The Libertines - Biography
By Eric Brightwell
Though initially lazily regarded as part of the garage rock revival, The Libertines’ talents far outstretched those of their competitors. Though often overshadowed by the soap opera scandal of their singer, Pete Doherty, judging them purely on musical terms, The Libertines were the last, great British rock band.
Peter Doherty was born in 1978 and hailed from Hexham in Northumberland. Carl Ashley Raphael Barât, born in 1979, came to London from Wells In The Field in Hampshire. Barât and Doherty first met in 1996 when Barât was studying drama at Brunel University in Uxbridge and living with Doherty’s older sister, Amy-Jo Doherty. Although Barât initially disliked Doherty, the two shared a love of music with Doherty espousing a love of Chas & Dave, The Jam, The La’s, The New York Dolls, Sex Pistols, The Smiths, The Stooges, Suede and Oasis (in fact, he appeared in an interview in 1997 for Oasis’ Be Here Now). For his part, Barât put his stock in The Clash, Django Reinhardt, The Doors and The Velvet Underground. They also shared a love of literature, with Doherty favoring slightly mental poets like Emily Dickinson, Thomas Chatterton, Thomas de Quincey and William Blake as well as Decadents Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire and Joris Karl Huysmans. At sixteen, he even won a poetry competition and embarked on a tour of Russia organised by the British Council. On the other hand, Barât preferred Edwardian wits, especially Saki. Though the two’s tastes were different, they were complimentary and the two soon formed an intense bond. In fact, their obsession with one another and the exact nature of their relationship has become the subject of considerable speculation and rumor-mongering.
After decided to make music together, Barât dropped out as did Doherty, till then studying English literature at Queen Mary, University of London. The two moved into a North London apartment on Camden Road which they christened "The Delaney Mansions." With their neighbor, Steve “Scarborough Steve” Bedlow, they formed The Strand in 1997. After briefly considering a name change to The Albions, they settled on The Libertines, after “Lusts of the Libertines,” an excerpt from the Marquis de Sade’s Les 120 Journées de Sodom. Both Johnny Borrell and John Hassall played bass in their earliest incarnation. They began playing gigs without a steady drummer, including many in the Delaney Mansions.
The band booked Odessa studios to record three songs, assisted by Gwyn Mathias. Unhappy with their drummer, Mathias enlisted 54-year-old Paul Dufour, who subsequently stayed on. The highlight of the set was the delicate, Suede-esque ballad, “Breck Road Lover.” After more recordings and performances, NME journalist Roger Morton caught them at Islington’s Filthy Macnasty's Whiskey Café, where Doherty worked as a bartender. For the next six months, Morton acted as their manager. In March 2000, Banny Pootschi, a lawyer for Warner Chappell Music Publishing took over. They recorded Legs XI, a top collection of eight songs which has since become a popular bootleg. In December 2000, frustrated with the band’s lack of progress, Hassall and Pootschi parted ways with the rest of the band. However, following the success of The Strokes, (who acheived success with a more commercial but not dissimilar sound) Pootschi reconsidered and formulated a plan to get The Libertines signed to Rough Trade within six months.
Barât and Doherty began writing the songs that would appear on their debut and drummer Gary Powell replaced Dufour, who in his mid-50s was deemed too old by Pootschi. In October 2001, Barat and Doherty played for Rough Trade’s James Endeacott which led to their playing for Geoff Travis and Jeanette Lee in December. They were signed to the label on the 21st, at which point Hassall returned to the fold. Barât and Doherty then moved to an apartment in Bethnal Green which they named the Albion Rooms, which, as with the Delaney Mansions, served as both a base of operations and performance venue for The Libertines. They also began playing with The Strokes and The Vines, leading to their being lumped in with them as part of the so-called garage rock revival by the smitten writers at NME.
