From The Helicopter To The Stage: Inside The Libertines’ Secret Glastonbury Appearance

Pete Doherty has just been told that in 48 hours time The Libertines are to play the most exciting secret set in Glastonbury’s recent history, and he’s crying.

To say the four-piece have unfinished business at Worthy Farm is an understatement of massive proportions. June 2003: they slog through a set here – perhaps their worst ever – minus Pete who’s been ordered into rehab three days earlier. It’s his first stint, and it’s also the first time the general public get a taste of the turbulence that will destroy Britain’s most romanticised band since The Smiths just 12 months later.

Cut forward to 7:30pm on the day of 2015’s secret show though, and everything’s different.

NME have been whisked out of Worthy Farm and driven through ever-more secret, security-laden tracks until we reach an open field several miles later. It’s staffed entirely by elderly plane enthusiasts. In the distance, a red helicopter approaches, the passengers waving manically from inside. For a split second, when it shakes violently a few feet above the ground in front of us, things don’t look too good. But then, out tumble Pete, Carl, John and Gary, bounding into each other as hats, flags and other assorted Albion regalia go flying.

“What’s going on here then?!” Pete asks NME incredulously. “What gig are you talking about? I haven’t heard anything about a gig! I’m just here to watch a few bands…”

Carl, who’s clutching a Go-Pro video camera, declares that the Led Zep-style arrival was to his satisfaction. “You should see the private jet we’re getting after,” he cackles. He’s not even joking – in order to play this set and not pull any other tour dates, The Libs have had to totally re-jig their itinerary. Last minute rehearsals in Bristol, frantic calls to the BBC about what songs (not) to broadcast, and a couple of 11-seater planes usually reserved for visiting presidents waiting on the runway to get them to Moscow in time for tomorrow’s gig. That’s how important Glastonbury is to them.

Back on the site, and the relaxed mood continues: Gary sets about choosing the setlist, while Florence Welch comes over to tell Pete and Carl how excited she is to see them play. Lemmy, Michael Eavis and Metallica’s Lars Ulrich all look on from the wings.

They’re there at the side of the stage too a few minutes later, when the band make their entrance. There have been rumours about the gig all day, but nothing could have prepared them for the crowd reaction when the now-customary ‘Up The Bracket’ backdrop is unveiled. It’s easily the most euphoric moment of Glastonbury so far, and what transpires over the next hour’s set is a reminder that The Libertines can make the biggest stages feel intimate. It’s their trump card, and whether it’s Carl playfully shoulder-barging Pete during ‘Death On The Stairs’, or Pete singing the ‘Time For Heroes’ solo back at the crowd, they’re clearly more confident and boisterous now than they ever were back in 2002.

Best of all today is ‘You’re My Waterloo’, one of three songs aired from the new album. Backed by Ed Harcourt on piano and Edie Langley (Carl’s wife) on cello, it sees Pete put down the guitar and sing his finest vocal since ‘For Lovers’ over a decade ago. A wake-up call for every naysayer who’s ever accused Doherty of squandering his talent, it’s a new highpoint in their repertoire to rank alongside ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’, ‘Don’t Look Back Into The Sun’ and ‘Music When The Lights Go Out’ – and the best reason yet to justify them reuniting in the first place.

Elsewhere in the set, we get the dubby ‘Gunga Djin’, now much tighter than when they debuted it at in Holland last week, and third newie ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’, sung by Carl with a chorus that goes “Life could be so handsome, life could be so gay. We’re going nowhere, but nowhere’s on our way”. Both sound unforced, with the latter faintly recalling ‘Shangri La’ by The Kinks, and both offer further promise for the forthcoming album.

By the time the sun goes down and the crowd are a sea of flares and flags, they’ve already won, but it’s the final trio of ‘I Get Along’, ‘What A Waster’ and a full-throttle, feedback-flecked ‘Don’t Look Back Into The Sun’ that really secures it – surely giving Eavis food for thought about next year’s headliners.