Four years after they split, the music of the Libertines – especially their debut album Up The Bracket – has been subsumed into the quagmire of myth and infamy surrounding their errant, erstwhile singer. Forget Pete Doherty’s tabloid bête noire celebrity and the platitudes of a misty-eyed rock press, it’s time for a personal reassessment, reckons Ian Hodson.
I bought the Libertines debut album Up The Bracket long after its release, just a couple of years ago. It instantly became my favourite album and remained so for about a year. Generally, the whole album is really a stand-out record for me. It seems to self-consciously plough a well riven furrow — the pretty naked, drug-psychosis type of statement. While this is certainly not the type of life focus that I would seek to encourage, Doherty’s method acting has certainly wrung some memorable lyric poetry and old school punk attitude from the genre. A lot of people’s perception of punk is a comic book idea, but for me it’s about the intelligent stuff like Cabaret Voltaire, Joy Division, The Fall, Pere Ubu, The Buzzcocks, Vic Goddard… I can also hear parallels between Babyshambles/The Libertines and Tim Buckley, particularly in the chord structures.
I have nearly all of Doherty’s post-Libertines releases on vinyl, and a few other bits besides (Littl’ans, Wolfman etc) I think they’re all really good statements in themselves. I’m into listening to stuff on vinyl and to me each tune is a pure Doherty gem. The hype does nothing but detract from all of this superb material and instead focus attention upon the weaker later Libertines stuff which, in my opinion, does not really bear repeated aural scrutiny in the same way as Up The Bracket. Having just listened to [album tracks] ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Death on the Stairs’ once again, both beautifully produced by the much-expanded head of Mick Jones, I think this is easily the equal of the Clash’s White Riot, Remote Control etc.
Time marches on.
OK, I guess there is quite a lot to be said about the album, so here goes. Overall, it benefits from a great live feel. I think that’s what Mick Jones coaxed out of them; he translated what they had live onto record —something many have tried but few achieve. That’s something which is gradually paling with Babyshambles’ later releases (although I still love each and every one of them). The actual song ‘Up The Bracket’ comes mid-set — after they’ve had time to fire off some free-jazz-style tracks. Then it burns down to some tighter, more consolidated coals. ‘Up the Bracket’ is a nice melodic kind of thrash-groover, a sort of Libertines staple. Good story too, kind of early Fall-like.
On ‘Tell the King’ we get Doherty’s skewed, nostalgic/patriotic view filtered through Baudelaire/Byron/Shelleyan spectacles. He really rides this one to death on Babyshambles’ Down at the Albion, and that’s one aspect of Pete’s posturing that does slightly grate with me; the androgynous, self pitying, sixth form poetry reader-first-discovering-Sylvia-Plath-type vibe. But still: as a fellow guitar strangler, it totally gets me on a musical level.
Elsewhere, ‘The Boy Looked at Johnny’ — I too wholeheartedly piss on your reason; you do it my way or I’ll push your face in — is pure megalomanic magic, the grit without which there would be no pearl, while ‘Begging’ is pure sleaze and, to me, is musically perfect — if there is such a thing. ‘Horror Show’, a great grinder for acoustic and electric guitar, is in my opinion the real gem of the album. A two-part call-and-response riffing between two guitars and bass, it’s a real hammering percussive number, with great lyrics again.
Forget the track by track stuff now; the whole of the first side is just gorgeous, much like the Wolfman single ‘For Lovers’. This is pure, romantic and heartfelt twenty first century punk soul — I love it! Every true music fan should own this record, it marks time over a period of thirty years and does it with such panache that I am almost able to swallow the Shelleyan dope fiend voluptuary angle. The best thing about Up The Bracket is the sense that you are witnessing something creative happening in front of you, immortalised on vinyl. There’s a lot to take in on a first listen; it’s a classic first album that definitely feels like it’s been conceived as a live set. I’m a bit old to be into that sort of music but my taste was formed by punk, and independent stuff like Up The Bracket, that embodies that spirit, still appeals to me. It transports me on a personal level to my eighteen-year-old self and my first and best gig with my very able band, the Naughty Lawnmowers. We had attempted two rehearsals, one of which was stopped by the police, so the material came together for the first time largely on stage at Clouds Nitescene, Cleethorpes. The audience consisted of be-mushroomed hippies and office workers out on the lash, all of whom went wild. The Libertines’ music has the same spontaneous/chaotic energy.
More than that, Up The Bracket is a snapshot of a band at the height of its powers; they’d found management, were getting promoted, and were tearing through loads of gigs. The album embodies the rush of being in a band at the top of its game.