Two beats, a sloping bassline, a deftly-picked top line and we’re in to the first new Libertines track in 11 years.
It’s a moment that, for most followers of Albion, will surely bring with it as much trepidation as it does excitement: more than any other band, the return of The Libs could be utterly glorious or it could be a total shit show.
If the quartet’s short-lived first wave was marked by more dizzying highs (two formidable LPs, cult devotion, some of the most thrilling live shows around) and upsetting nadirs (burglary, prison, bad drugs) than any other group in recent memory, then the decade that followed it slowly chipped away at their public perception even further. Pete became tabloid fodder, more famous for his habits and his hook-ups than his music; Carl slowly accumulated deteriorating reviews, all alluding to the fact that, without his AWOL musical foil, he was missing a spark. The glory days of Biggles and Bilo, Albion and Arcadia seemed a million miles away.
Then came the sporadic reunions, marred by declarations in 2014 that they’d signed up for the pay packet and that Pete thought it was “totally in the spirit of The Libertines to do it for the money”. It felt like a backhanded compliment for the fans who so desperately wanted the group back, but so believed in everything they’d once stood for. Yet, despite all the ill-advised talk, every time the boys in the band got back on stage, there was enough spark and ever-present chemistry to suggest they weren’t just dialling it in for the dollar.
And so, at the tail end of 2014, it emerged that Pete and Carl had been writing new material in Thailand and now, 3958 days after their last release, the first taste of ‘Anthems For Doomed Youth’ (due September 4) emerges. It’s called ‘Gunga Din’ (after the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name) and – thank Christ – it’s absolutely brilliant.
Coming on with a dubby, Clash-like lurch it lyrically goes straight for the jugular. “Getting sick and tired of feeling sick and tired again,” drawls a self-aware Pete. “I tried to write/ Cos I’ve got the right to make it look as if I’m doing something with my life”. And then, as if acknowledging his own challenge, it crashes into a chorus that tumbles along with all the ramshackle passion and lusty, heart-on-sleeve emotion that’s at the crux of why The Libertines still matter so much to so many.
Then comes Carl’s answering verse, complete with its own internal demons. “The mirror’s fucking ugly and I’m sick and tired of looking at him,” sings Barat, invoking uncomfortable memories for anyone who remembers the nasty incident with a bathroom sink that nearly left the singer blind in one eye (back in 2003, Carl repeatedly smashed his eye into the fixture in a fit of brutal self-flagellation). Defiant however, the verse ends with an ‘I Get Along’-style “fuck it!” and roars back into action. As it collapses in on itself into a climactic rush of guitars, amid shouts from Pete of “what you doing you stupid fucking idiot?!”, it’s obvious why The Libertines went back into the studio and why, in 2015, everyone should care.
‘Gunga Din’ isn’t a cheap slice of half-baked nostalgia. It immediately taps straight back into the edge-of-seat, semi-chaotic, always-emotional excitement that the finest Libertines songs have at their core and it immediately makes their forthcoming third album a vital listen. Those eleven years might have been a necessary balm for The Libertines’ frazzled soul, but musically, it could almost be like they never went away.