Time For Heroes: The Best Of
They arrived in the summer of 2002 – as fully formed as they’d ever be. A haze of sweat, sex fluids and narcotics, with pasty-white pigeon chests poking out of battered, skip-salvaged leather jackets. With their tall tales of pension-drawing drummers, rent-boy pasts and decadent romanticism gushing forth from overexcited mouths, it’s entirely possible The Libertines changed your world.
Perhaps their idealistic visions of a mythical England known only as ‘Albion’ opened your eyes to a freewheeling, fancy-free side of life you never knew existed. Or maybe their quoting of long-dead poets and opiate-addicted wordsmiths nudged you towards that English Literature degree you’d never shown the slightest shred of interest in. They may even have turned you into one of those insufferable spouters of self-penned poetic dreck about the plight of Bilo – written, naturally, in whichever bodily fluid is closest to hand. And if they ‘inspired’ you to pick up a guitar and christen yourself an urch-rock laureate in a thrift-store trilby… well, the less said about The Paddingtons the better. Point is, it’s possible.
But it never happened to this writer. It all seemed rather half-formed; a band whose reach exceeded their grasp, a great idea too often let down by less-than-great music, with half-arsesry more often than not the order of the day. It’s not a popular view, but it’s the one I adhere to and if you don’t like it the Letters page is thataway. What can’t be denied, however, is that for intermittent three-minute bursts, the Libs could be one of the most thrilling bands of their generation, regardless of how patchy their albums might have been. And more than anything else – and without wishing to rehash it here – what a story.
And now we have this this weirdly-timed, oddly-compiled best of to give it its final chapter. The Libertines, for better or worse, have cast such a huge shadow across British music over the last five years that it’s difficult to imagine anyone of a certain age not being familiar with the lion’s share of these songs already, and with Pete’n’Carl’s fleeting reunion still fresh in the memory it has the slightly odious and unsavoury whiff of a cash-in.
Judge it on merit rather than morals, however, and you can’t argue with its breathless, scatterbrained glory. Sure, there are some glaring omissions (no ‘Music When The Lights Go Out’, ‘Vertigo or ‘Skint And Minted’?), but the songs that have made the cut are, by and large, The Libertines’ best.
From the guttural howl that announces the arrival of ‘Up The Bracket’ – toeing the line between physical collapse and wide-eyed wonder that must have been so familiar to its authors – this is a merry jaunt down a dilapidated, Dickensian memory lane where the windows are boarded up, the cobbles cracked and the opportunities for mischief endless. Funnily enough, it’s difficult to imagine Babyshambles or Dirty Pretty Things coming up with anything half as exciting. Which, lest we forget, is another story.
The same applies to ‘Time For Heroes’ and ‘Don’t Look Back Into The Sun’ – both criminally overplayed and over posed-to at indie discos across the land, but equally rife with the teary-eyed, blood-stained magical whimsy that made Shakespeare readers of a generation of Oasis fans. It’s moments like these that make even non-believers doff their cap to them.
Those are the three songs that The Libertines will undeniably be remembered for, but it’s the less celebrated tracks that will, ultimately, lend their legacy longevity. ‘I Get Along’ – sounding like the Sex Pistols falling down the stairs of a north London tower block and dusting themselves off with a sledgehammer – contains, for all The Libs’ poetic aspirations, arguably their greatest lyric (the immortal “Fuck ’em!”) and B-side ‘The Delaney’ their most memorable chorus, shoehorned into a melody that can barely contain it.
Of their second album only three tracks make the cut, and of them it’s safe to say that ‘What Katy Did’ could have made way for ‘The Ha Ha Wall’ or ‘Last Post On The Bugle’. But ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ – to be commended as much for its honesty as its sparkling melody – and ‘What Became Of The Likely Lads’ hint at the greatness this band could have achieved had cliché not proved too tantalising a prospect.
The Libertines were, ultimately, that most British of phenomena: the glorious failure. They were never as great as they could have been, nor, as this album – for all its tracklisting faults – proves to we doubters, as average as they should have been. There is, you suspect, a truly great and comprehensive retrospective still to be compiled from their frantic, frenzied and all-too-short existence. And while ‘Time For Heroes’ isn’t it, let it stand for now as testament to the dreams those likely lads had.