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Time for Heroes: Pete Doherty and Carl Barât on Love, Arcadian Dreams, 'Putting Everything on the Line' and the Glorious Resurrection of the Libertines

'We started off in communities of impossible dreamers, getting into scrapes together. And it's like being back at the beginning. I've been desperate to play these new songs. I've got skin in this game, baby.'

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Source: Ed Cooke
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Peter Doherty is trying to tell me an anecdote. It’s a very good, rather long, and very funny anecdote, but the problem is that I genuinely can’t tell if it’s true or not.

The question that prompted it was innocuous enough: what, I wondered, had been his and Carl Barât’s “punk rock moment,” the song or band that had opened their eyes to the idea of music as being something more important than just… music.

“There was a gentleman – and I use that term in the loosest possible sense – by the name of Welsh Pete,” Doherty starts. “And he was a sort of a knight in the Indie Camelot that was Camden in the late '90s. But…” He pauses, raises a finger for emphasis. “He didn't have a coat of arms. In fact he was stark bol--ck naked most of the time. Because he had an incident [there then follows a graphic and wholly unpublishable explanation of the ‘incident’] which left him with an elongated member.”

Barât is nodding gravely throughout, as if to say: this is important. Pay attention.

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“And he was always flashing his elongated member at my girlfriend,” Doherty continues, “saying, ‘Wouldn't you prefer a bit of this, though?’ I mean it was awful.

“But then one night he took hold of me and said ‘Doherty.’ He said, ‘you’re a plastic punk, come with me.’ And I thought, oh god, this is it. You know what I mean? And he took me up an alley… but it was a shortcut to the bus stop, thankfully.

“And we got the bus back to his flat and he sat me down and he fed his lizard. That's not a metaphor, right, he actually fed his lizard and then he put some clothes on and said ‘Sit yourself down, son.’ And he made me watch [the Clash documentary] Westway to the World, followed by [the Sex Pistols documentary] The Filth and the Fury. And I remember coming out literally blinking, you know?

“It's an awful cliche, but I was blinking in the morning sunlight and I was like one of those wind-up plastic turtles you get in the souvenir stands in Thailand beaches. I just needed to be pointed in the right direction. I was raring to go.”

This is how it is with the Libertines. Alternately deadly serious and deeply p--s-takey, prone to surreal flights of fancy, openly emotional, frequently hilarious, unafraid of throwing around absurd/brilliant/nonsensical (sometimes all three at once) phrases like “the Indie Camelot of Camden in the late ‘90s” or “Arcadian visions of autoerotic Russian Imperialism” (that comes later), Peter Doherty and Carl Barât are also outstandingly good company.

the libertines color
Source: Ed Cooke

The Libertines - 'Arcadian visions of autoerotic Russian Imperialism.'

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How much of Doherty’s story about Welsh Pete and his “elongated member” is true doesn’t really matter. The important thing is the bottom line.

“We were making our first album at that time and people were comparing us to these bands, but although I had vague ideas about them I was pretty set in my ways musically,” Doherty continues. “I was more into mod psychedelic stuff, that sort of punk. Love, Arthur Lee, maybe the Stooges. And that night gave me a kick up the backside in a lot of ways and in my naive, idealistic way, after that I maybe believed I was part of some glorious lineage. I mean, people laugh at that and call it what they will. But for me it felt like some sort of initiation.

“The Clash suddenly stopped being a poster. I was looking into these people's faces and I was seeing these young men and the things they were saying. They suddenly hit me so hard, every lyric and every melody, every guitar line, just seared into my gut, into my soul, and I was inspired.”

Barât interrupts. That’s the other thing – they interrupt each other a lot.

“So you thought, f--k it, let's just become a f--king Clash cover band?”

“No no no!”

“I think I don't entirely understand what a punk rock moment is,” Barât says, even as Doherty continues to protest.

“Is it a kind of hero’s journey? Like the part in Star Wars with Obi Wan Kenobi, or in Lord of the Rings with Gandalf, where you're shown something which then makes you realize that you have a purpose, which obviously culminates in a situation where it’s only through using that purpose in the service of others that you can become truly great? Is that the rock and roll moment?”

Well, I mean, I guess you could put it like that. Or it could be like the moment when you saw a band on Top of the Pops and thought… but it’s too late. He’s already talking again.

the libertines black and white
Source: Ed Cooke

'I think I don't entirely understand what a punk rock moment is.'

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“Because, if that's the case, I had this science teacher who, as a sort of cruel punishment, used to get graph paper and I had to color in all the squares and the colors weren’t allowed to touch the same color. And I thought he was a right w--ker, I f---ing hated him… but one day he also gave me a cassette tape and it was the Velvet Underground and loads of Lou Reed solo stuff.

“And I think listening to ‘Venus in Furs’ was where I had that sort of epiphany, my road to Damascus. I would sit in my bedroom, light f--king joss sticks or whatever, drink cans of cider which I found on the way home, and it was like this new direction, a new escape and a new universe which I knew I belonged to. I think that could be my rock ‘n’ roll awakening. One of the songs was ‘Rock & Roll,’ actually.”

