In the Royal Express Café in Nottingham, Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” is playing. “There’s a boy I know / He’s the one I dream of,” I sing-mumble to myself as the representative of an online delivery service tells a long-winded story about some uncooked beef. “How will I know / If he really loves me?”, Whitney sings as it transpires that the beef was, in fact, cooked.
Round the corner, at Rock City, The Libertines are about to play to 2,500 dedicated fans. But how do the fans know if their boys really love them? Or are The Libertines mugging them off for another cool half a million, so they can finally call it a day with pockets full, and retire to enormous Berkshire mansions made of marble and whalebone?
The Libertines were the last British guitar band to build up a scene and a myth around them: connecting with fans on the internet; dreaming of Albion and Arcadia; playing guerrilla gigs to pay the rent and buy the drugs; breaking up and making up; more drugs; trilbies. They were the inspiration for a whole generation of (often terrible) indie bands, from the Arctic Monkeys to Catfish & The Bottlemen. And while those bands would love to have created something unique, none of them could quite do what The Libertines did, which was to take a bunch of esoteric musical influences and turn them into something that felt like a blueprint for tackling modern life.
What they did seemed, at the time, to be both deeply cool and deeply uncool. Yeah, they were internet pioneers—one of the first bands to release their music online without any plan for a physical follow up—but they were also fusty and technophobic. They had some hip literary references but they were dropped with corny, wide-eyed naivety of a first year English Lit student in a public school tie making his dry-mouthed debut at a slam poetry night. Something about it felt scrubby and unknowing. Their old school bohemian steez seemed, to some modern eyes, pretentious and ridiculous. Pete was a sixth form poet mumbling about Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Carl was a wannabee leading man in a leather jacket, who gazed lovingly into his own endless reflection. And the other two: John on bass and Gary on drums? They were just house plants in the background of a porn shoot, there to divert attention to the homosocial romance that got everyone so interested in The Libertines in the first place.
As the soap opera of Pete and the boys played out, the public got more of an insight into a scene that always had its share of nasty, scheming bastards. And as Pete became tarnished by the tabloid, it became hard to remember why it had all been so great in the first place. Today, in a packaged musical environment in which bands have their 18-month cycles detailed in Excel spreadsheets and the best-selling pop stars are banker’s children with a thirst for brand content creation, it’s suddenly a lot easier to remember why, before they dissolved into a troubling, embarrassing mess, The Libertines were so enlivening. The fact that they were shambolic was intoxicating. The way they broke the barrier between the band and the crowd was, for a generation that hadn’t really known punk, refreshing. Pete and Carl’s relationship was everything an emotional voyeur could want: passionate, deeply connected, fraught and ultimately doomed. Their old school bohemianism may have been embarrassing to some, but it gave people something to dream of. They seemed, all those years ago, to be committed to art for art’s sake. They weren’t dead-eyed corporate pricks. They looked at neo-liberal Britain and said, “Fuck that.” They believed that freedom and socialism meant, in Oscar Wilde’s words, relieving the “sordid necessity of living for others.” They were in search of Arcadia.
But what happens to Arcadia when the Arcadians don’t believe in it anymore? The Libertines’ new album, Anthems for Doomed Youth, seems to consign their visions of a New England to the past. The rakish idealistic boys of yesteryear have become the portly realistic men of today. When the band signed the deal with Virgin to make the album, it was hard to look at the photos of a bunch of chunky middle-aged men celebrating making money and not feel as though, posing with their A&R guy on a Thai island, The Libertines had become the antithesis of everything they once stood for. They’d taken a big advance and they were set to rake it in on the festival circuit. And so, when I drove up to Nottingham from London on Monday, I was uneasy about what I might find. I feared that seeing The Libertines would basically just be like seeing a heritage rock band from the 60s or 70s: a bunch of guys who don’t really like each other running through songs and perfunctory fist pumps until they could return to the tour bus, undo their belts, open The Telegraph, and get the kettle on.
