The Terrible Legacy of The Libertines

Surveying the wreckage of the Good Ship Albion on Up The Bracket's tenth birthday.

12 October 2012, 11:30am

Photo by nenuache

As you’re probably aware by now, this week marks the tenth anniversary of one of the most influential moments in our shared history. No, I’m not talking about Slobodan Milošević's surrender to the police on war crimes charges or the lulzfest that was the Selby rail crash – those things happened in 2001. I'm talking about the release of The Libertines’ semi-seminal debut album, Up The Bracket.

We're not normally ones to go rifling through the rubbish tip of dead fads or submerge ourselves in the rubble of the past (we're busy people, we don't like drinking in Camden). But in this case, it's interesting to look back and compare, because in 2002 – much like now – British youth culture really was in the shit. For Mumford, read Travis. For Skrillex, read Bizkit. For Sheeran, read Damien Rice, if you cut off his dick and stuffed it in his mouth so he looked fatter and couldn't talk properly. The last time British guitar music had really impressed the public-at-large was with "Buck Rogers". My Vitriol had just split. The city looked to the Shires for cavalry, and found only Kid Galahad.

Pre-Libs, a band like JJ72 were about as big as SBTRKT is now, and pretty much the only requirements for attaining that level of cultural cachet were some Hush Puppies, a soft regional accent and a sense of humility. Then Up The Bracket came out and suddenly everybody was dressing like characters from Mean Streets and talking like they were in Steptoe & Son. Oversized “Not my President” hoodies were replaced by undersized jeans, people would try to lend you A Picture Of Dorian Gray rather than send you links to websites about secret atrocities the American government had committed. Going out was fun again, kids were skipping school to get "Bilo" tattooed on their wrists, and when you called your countless new friends the morning after the secret gig before, they wanted to hang out writing poetry in beat-up trilbies rather than sit around at home watching Jackass re-runs in trucker caps.

But a lot of gin, tea, blood and smack has floated under the bridge in those ten years – if you were a guy around at that time, you’ve either moved on with your life or you’re Ronnie Joice, and if you were a girl who dated one of the boys in the bands, you’re 23 now. But there’s a lot of shit that’s stayed the same that, frankly, we’d probably be better off leaving under a dilapidated pier with Pete Doherty, a few rusty syringes and the ghost of Wolfman. (That guy died, right?)

I wonder if when Pete and Carl decided to re-appropriate this piece of imperial history, they knew it would one day be worn solely by Spanish tourists? It's easy to see what they were going for, that kind of Michael Caine in Zulu look; tough, eccentric, sharp, resolutely British. Alas, that went out the window as soon as too many of their fans found their own ones, and it became an automaton indie statement, replacing a damp and musky KoЯn hoodie in that same guy's wardrobe. At the nostalgia nights of the future, these will be the outfit of choice for men for whom the sequinned disco jumpsuits favoured by today's 30-something nostalgists are as alien as sharkskin Rat Pack blazers, as they chase their crying wives into taxis, shiny brass buckles bursting under the pressure of their paunch.

Being from the cobbled streets of Hexham, Northumberland and Whitchurch, Hampshire respectively, Pete and Carl had every right to talk like they were born within the clanging of the Bow Bells. (You can hear them all over the country, like the Bunsfield Oil Depot explosion, right?) But that's fine, plenty of people act that way. It wasn't talking like somebody from Stepney when you were actually from Sutton Coldfield that was the problem, it was talking like you were from Stepney in 1897.

For some reason, Libertines fans seemed intent on driving the English language backwards; if somebody knocked your pint at one of their shows, there was a high chance they'd apologise to you as "squire" or "m'lord". Maybe this was just a reaction against the bizarre, origin-free slang of nu-metal and late UK garage, but it's 2012, we've been through post-garage and come out the other side, there's even less need to talk like a Chaucerian rent boy than there was a decade ago.

Photo by  Charles Hutchins

You know when you see young PE teachers sitting on their boyfriend's shoulders, swaying along to some asinine Paolo Nutini ballad at the Isle Of Wight festival? You know how they're both usually wearing a horrible straw hat that they purchased on site? Well, that ostensibly quaint and pastoral look has its genesis in the turn-of-the-century hipster crack houses of East London.