For the next three minutes, the pair sing the Velvet Underground song. Not only that, they do so with all the genuine enthusiasm that a 16-year-old obsessively listening to it in his bedroom drunk on stolen cider might do. It’s not even embarrassing. In fact it’s sort of lovely.

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the libertines albion rooms
Source: Ed Cooke

'One day, there won't be the four of us and we won't be able to do this.'

The resurgence, or resurrection, or perhaps most accurately rehabilitation, of the Libertines is one of the most unlikely and most welcome comebacks in rock history. After the burning-twice-as-bright-and-half-as-long explosion of poetry and idealism and loud, glorious guitars of first album, 2002’s Up the Bracket, and the can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it horrorshow of addiction and broken friendship of 2004’s follow-up The Libertines, it seemed the band that had smashed into Indie Rock ‘n’ Roll on a self-proclaimed mission to save it from stagnation had come fatally undone by rock ‘n’ roll itself.

By the time they officially split in December 2004, Doherty and Barât – the band’s twin frontmen, twin songwriters, best friends and rumored lovers, once united in a fierce belief in the unassailable strength of their union – couldn’t stand each other. What became of the likely lads? Separate solo and band projects, a spell of uncomfortable super-celebrity for Doherty, Wormwood Scrubs, frequent heroin-relapses, a tragic death, and too many gleeful tabloid exposes to keep count of.

In the lyrics of their debut single, released just two frantic years before their split: “What a f---ing waster, you pi--ed it all up the wall.”

It took six years before Barât and Doherty could share a stage again together, at 2010’s Reading & Leeds Festivals, and another nine after that before Doherty finally got drug free.

Third studio album Anthems for Doomed Youth was recorded in Thailand in 2015 and released the same year to cautious critical acclaim… and after another lengthy break, at the tail end of 2023, with Doherty now fully clean and living in France with wife Katia de Vidas, two new singles heralded a Libertines fourth LP.

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All Quiet on the Eastern Esplanade was recorded at the band’s Albion Rooms studios in Margate, and was released on April 5. It is their best record since Up the Bracket, a tight, controlled, fluid collection of songs that work individually, but also collectively. It’s clearly a Libertines album, but the previously endearingly ramshackle – or uncomfortably tense – back and forth between Doherty and Barât has been replaced by an easy confidence in each others' abilities. It’s the sound, dare one say it, of a band back in love with each other. On April 12 it debuted at No. 1 on the U.K. albums chart.

“I think we got back together originally with a sort of morbid curiosity for what could have been,” says Barât, “and of missing our friendship of course. And then, from that, you know, there's a natural next step to get close enough to actually be able to create together again. And it was rocky and it was touch and go, and, yeah, that was the last record. And now we're in a place where we're more capable of understanding our calling.”

“I’m not overly comfortable really analyzing relationships too much,” says Doherty. “It's like if I was asking you about your best friend. How would you feel about that?”

Well if I was in a pivotal rock ‘n’ roll band with my best friend, then…

“You’re right. It would be different if I was doing an article about you. I'd dig right in, trust me. Fair enough. So tell me about your relationship with your best friend…”

Barât interrupts again, somewhat thankfully. “I was talking to this woman the other day and she said, ‘How have you two been friends for so long? I've not got any friends from ten years ago.’ I went, what did you do? And she was getting really upset. She must have done something really quite f--king outrageous. So you should be careful what you ask. There's a cautionary tale in there somewhere.”

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the libertines
Source: Ed Cooke

The Libertines have returned with one the most unlikely - and welcome - comebacks in rock history.

One can’t help wondering if that renewed sense of “understanding your calling” was born out of the chaos of those lost years. Is it because Barât and Doherty went through those traumas together (or separately) that their friendship has come through it stronger? Was it a case of “couldn’t live with each other, couldn’t live without each other”? Or is all that just amateur psychology of the most reductive kind?

“Some days it’s like that,” says Barât. “It changes day to day; there so many splendors, and so multi-faceted is our relationship.”

“I think this album is a testament to all that in itself, you know?” says Doherty. “This album is a monument to everything, to the band, to our friendships within the band. I mean, it's just intrinsic to it. We wouldn't have been able to create it unless we'd been able to each of us make the sacrifice necessary to sit down at a table and put everything, our hearts, soul, our lives, everything on the line. Do this as and for the Libertines, for the Arcadian dream.

“I mean – and this is my own personal theory, which I've developed on the last three promo interviews, but I'm gonna run with it and see what Carl thinks. I believe I'm right in saying that we love being together and we love putting the songs together, and the only problems now come when we have to put the lyrics in there, which are invariably either these rowdy stream of consciousness things, or very personal psychodramas, or Arcadian visions of autoerotic Russian Imperialism… and then you're kind of stuck because you've got this beautiful melody and you've got these insane ideas about the world and yourself, and then where the f--k do you go?

