Album Analysis | The Libertines – The Libertines
The end of an era. The Libertines' self-titled sophomore album and swansong for their initial run documents the deterioration of a once-in-a-lifetime friendship due to one half's drug addiction.
As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. With that in mind, there is a lot to glean from the cover art of the self-titled second album by English rock band The Libertines. The album’s front cover features a photograph of frontmen Carl Barât and Pete Doherty sitting entwined, Doherty leaning against Barât’s shoulder and staring at the spider-scrawled “Libertine” tattoo on his inner forearm, matching that on Barât’s bicep while Barât looks up protectively. Judging by the expression on Barât’s face – his hair barely obscuring his darting, upward gaze and slightly parted lips – you’d be forgiven for thinking the photographer, Roger Sargent, had interrupted an intimate moment between the pair.
The photo would be recycled as the front cover of The Libertines Bound Together, a collaborative effort between Sargent and writer Anthony Thornton released in 2006. Thornton would call the image "one of the most iconic rock images of the last decade". Sargent captured the tender moment at the “Freedom Gig” at the Tap ‘n’ Tin club in Chatham, Kent on 8th October 2003 – so-called because it took place just hours after Doherty’s release from jail for burgling Barât’s flat.
Doherty reportedly acted “out of spite”. His now well-documented addiction to heroin and crack cocaine led Barât to ask him to leave the band ahead of a scheduled tour of Europe. Doherty had no sooner discovered that the band had left to fulfil their contractual obligations without him than he broke into Barât’s flat and stole, among other things, a laptop and a vintage guitar. He was sentenced to six months imprisonment, later cut down to two and such was the relationship between the pair that they would make amends while Doherty was still serving his sentence – Barât welcomed Doherty back into the fold with open arms, waiting at the prison gates on the day of his release.
Doherty and Barât were introduced by Doherty’s sister, Amy-Jo, while Barât was studying drama at Brunel University. They bonded over a shared interest in songwriting and would together develop a mythology in which they were sailing from Albion to Arcadia, a creative utopia free from authority in Doherty’s mind. Both would drop out of college (Doherty studied English Literature at Queen Mary University of London) and move into a North London flat to realise their creative potential. This same flat – affectionately dubbed “The Delaney Mansions” by the duo – would be the home of many of their early gigs.
The band’s embryonic days would see plenty of chop and change. Bassist John Hassall would leave only to re-join on the eve of their success, along with drummer Gary Powell. An early incarnation of the band also included Johnny Borrell of Razorlight fame. The band’s acquaintance with lawyer Banny Pootschi in the year 2000 would prove crucial to their success. After parting ways with the group in December of the same year, the success of The Strokes convinced her to reconsider. Drawing up a plan to get the band signed to Rough Trade within 6 months, it was she who recruited Powell and convinced Hassall to rejoin on the condition he would stay in the background to allow the partnership of and chemistry between Doherty and Barat to be the focal point.
The extent of said chemistry has been a hot topic for several years. While Doherty has implied that the duo have been more than friends, Barât has denied any such dabblings. What is undeniable is the effect the intensity of their friendship had on their live performance – mic-sharing, play fighting, tender embraces and actual punch-ups ensued regularly. When pressed on the prospect of life without Doherty for the Libertines, Barât said “There was one point where I very, very nearly, just to be close to him, started taking full-on heroin”, while on the eve of the band’s reunion tour, Doherty revealed “He [Carl] was saying, 'Well, look, what if it's all gonna happen again?' and I said, 'One thing: maybe it will, maybe it won't, but one thing that's going to help me not fuck up again is you, and doing all that together.' Because he means a lot...”
More guerrilla gigs and opening slots for The Strokes and The Vines would help to get their name out but early singles produced by ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler would prove largely unsuccessful. However, the release of their debut album Up The Bracket (produced by The Clash’s Mick Jones) and relentless gigging schedule (over 100 shows in 2002) would see the band’s star rise and their cult status – and peculiar interest from the NME – solidified. But the cracks were already starting to appear in a very public way.
Doherty was by now dependent on crack cocaine and heroin and was becoming increasingly erratic, isolating him from the rest of the band and becoming tabloid fodder in the process. A promotional tour of the States, however, would see the band work on early versions of future Libertines songs and as a mark of commitment, Barât and Doherty would get the aforementioned Libertine tattoos. Once the band returned to the UK, tensions resumed – Doherty played more guerrilla gigs but without Barât, while the critically praised standalone single “Don’t Look Back into the Sun” was completed without Doherty, pasted together with rough vocal tracks he provided and with producer Bernard Butler recording his guitar parts. The tension would culminate in Barât issuing Doherty with an ultimatum – get clean or leave the band. The band’s decision to complete their tour without him left Doherty distraught, resulting in the subsequent burglary, arrest, release and reunion.