There is also the persistent issue of the trilby, which should never be worn by a woman under any circumstances. Especially if she works in PR for an energy drinks company and is backstage at Wireless with all the other PRs who work for energy drinks companies, turning the toilet queue into a line of babbling, agitated Charlie Chaplins. Pete and Carl are entirely responsible for this rancid headgear trend, although it does at least act as a code to help you figure out who won't know where to buy MDMA at festivals. 

Despite Pete's later flirtations with folk and reggae (if you can call "Pentonville Rough" that), The Libertines were always a meat and potatoes kinda band. It was probably at least partly a reaction to the thousands of UK hip-hop artists with fake Brooklyn inflections and sample-heavy Euro filter house DJs that were filling the charts at the time, but they always had a troublesome issue about "proper music". Which, as a term, is bollocks. How can The Fratellis be more valid than Aphex Twin because they play instruments that you can't fit in a rucksack?

The upshot of that is that now you have a whole swathe of late-adopters whose only way of identifying with the scene (BECAUSE IT HAPPENED A DECADE AGO) is to lap up this mantra of "proper music", to denigrate anything that might threaten their own loyalty to it. Lads from Yorkshire, Kensington or Grimsby with brushed forward mod hair and shiny black jackets with epaulettes on who were probably calling Carl Barat a poof a few years back have now made The Libertines their ideological totems. Every band with a "WOOAHH-OH-OH!" chorus that you wince at on Radio One? The blood is on Pete Doherty's yellowish, baccy-stained hands. 

At the start, Doherty looked like a cherub. But as time wore on and he amassed his legions of teenage followers while simultaneously dealing with the hardening of his drugs habit, he started to look like a bit of a creep. He thought he was Peter Pan, but he wasn't, he was Fagin, and he went from Oliver Twist to that quicker, probably, than any man alive ever has.

Hey, do you know what a jamboy is? It's a poor kid they employ at golf courses in Africa. When rich white people roll up to play a round, they smother the kid in jam and get him to trail the golfers round the course at a distance. It's meant to distract the flies. Which is obviously a horrific thing for one human being to do to another, but in a sense, that's what flash mobs are, they are the jamboys of our shared culture, attracting all the irritants to one place, clearing the way for the rest of us.

You might not think that drama students dressed up as policemen dancing to "Thriller" at Liverpool Street station has anything to do with what happened in Dom Masters' flat a few miles down the road several years before, but it does. The Libertines' early guerilla gigs set the precedent for every awful T-Mobile-sponsored zany cuntfest your lame friends from school post on Facebook.

Photo by Magnus D

Remember Fame Academy's Peter Brame? Of course you don't. You're a well-rounded, decent person, with a real life, whereas we're paid for this weird cultural Rain Man savantism. Well, Peter Brame was an act on Fame Academy (X Factor for people with Music A-levels) and his swag was basically wearing a Libertines jacket and screaming at the camera while covering "You Really Got Me" or something. Of course he's wildly irrelevant now, but he's the pioneer of the mainstream trickle-down effect of the Libs influence. The idea that you can stand there with a glazed look on your eyes on national television, do whatever it is that you do, and get accused of being the new Rimbaud. These people exist in all walks of our culture from football to stand-up comedy, they are complicit in all the other crimes on this list. They are frauds and they are liars. 

You know, while The Libertines weren't exactly the next Smiths as everybody hoped, they had their charms. They wrote great songs with good choruses, they looked pretty amazing at the start, they always gave great copy in interviews and they threw a lot of memorable parties. Alas, they also became mates with people at these parties, and the music industry thrust guitars in the hands of just about anyone who'd ever accompanied Doherty on a cashpoint coke run at three on a Wednesday morning.

The Littl'ans, Left Hand, Thee Unstrung, The View, they all enjoyed more success than they deserved because of Up The Bracket, and for that we should all be ashamed. Of course the act that really defines The Libertines' influence at that time, is every post-SALEM music journalist's favourite by-word for dreadful overhyped indie music: The Others. A band so bleedingly awful they now don't seem like a real band at all, just a series of cliches and fallacies that our collective memory melded into an imaginary act. Like that hair metal band Sum 41 parodied that never really existed.

Which I guess brings us about full circle. Sorry for not mentioning you at all, John and Gary!

Follow Clive and Kev on Twitter: @thugclive / @kevkharas


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