“So there's a lot of sat staring at each other, talking straight, talking nonsense, and as that was happening, a strange event was occurring in the hearts of man, on the heath, and it was that the Libertines as a band were putting these songs together. So while we were getting passionate on the typewriters, John [Hassall, bassist] and Gary [Powell, drummer] would have completely changed the song, or put in a middle eight or whatever, and it's the first time that ever happened really, where the four of us were constructing it.

“More so now than ever I don't think we could do it without the four of us. It’s not just me and Carl. We need these four people to be this band. So you have to make hay while the sun shines. One day, there won't be the four of us and we won't be able to do this.”

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the libertines bw
Source: Ed Cooke

'All Quiet on the Eastern Esplanade' is the sound of a band happy to be making an album together, for perhaps the first time in a long time.

All Quiet on the Eastern Esplanade is also the Libertines’ most complex album. While the essential building blocks remain the same, with moments of pure vintage white heat euphoria, by and large the manic energy of their earlier work has (with a few notable exceptions) been replaced by a more considered, melancholic, worldly tone. The effect is beautiful, and also strangely optimistic. It even (whisper it) makes for – not exactly a happy album… but at least the sound of a band happy to be making an album together, for perhaps the first time in a long time.

“Does it sound happy?” wonders Barât. “I don't know if it does. It probably does for some songs. I mean, I think there's something really uplifting about some of the saddest songs, even the darker psychological ones, like ‘Man With the Melody’ and ‘Songs They Never Play on the Radio’. There's this momentum to them. You know, they're sort of… how can I put it? I wouldn't dare compare them to Scott Walker, but there is that sort of melancholy vibe, but with something uplifting as well.”

Each of the singles released prior to the album's release – “Run Run Run,” “Night of the Hunter,” “Shiver” and “Oh Sh-t” – have come with videos featuring characters depicted on the album cover. Does that make All Quiet on the Eastern Esplanade a kind of Margate concept album, built around the people and dramas in and around the Albion Rooms?

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There is a moment of deeply uncomfortable silence. “A concept album?” says Barât. “Now you’re being deliberately controversial. I don't know about that, it wasn't intended to be. It just so happened that everything that we wrote about seemed to come through like that as a sort of osmosis.”

Doherty interrupts. “No, no, no, this is dangerous. I don't like to analyze these things too much, it means too much to me. Like, we’d be sat there working on lyrics for a song like ‘Have a Friend’ – I mean whatever the f--k that's about, you know? And someone might come along, end of the scene, and say, ‘right, so what's this song about?’ And I'd have a f---ing big hissy fit. Sometimes it's not what the song's about, it's the feeling you had when you wrote it. Like: you can't say what's the melody about, can you?”

Barât looks offended. Or perhaps he’s just defending me. “I was just saying it's perhaps an accidental concept album.”

“Yeah but 20 years ago, if someone said that to you, you’d have bit his head off.”

“Why don't we just disagree? If we disagree on it, then it's not official, is it?”

“That’s quite a good album title: This is Not a Concept Album. Either way, concept or not, I think we’ll be pushed to make a better record than this.”

“Yeah, well we’ll have to now we’ve made a concept album, won’t we?”

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the libertines all quiet on the eastern esplanade
Source: The Libertines

'All Quiet on the Eastern Esplanade' is probably not a concept album, ok?

As the two continue to banter and bicker, knocking sparks off each other, their back-and-forth peppered with private jokes, references to books, films, The Simpsons, football cliches and sung snatches of songs, it’s not difficult to see just what made the Libertines such an exciting prospect 22 years ago. Whatever addiction, prison, broken hearts and wasted promise might have done to Carl Barât and Peter Doherty’s chemistry in the interim, it seems that real friendship, maybe even love, really does prevail after all. And it is that essential truth that, perhaps most surprisingly, makes spending time with them, of all things, a supremely optimistic experience.

Both are 45 years old, but bubble with the enthusiasm of men half their age. Or even of boys a quarter of that. The way they talk, it’s like All Quiet on the Eastern Esplanade is their first album, not their fourth.

“We've got real anticipation for this record,” says Doherty. “We feel like we've had our fair share of pretty good acclaim, but we never really feel like we cracked it and had No. 1 albums in a way that certain other guitar bands did and I think there's something that drives us in that.

“We started off in communities of impossible dreamers, getting into scrapes together. And it's like being back at the beginning. I’ve been desperate to play these new songs. I’ve got skin in this game, baby. I love these f--king songs.

“So to answer your question: hopefully, this album will be a flop and that'll drive us to make a better one. Whereas you know, if it does go gold, if we get that validation, then we'll just put out another f--king load of old…”

“We'll cultivate our egos for a bit,” interjects Barât, “and then just write some absolute paffle for the next record.”

“Exactly. Over the moon. Back of the net. Game of two halves, really.”


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