By the time the Libertines reunited to record their self-titled second album with Mick Jones, there was already much chop and change and false starts. Creation Records founder Alan McGee had taken over as the band’s manager. An attempt at recording the follow-up with Bernard Butler had fallen apart due to tensions between him and Doherty, who recorded vocals for the UK hit “For Lovers” by his friend Peter “Wolfman” Wolfe. Barât recorded guitar for its b-side but the endeavour was another crack in his relationship with Doherty.
Doherty was by now incorrigible. The strain this put on his relationship with Barât lead to reports that security was hired to keep the two apart and hangers-on away. When the album was finished, Doherty would not participate in the mixing process, opting instead to check himself into rehab in a stop and start attempt to break his addiction. He lasted just three weeks.
The album’s lyrics reflected the breakdown of the once cast-iron songwriting duo. Opening track “Can’t Stand Me Now” is probably the band’s best-known song, reaching the number two spot in the UK charts, and is a touching depiction of their disintegration. The song’s first verse, sung by Barât reflects on the inevitable split of the band due to Doherty’s drug habit and the problematic lifestyle that brought them together in the first place and referencing the break-in that almost tore them apart.
An ending fitting for the start You twist and tore our love apart Your light fingers threw the dart Shattered the lamp and into darkness it cast us
Pete takes over from the second verse, claiming that Barât drew first blood, trying to cut him out when his addiction started to take hold, also reflecting on his spiteful criminal act and the effect it had on him and vicious cycle it kickstarted.
No, you've got it the wrong way round You shut me up, and blamed it on the brown Cornered, the boy kicked out at the world The world kicked back a lot fuckin' harder now
The song’s pre-chorus details the pair’s mutual feelings towards each other amidst all the broken promises and the effect Doherty’s addiction had on the band’s touring schedule.
If you wanna try If you wanna try There's no worse you could do Uh oh oh
I know you lie I know you lie I'm still in love with you Uh oh oh
Can't take me anywhere I'll take you anywhere You can't take me anywhere I can't take you anywhere I'll take you anywhere you wanna go
The repetition of the title of the song’s chorus drives the point home. Doherty proves himself a poetic prodigy elsewhere on the mournful “Music When The Lights Go Out” in a clever metaphor for his exclusion from the band’s tours across the continent, the doubts about the band’s future which once seemed so bright but now looks like it can only come to a sad end.
I no longer hear the music When the lights go out Love goes cold in the shades of doubt The strange face in my mind is all too clear
“What Katie Did” is not, contrary to popular belief, about Doherty’s tumultuous relationship with supermodel Kate Moss but rather another girlfriend, one Katie Lewis. The song itself is inspired directly by Doherty’s heroin addiction and how his addiction worsened after his breakup with Lewis. The song’s opening “shoop shoop, shoop de-lang-a-lang” hearkens back to the 1964 hit “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss)” but more wince-inducing is the ironic reference to Herman’s Hermits’ 1965 single “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter” – the “hurry up” plea for the heroin to work its charm being the plea of a fully-fledged drug addict.
Hurry up, Mrs Brown I can feel it coming down And it won't take none too long
The break-up and non-presence of Katie is, in fact, a thinly veiled metaphor for heroin withdrawal.
But since you said goodbye Polka dots fill my eyes And I don't know why
That The Libertines is book-ended by two songs about two best friends who aren’t any more can only have been deliberate but is nonetheless heartbreaking. While “Can’t Stand Me Now” teases a glimmer of hope that the friendship can be salvaged, closing track “What Became of the Likely Lads” is defeatism exemplified. Despite their deep bond, all trust is gone.
But if it's left to you I know exactly what you'd do With all the dreams we had
The back and forth between Doherty and Barât displays both agreement and argument, highlighting how deeply entwined in each other’s lives they are but ultimately how futile and toxic their partnership has become.
If it's important to you It's important to me I tried to make you see But you don't wanna know
The song ends with a crushing admission of defeat. A self-fulfilling prophecy of “Oh what became of forever, though? We’ll never know”. Doherty was ultimately ousted from the band until he cleaned up his act. Doherty would, however, form Babyshambles instead. Barât would eventually dissolve the band after a gig in Paris, no longer willing to play under the Libertines mantle without his former cohort, later forming Dirty Pretty Things with drummer Powell.
It wasn’t entirely curtains for The Libertines, though. They would reunite in 2010 for a performance at the Reading and Leeds Festival, received warmly by fans and critics alike. They would reform fully in 2014 and once Doherty completed a detox in Thailand, recorded and released the well-received Anthems for Doomed Youth in 2015. The band has announced a nine-date trip across their native UK and further dates on the continent this year.