore our love apart / your light fingers threw the dart, shattered the lamp, into darkness it cast us…” Doherty: “No, you’ve got it the wrong way ’round, you shot me up and blamed it on the brown / cornered the boy kicked out at the world, the world kicked back a lot fucking harder.” During recording, security guards had to keep the two from duking it out in the studio.

Doherty walked away immediately after the recording was done. The band floated on without him for a few months, then eventually called it quits in 2004. (As of 2014 they’re back together, without quite as much of their former passion.)

Many bands have had their share of drama, but it’s rare when such a visceral dose of it makes it from the songwriters’ lives straight onto the disc. Relationship themes are typical in lyrics, but with theirs torn to ribbons, Doherty’s line “I no longer hear the music” sounds somehow more heartfelt.

They still sound pretty. Here’s where I just tell you about my favorite Libertines songs. You love it.

What a Waster” – This one contains an instrumental metaphor: first, it opens with some shimmering chords that seem to ask a polite question. This is answered harshly as the rest of the arrangement slams down on it. The song then takes off on a relentless, roller-coaster drive that is in contrast to, and even menacing towards, this lighter, “questioning” riff. To me, this lighter riff is reminiscent of the desperate girl described in the lyrics. She is just trying to survive as she floats along, dogged by callous city life — represented by the rest of the song’s fast-paced drive. Was it intentional? Who knows.

Tell the King” – One of my immediate favorites from the first album, and I think the first one I charged out to show someone else (they didn’t quite get it). This one is dark and minor, but contains some very nice guitar textures and melodic tinkering. Another one where the band’s chemistry absolutely shines. Libertines trivia: the “John” in the song’s outro is probably Johnny Borrell of Razorlight.

Don’t Look Back into the Sun” – This is probably my #1 Libs song. The excitement in Doherty’s opening “YAAAA!” is contagious, it’s got a ridiculously fun guitar riff, and the last few bars where it gets a little more manic are just satisfying to hear.

I Get Along” – Obviously there’s this one. It’s one of the most famous Libs songs, and definitely in my top 3. Just listen to the thing. Barat: “…Fuck ’em.”

France” – The acoustic track at the end of the 2nd album contains nothing but Barat, Doherty, and two acoustic guitars — and Doherty’s labored breathing is almost as loud as the guitars. But the musical connection that still exists between the duo is clear as Doherty improvises over Barat’s strumming. Neither one of them is Clapton, but their chemistry is the most prominent thing on the track … other than Doherty’s lungs.

Arbeit Macht Frei” – Alright, this one sounds pretty ugly, and it’s almost impossible to tell what they’re singing. (The lyrical content is actually quite heavy if you read them.) But this track, particularly where it goes nuts after the 2nd verse, is just about the pinnacle of this band’s crazy vibe. Their gusto makes me smile every time.

The Ha Ha Wall” – I love how this track opens with a mess of discordant strings, which then coalesces into the main refrain. Also, it’s about just messing around on a guitar while you’re bored. As a song it’s got a nice attitude.

Death on the Stairs” – This is one of their singles, and it’s musically danceable (3). Lyrically it’s both funny and beautiful as Barat describes an encounter with a foreign girl (“From way far across the sea came an Eritrean maiden she / Had a one track mind and eyes for me, half blinded in the war / When a pale young Anglican, who said he’d help her all he can, showed her Jesus and his little unholy friend”), while Doherty describes his addictions (“Listened to the mouse before / If she loved anybody more, then he turns you into stone / Now I’m reversing down a lonely street to a cheap hotel where I can meet the past, pay it up, keep it sweet”).

The Good Old Days” – It was either this one or “Begging” that deserved my final honorable mention, since both represent the dark, pensive direction the Libs can take. Both are beautiful, but the line “If you’ve lost your faith in love of music, the end won’t be long” and the haunting background harmonies from this one puts it just a step ahead in my book.

Got a musical hero? Tell us what’s up in the comment section.


1. Some bands which are already disbanded may not actually be doing things.
2. They’re not new, secret, or small time.
3. Chuck Klosterman assigned the Charleston.

Oh yeah, and you'll want to download my book.

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