Punctual, smart, clean and with girlfriend in tow, Pete’s cleaned up and has new material to show off. What’s going on?
Something strange occurred in Brixton tonight. Shortly after dusk in the dim reaches of south London the unexpected happened. Babyshambles, scourge of the mainstream press, bête noire of anyone in favour of predictability, the band that put the punk into punctuality, with a long and laborious legacy of late appearances and no shows, amble on stage a mere eight minutes late.
Perhaps it’s the presence of Kate Moss, perhaps the fact they’ve signed a big record deal, and know this is the one last chance, but they’re here. And the big question tonight is, will this uncharacteristic timeliness prove to be an omen of the entire performance? A thousand fingers are crossed as Pete bounces out in trademark suit and trilby – a tabloid terror in spiv’s clothing – and tears straight into a stripped-down version of ‘Pipedown’. Newie ‘Baddie’s Boogie’ snaps at its heels – a delicate, tinkling main riff giving way to a wall of chords and a mid-section that sounds curiously like the breakdown refrain of Dirty Pretty Things’ – ‘Doctors And Dealers’, and the carnival begins.
Depending on your point of view, the man’s a genius or pariah. What’s unarguable is that it’s impossible to escape a single aspect of Peter Doherty in today’s media. Well, every aspect that is except for the music. Despite fame beyond imagining, to paraphrase the howl of disgust in tonight’s coda of ‘Fuck Forever’, they won’t play this music on the radio. Well, certainly not as much as the bands he and Barât have inspired.
As other bands adapted The Libertines formula to great success, Babyshambles fans have kept up their spirits through thin and thinner. They’ve been like well-wishers attending the hospital bed of a loved one, wielding party hats and streamers, always looking on the bright side in the hope of a breakthrough. Post-‘Down In Albion’, in want of anything else, the fans had to make do with frequently appalling bootleg live versions of once-familiar songs: digital crumbs from the internet table. And then suddenly, last autumn, there was a huge feast. First ‘The Blinding EP’ and then the Stookie And Jim Bumfest Demos. Just like the good old days. The fact that over a third of the songs played tonight are from these two works is a clear indication of a new, reborn Babyshambles.
The addition of Mick Whitnall as a replacement for Pat Walden’s seismic guitar-playing has turned out to be a stroke of genius. With a fortunately solid rhythm section underpinning the spontaneity out front, new tracks ‘Stookieuntitled’ and ‘The Delivery’ are scintillating glimpses of what’s to come. Meanwhile, as ‘Killamangiro’ and ‘The Blinding’ begin, the crowd responds with a rare ferocity that teeters on the edge of violence, but it’s only when Peter brandishes a QPR flag that the atmosphere temporarily sours. Boos erupt from the audience, proving that love is unconditional, except when someone else’s football team is concerned. Crushing almost stops play during ‘Beg Steal Or Borrow’ and when ‘Time For Heroes’ is tossed away midset – underlining the band’s new-found confidence – Brixton reaches fever pitch.
Time now, for the various vetted and non-destructive friends to take to the stage. Wolfman, looking like Liam Gallagher drawn by Edvard Munch, drawls through ‘For Lovers’, then it’s Kate Moss’ turn. Floating on like grace personified, as if held aloft simply by the power of her fame, she breathily exhales her lines for a rockabilly-styled ‘La Belle Et La Bête’ before disappearing like a grungey Tinkerbell. Doherty invites the audience to “Thank Miss Moss”, for a moment a starchy headmaster addressing an unruly class on their manners – confounding expectation to the very end.
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As we’re hurtling through London’s underground, more than 11 stops out of Brixton with fanatics still singing the vocal ska riff from ‘I Wish’ to bemused tourists, we’re left wondering what Pete’s greatest achievement is. Is it this Lazarus-like rise to prove the doubters wrong, or the fact he’s reincarnated ska as an acceptable musical form?
Whatever. This radical re-awakening – with gigs the polar opposite of popular perception – is going on, right under the unyielding gaze of the mainstream media. They haven’t even noticed: Pariah or not, now that is genius.