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Sing and tell

The Libertines are more like reality TV celebs than old-school rock stars.

Neil Davenport

Topics Culture

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For the past two years, the east London quartet The Libertines have been big news. The latest headlines came earlier this week, when the band’s former singer, Pete Doherty, was handed a four-month suspended sentence for possession of a flick knife at an airport.

A ramshackling pop-punk outfit with a similar stuttering abandon to The Only Ones and the Buzzcocks, The Libertines caught the imagination of not only the New Musical Express (NME), but the broadsheets and tabloids too. According to the Libertines’ many goggle-eyed champions, homegrown pop music has become stuck in a torpor of stately MOR ballads in the form of Keane, Coldplay and Snowpatrol. The Libertines’ freewheeling charisma, punch-drunk songs and ‘guerrilla gigs’ (essentially secret gigs in unusual venues) makes them a genuinely thrilling alternative. For teenagers untutored in shambling indie-punk, and for those who remember the adrenaline rush of C-86, they probably are.

But in other ways, The Libertines are the supreme embodiment of staid British pop culture. I’m not talking about their self-promoted tales of seedy bohemia. Marathon drug binges, questionable personal hygiene and unreliable time keeping are the norm rather than the exception for rock’n’roll bands. So too are fractious fall-outs with close band members. What makes the playground fights between on/off singer Pete Doherty and guitarist Carl Barat so unusual is the way that they parade their personal battles in the media.

Certainly, bands have bitched in public before, but not quite with the same blow-by-blow reportage that Doherty and The Libertines have encouraged. Even the Gallagher brothers have kept the nitty, gritty content of their feuds under wraps. When Oasis guitarist Paul Arthurs left the band five years ago, Arthurs’ statement was along the lines of ‘this is between me, Noel and Liam’ – and that’s the way it should be. Indeed, for bands like Echo & the Bunnymen and The Stone Roses, cultivating an aura of mystique was seen as an essential asset. When a friend of mine was writing a biography on The Stone Roses, his biggest difficulty was finding anybody in or close to the band who would talk. ‘What business is it of yours?’ was the blank-faced response.

There’s no such sense of privacy or mystique with The Libertines. Everything from Pete Doherty’s heroin addiction and brief spell in prison to whether he has cleaned his toilet (‘surprisingly spotless’ according to one 6music reporter) has been played out in public. Doherty frequently posts emotionally heated messages on his website about his sparring partner. Barat responds via the ever-compliant mouthpieces in the press. The Libertines resemble reality TV ‘celebrities’ more than old fashioned, devil-may-care rock stars. Indeed, Doherty has been ‘voted out’ of his own band more often than Big Brother contestants. It’s doubtful whether many tabloid or broadsheet readers are that aware of The Libertines’ music (and why should they be?), but they probably know who Pete Doherty is and what he had for breakfast yesterday.

It’s quite remarkable that a relatively small-time indie band should be rubbing scandalous headlines with footballers behaving badly. But then there is often more curiosity about what happens off-stage or off-pitch than with what happens on it. In this sense, The Libertines aren’t entirely to blame for appearing like the bastard sons of the Cockney Rejects and the Jerry Springer Show. We live in a culture that encourages us to ‘bare all’, with the darker and freakier the revelations the better.

Rock bands may seem like ideal candidates for such a degraded culture, but until recently the only thing they wanted to bare would be their backsides out of the tour bus window. Even self-obsessed pop stars didn’t want the rumour mill to overshadow their music. As Axl Rose from Guns’n’Roses once said: ‘everything else is just a sideshow, the music comes first.’ Of course, pop bands need an angle, ideas and stories – but The Libertines are taking this to extremes.

At their best, Doherty and co are capable of writing songs as exciting and endlessly playable as The Only Ones’ ‘Another Girl, Another Planet’. And, really, this is what should count. After all, who wants to be remembered for a trashy, gossipy soap opera?

Neil Davenport is a sociology lecturer and freelance writer.

The Libertines is out now on Rough Trade.

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