Their debut release, the double A-side “What a Waster”/ “I Get Along” was produced by ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler and released in June 2002. A heavily-censored version was single of the week on BBC Radio 1 DJs Mark and Lard's program. The same week, The Libertines appeared on the cover of the NME. That year they played over 100 shows, opening for the likes of Morrissey and The Sex Pistols. The single ultimately peaked at #37. The band next entered RAK Studios and recordings with Mick Jones of The Clash and Big Audio Dynamite producing. “Up the Bracket” was released in September and reached #29. In October, the album Up the Bracket (2002-Rough Trade) was released. The highly literate music seamlessly touched upon 60s beat, 70s punk, 80s indie and 90s Britpop but nonetheless seemed utterly fresh and devoid of obviousness. Although it only reached #35, most critics were effusive and they were awarded NME’s “Best New Band” at that year’s Brat Awards. Behind the scenes, Doherty’s abuse of crack and heroin worsened, predictably causing friction and Barât moved out of the Albion Rooms. Doherty expressed his side of things in The Books of Albion and on the libertines.org fansite under the handle “heavyhorse,” where he vacillated between lucidity and instability.
The band continued to perform guerilla gigs at the Albion Rooms and the film, Fuck the Police (shot by Anne McCloy) and ends with a police raid following noise complaints. In New York, promoting their album in May 2003, they recorded the Babyshambles Sessions. Despite the mounting tensions between them, Barât and Doherty both got tattoos of the word “Libertine” on their arms as a symbol of their commitment to the band and, presumably, one another. Nonetheless, frustrated with Doherty’s association with druggies, Barât abruptly abandoned the sessions and they were finished by Doherty alone. The results were given to a fan, Helen Hsu, who was instructed to make them available on the internet. Back in the UK, Doherty continued playing gigs without Barât’s participation. When they reconvened to record their next single, “Don’t Look Back into the Sun,” Doherty failed to get along with Butler and was scarcely present, necessitating in Butler playing Doherty’s part on the single.
Doherty organized a gig in an attempt to celebrate Barât's birthday and smooth out tensions but Barât attended a party organized by others instead. As a result, Doherty dropped out of the band’s European Tour and was replaced by a guitar technician. At the same time, Barât demanded that Doherty clean up before he be allowed to return to the band. Doherty instead formed Babyshambles whilst The Libertines toured Japan. An increasingly unstable Doherty burgled Barât's apartment in Mayfair and was arrested and in August, he pleaded guilty at the preliminary hearing. No doubt fuelled by the scandal, “Don’t Look Back into the Sun” was their highest placing single at that point, charting at #11. At the Carling Weekend, The Libertines played with Anthony Rossomando filling in for Doherty, who in September was sentenced to six months in prison. After two months at Wandsworth, his sentence was reduced on appeal and Barât was waiting for Doherty outside when Doherty was released in October in a highly emotional reunion. After reconciling, the band played a gig the same day at the Tap'n'Tin pub, in Chatham, Kent, which NME named “Gig of the Year.” The three dates they played at the London Forum which followed were named by Q Magazine as amongst the top 100 of all time.
In March 2004, The Libertines undertook a nationwide tour after which Pootschi was replaced by Creation Records’ Alan McGee. They returned to the studio with Butler but his relationship with Doherty proved irreconcilable and Mick Jones returned to re-record The Libertines (2004-Rough Trade). Doherty’s period of sobriety proved short-lived and once again, relationships within the band frayed. On the side, Doherty and his friend, poet Peter “Wolfman” Wolfe recorded “For Lovers,” which was released in April and reached #7, outperforming all The Libertines’ previous releases. It was nominated for an Ivor Novello Award for songwriting. Although Barât’s disdain for Wolfman was a matter of public knowledge, he nonetheless played guitar on the B-side, “Back from the Dead.” Meanwhile, Powell double-timed with The New York Dolls for their reunion shows. Toward the end of The Libertines’ recording, Doherty walked out and checked himself into The Priory in May in an attempt to quit drugs. He left early, returned shortly after, and left once again a week later.
In 2004 Barât set up a weekly club night, Dirty Pretty Things, (later renamed Bright Young Things) at the Infinity Club in the West End. The day Doherty left the Priory for the second time, he went to the Barât’s club and informed him that he was going to Wat Tham Krabok in Thailand clean himself up. The re-united Libertines performed a short set that night which proved to be the last of the classic line-up to date. Barât went on to form a supergroup, The Chavs, with Tim Burgess of The Charlatans, Primal Scream Martin Duffy and Razorlight’s drummer, Andy Burrows.