Outside Rock City, fans talk to me about how much The Libertines mean to them. They were always a band who travelled well—a rare London band to be beloved up north and in Scotland. There was always something about their ripped clothes, heroic drug shovelling and general don’t-give-a-fuck attitude that meant they embodied an inclusive, glamorous vision of London that was embraced outside the capital city. “I was into grime. The Libertines were the first indie band I liked,” says Ross (above, with friends), a 19-year-old from North Wales. “Pete and Carl love each other and it’s the best thing ever.”
“If they weren’t gay, I wouldn’t like them,” says his mate, Connor, before Megan, who’s 18, assures us all that “Pete’s still sexy,” despite the extra weight he’s carrying. Zenn, 23, says that there aren’t many bands out there with “compelling narratives” like The Libertines. Loitering by the stage door, Stuart, 25, tells me that, as far as he’s concerned, “before The Libertines, all that was on was S Club 7 and Steps.” Originally from Skegness, he started listening to Pete Doherty’s music when his father died. He inherited a small farm from his father but he was still just a kid. With milk prices plummeting and different family members needing to be taken care of, Stuart had to sell the farm. “I would listen to The Libertines all the time. And to the Babyshambles song, ‘Fall From Grace,’ because growing up in that community, you felt like you were somebody and then, after the farm went, I felt like I was nothing.”
Inside, the place is packed out. Two 16-year-old girls tell me they got to the venue at lunchtime just so they could be in the front row. The band comes on. I’m sitting in the photographers’ pit at the front and as the they rip straight into “Horrorshow,” the beer hits the back of my head and the barrier behind me immediately feels like it’s about to cave in. They play “Can’t Stand Me Now” and couples sing the words to each other, some laughing, others not. Pete trips around the stage like an oversized fawn. Carl self-consciously flicks his hair and wheels around in a blaze of scarf and leather. John stands like a handsome statue. Gary gets his shirt off and later comes to the front to take his own applause. At some point he’s allowed a drum solo. Every band member gets his name chanted. The band is still shambolic, still the antithesis of think piece pop. A flare goes off in the crowd, it feels like an Italian football derby, the room starts to fill with smoke, and as I watch the crowd throwing themselves around I realize that of course The Libertines aren’t just doing this for the money. How could four men watch all of this from the stage and not think, “This is fucking brilliant, isn’t it?” How could you look at the three next to you and not think, “We’ve been through a lot of shit and maybe we sort of hate each other a lot of the time, but look at what we created together,”? During the encore, Pete tries to say something about migration in Europe. Profits from the UK club shows they are playing are going to the humanitarian organization Migrant Offshore Aid Station and the singer wants to make a point about David Cameron’s cruelty. Carl chimes in but the point gets lost, until they launch into “What a Waster” and the line “two-bob cunt” does a much better descriptive job than any between-song speech could. Here they are, the last of the great British dole bands, telling the sociopathic Tory cypher that he’s a fucking div.
They should end it there, but instead they crash through another couple of songs, by which point I’m left thinking of Marcus, Cleon, and Sam, three guys I spoke to before the show. All from Nottingham, they met when they were kids and Sam and Cleon found Marcus wandering around the arboretum playing “The Good Old Days” on an acoustic guitar. They’re in their early 20s now and, having lived within 20 minutes of each other their whole lives, things are changing. Cleon is moving to London. Marcus is going to work on a Hollywood film. “This puts a bookend on the chapter of our life when we really worshipped The Libertines,” Marcus says. “But seeing our favorite band the night before my birthday at our hometown venue, just before we split up: It’s perfect.”
And this is what it feels like The Libertines are doing. They’re ending things but in a far better way than might have been expected, with a certain amount of harmony in the camp and some excitement in the crowd.
On my way back to London, I stop at a service station on the M1. Two dead-eyed gamblers prod away at the slot machine. At the McDonald’s, a man lies asleep on an enormous rucksack, a discarded Big Mac meal on the table in front of him. There are about three separate places in which to buy Krispy Kremes. Queen Boadicea really is long dead and gone. But as I slurp on a Coke, I realise that fuck it, The Libertines were good tonight. I don't resent making the long drive home, and if this is their last trip 'round the block, well I'm glad I got to see it.