No great band is born without a struggle and no great records are born in a vacuum. For every artist whose ideas makes your wig spin there are a huge pile of influences - from specks of colour to swathes of sound - that delivered them to that point. And this where The Roots Of... comes in. Each week we’ll take a band, pull apart the threads that make them who they are and build a Spotify playlist from those influences...
This week: The Libertines! Our story begins when Peter, a tall, sporty, academically gifted, poetically-minded and popular boy raised on Army bases in Greece, Northern Ireland, Germany and Dorset meets his elder sister’s friend, Carl, a Bob Dylan and David Bowie fan who spent part of his childhood living with his mother in a peace commune in Somerset. Sparks fly, riotousness is explored; eventually some military jackets are bought. The Libertines arrived in a furious explosion of excitement with the debut album, 'Up The Bracket', in 2002. Not much more than two years later Doherty’s escalating drug problems effectively silenced the band for half a decade. But what got them there in the first place?
For Doherty, poetry came before music, be it the art and symbolism of William Blake, the incomparably witty Oscar Wilde, the transcendent William Butler Yeats, the masterful, defiant Siegfried Sassoon and the Beat poets of Allen Ginsberg’s “Libertine Circle” like William Burroughs, Joan Vollmer (who later became psychotic from Benzedrine abuse), Lucien Carr and Jack Kerouac who so influenced Bob Dylan.
The taut directness of Patti Smith and the Clash informed the music Doherty and Barat would make just as powerfully as the ramshackle glory of the New York Dolls or The Fall. Take a band like The Strokes, who the Libertines were pitched as the bed-haired Brit version of almost as soon as they appeared, and you witness a band operating on a wire tight rein. Cross that with the eternally frustrated gutter poetry of Galton & Simpson’s 'Steptoe and Son', the personal politics of Barat’s beloved Specials and the wildly inventive surrealism of The Goons and you have a very potent package indeed.
London – in fact the idea of some glorious, free-spirited city where anything was possible – held a huge appeal for both young Libertines. It could be anything from Chas and Dave singing about 'London Girls' – Pete and Carl would later cover the duo’s 'Harry Was A Champion' – to early Brit-rap star Derek B eulogizing what Pete recalled as, “a far-off place called east London”. Then there was Pulp singing about chasing rave tickets in Camden Town to the Smiths, whose 1985 single 'The Boy With The Thorn In His Side' had made Peter want to play the guitar, singing about the emotional wrench of moving to the capital. The effect was the same – this was a magical place that had a centrifugal force powerful enough to draw in and inspire generations of bands like Blur and Suede, The Small Faces and The Jam.
The Libertines inhabited a wonderful tradition of artists that were able to make brilliant pop records while remaining only too happy to move around their own psychological building blocks while they were doing it. From the Monkees to David Bowie, from Supergrass and ska heroes like Desmond Dekker through to the Stone Roses, all played a part in shaping the scratchy, pointed, snotty, funny, blissful and elegiac songs that would appear finally, on 'Up The Bracket'.