Doherty’s attempts to get clean in Thailand ended in failure when he abandoned the temple after three days to score in Bangkok. When Doherty returned to the UK, he was arrested in June for possessing an engraved switchblade from Thailand which he’d bought for Barât. In September, he was sentenced to four months in prison which were latterly suspended for a year. The Libertines denied Doherty’s efforts to return to the band so he shifted his focus to Babyshambles. In August, “Can’t Stand Me Now” was released and reached #2 and their self-titled album, released shortly after, topped the charts. Their final single, “What Became of the Likely Lads” reached #9. With Rossomando once again filling in, the band played gigs to promote the album. Having fulfilled their obligation without Doherty, The Libertines played their final show in Paris that December before stating that he would no longer play or record as The Libertines without his estranged partner.
Hassall next resurfaced with the North London-based Yeti in 2004. They’ve charted a couple of times and opened for Foo Fighters and Oasis on tours. They’ve thus far released just one album, The Legend Of Yeti Gonzales, in 2008. In 2005, Barât underwent surgery to remove a tumor behind his ear which left him partially deaf. In Feburary, In February, after The Libertines were awarded NME's Best British Band award, it was announced that Barât had signed to Vertigo Records as a solo artist. Barât's first work as a solo artist was providing vocals for Client on "Pornography". In September, Powell and Barât joined other musicians in Dirty Pretty Things. In 2008, Dirty Pretty Things would split after a month long UK tour.
In 2004, following the dissolution of The Libertines, Doherty also provided guest vocals for The Client on “Down to the Underground.” In 2005, he collaborated with The Littl’ans and in 2006, with Mike Skinner of The Streets. However, most of his efforts have been with Babyshambles, who’ve thus far released two albums. In 2009, Doherty released his solo debut, Grace/Wastelands though his post-Libertines works continue to be overshadowed by his ongoing antics and woes. On 2 February 2005, Doherty was arrested after a fight with filmmaker Max Carlish, who was shooting a documentary about the singer and sold photos of a heroin smoking Doherty to the tabloids. Those charges were dropped. Doherty made another attempt to get clean September 2007 when he underwent rehab for six weeks at Clouds House. Following an appearance at the MTV Europe Music Awards 2007, he once again relapsed. In April 2008, Doherty was jailed for fourteen weeks by a court for breaching a probation order after drugs and driving offenses. Upon his early release in May, he showed reporters a certificate confirming he had passed a drugs test while inside. In addition, his on-again-off-again relationship with Kate Moss, brief engagement to model Irina Lazareanu and fathering of a son with singer Lisa Moorish have made him a staple of the tabloids. Most recently, The Sun and The Guardian have even reported that he’s interested in becoming a Scientologist
In April 2005, Barât and Doherty reconciled at the Boogaloo Bar in Highgate, North London. Meetings between the two have been rare since although in April 2007, Barât joined Doherty on stage to play songs together at the Hackney Empire, their first live performance together in years. In June, for a tribute to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Barât and Doherty contributed “A Day in the Life.” At the Glastonbury festival, Babyshambles and Dirty Pretty Things both played sets but a rumored Libertines reunion proved to be just that. In September 2008, at a private gig at the Prince of Wales pub in Camden (as part of London Fashion Week), Barât once again joined his Doherty in an impromptu reunion if Libertines songs and a cover of Oasis’s “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” In February 2009, Doherty and Barât were offered millions of pounds to reform and headline the Reading and Leeds Festivals but turned the offer down although Barât maintained that The Libertines still exist and are merely “on ice.” The closest thing to a reuinion came in May 2009, when Doherty, Barât and Powell reunited at the London Rhythm Factory for a tribute to their friend, the late Johnny Sedassy with Babyshambles’ Drew McConnel filling in for Hassal.
Though they produced only two records, the impact of The Libertines, particularly in England, has been enormous. Bands like The Arctic Monkeys, The Cribs, The Rakes, Razorlight and a host of lesser bands owe an obvious debt. The Libertines have been the subject of at least two biographies, Peter Welsh’s Kids in the Riot: High and Low with The Libertines and Anthony Thornton and Roger Sargent’s The Libertines Bound Together: The Story of Peter Doherty and Carl Barât and How They Changed British Music.