With The Libertines’ reunion peeking tantalisingly close over the horizon, the good ship Albion is readying to sail once more. So what better time to delve into the stories behind the songs that made them stars? Starting with ‘Up The Bracket’ opener Vertigo, which set their very British standpoint from the start with a reference to Hancock’s Half Hour (“Lead pipes, Your fortune’s made”).
‘Death On The Stairs’
A typically poetic slice of Libertonian upside-down romance, track two’s “Eritrean maiden” referenced Coleridge’s opium-induced poem ‘Kubla Khan’ and headed full pelt into themes of death or glory. “Carl was obsessed with the idea of being old and alone watching telly,” said Pete. “’Death on the stairs’, we called it”.
Aside from some fairly obvious heroin allusions to the “horse” being “brown”, ‘Horrorshow’s drug-addled tale is most notable for its first couplet which was penned by Pete’s then-girlfriend Francesca. Later, she threatened to sue for use of the lyric, but the case never left the ground.
‘Time For Heroes’
Written in former manager Banny Pootschi’s Islington flat, this classic was centred around Doherty’s experience of the 2001 May Day riots. “There were running battles with the police and I was part of that,” he explained. “I think the policeman thought I was taking the piss – I was doing my hair by looking in his riot shield and he clumped me round the side of the head”.
‘Boys In The Band’
Changing tack from their earlier, nostalgic sound after seeing The Strokes slay London in June 2001, ‘Boys In The Band’ was one of a clutch of songs written straight after with the intent of ramping things up a gear. “From that point it was a different approach,” says Carl. “Slightly more jaded, slightly more desperate, more furious.” They called it ‘Plan A’.
A polarising track among the band, ‘Radio America’ only ended up on ‘Up The Bracket’ because of some light blackmail… “[Carl] owed me money. I cancelled the debt and he let me put ‘Radio America’ on the album,” said Pete at the time. “Typical fucking Libertines. Absolutely disgraceful.”
‘Up The Bracket’
Referencing “two shadow men” on the Vallance Road in Bethnal Green close to Pete and Carl’s flat on Teesdale Road, ‘Up The Bracket’ is about a dodgy scuffle, told in the most British of fashions. “Two cold fingers” is an old school reference to flicking the V-sign – supposedly invented by British bowmen whose fingers would be chopped off if they lost in battle.
‘Tell The King’
A live staple of the band’s sets, Carl frequently used to add a second section on to the final verse of the track which (through delivered in a customary mumble) is widely thought to go: “He’s buying a Chinese takeaway/ When two blue eyes did look his way/ Says that love will find a way/ And takes him by the hand”.
‘The Boy Looked At Johnny’
The title was taken from the book of the same name, penned by former NME journalists Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons. However, it’s thought (particularly with lines like “Don’t you know who I think I am?”) that the Johnny in question is Johnny Borrell – who briefly played bass for The Libertines in an early incarnation of the band.
‘Begging’ was inspired by a group of local kids that the group used to encounter around the time of the album sessions. “They’re real guttersnipes,” described Carl at the time. “They’re so confrontational. They used to call us hippes and say, ‘You’re beggin’’. That was a cuss they had.”
‘The Good Old Days’
Simultaneously a typically ideological Libertines track and a knowingly hypocritical one, ‘The Good Old Days’ was packed full of inter-band references (“the Arcadian dream”, “the Albion sailing on course” and Pigman – one of Doherty’s nicknames - among them) yet criticised the idea of sentimentalising nostalgia – which the band evidently did with force.
‘I Get Along'
Though it closed their debut album, ‘I Get Along’ first appeared as the AA side to first single ‘What A Waster’. A fast-paced, punk-spirited ode to hedonism and high jinx penned primarily by Carl, it was, however, censored on the Letterman show, where they had to change the “fuck ‘em” pay-off line to “Your mama”.
‘Can’t Stand Me Now’
Their self-titled second album kicked off with this – the band’s call-and-response chronicle of Pete and Carl’s fractious, love/hate relationship. With Pete having just been released from prison after burgling Carl’s flat, the barely-concealed meanings of Pete’s “light fingers” and Carl “shutting him up” were there for all to see.
‘Last Post On The Bugle’
Originally intended as an ode to preserving long-distance romance, Pete’s subsequent prison stretch gave lyrics such as “We’ll meet again some day/ Oh my boy, there’s a price to pay” a new sentiment. Large portions of the melody and lyrics were lifted from Masters’ Apprentices’ obscure psych track ‘War Or Hands Of Time’. “It was a simple act of theft,” said Pete.
‘Don’t Be Shy’
First recorded during The Libertines’ 2003 ‘Babyshambles sessions’ (before Babyshambles themselves formed and adopted the name), ‘Don’t Be Shy’ is the album’s most lyrically inane offering. Nods to the “last chance saloon” and “drunken old queens”, however, still keep it vaguely in the band’s British tradition.
‘The Man Who Would Be King’
Taking its title from Rudyard Kipling’s short story about friendship of the same name, ‘The Man…’ also self-references within the band’s own career. The opening chords are the same as those from debut album offering ‘Tell The King’, while that track’s “I’ve got a little secret for ya’” line is replaced with “I’ve got another secret for ya”.
‘Music When The Lights Go Out’
First appearing on wistful early demo ‘Legs 11’, ‘Music…’s original incarnation was a far softer thing than its album recording. “It was great to have such a reservoir of wonderful, rich, lyrical material that we’d really wanted to sing about when we were young, fresh and idealistic,” said Carl of the track.
Referencing Oscar Wilde’s anti-hero Dorian Gray, ‘Narcissist’ was actually written on an ill-advised jaunt to France after meeting two French men in a bar. “Peter kept saying yes to everything – it’s like we wanted to star in our own unbelievable farce,” recalls Carl. “So we ended up in a freezing barn on the outskirts of Nantes that was supposedly a studio.”
‘The Ha Ha Wall’
“’The Ha Ha Wall’ dates back to the very first night Carl and I, having met and seen through maybe a year of animosity and standing off, actually sat down as friends with guitars in about 1998,” says Pete of the track. “The first song we wrote together became ‘The Ha Ha Wall’”.
‘Arbeit Macht Frei’
Translated as ‘work makes you free’, this was a phrase that was placed over the entrance to a number of Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The lyrics look at the horrors and hypocrisy of the time.
‘Campaign Of Hate’
Featuring ad-libbed yells of “Mugs!” and “Oh my god!” this oh-so-London ode to, seemingly, the fakeries and peer pressure of youth was a brief, light-hearted interlude among much of ‘The Libertines’’ heavier and more personal subject matter.
‘What Katie Did’
Written during Pete and Carl’s temporary estrangemen between albums, ‘What Katie Did’ was written entirely by Pete, but given to Carl to sing lead vocal on as an act of reconciliation.
Rinsing the nautical, pirate lyricisms (“Yo ho ho”, “Pieces of eight in the jukebox”) that tied in with the poetic fantasies of Albion, ‘Tomblands’ was also briefly considered as a title for the album. Another jokey and less poetic option was ‘The Brown Album’ – a heroin-referencing nod to The Beatles’ ‘The White Album’.
Written during a trip to Paris in, suitably, Montmatre’s Hotel France Albion in the same writing session that would spawn ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’, ‘The Saga’ was inspired by friend Paul Roundhill, who wrote a letter to Pete warning him about his increasingly problematic drug habit.
'Road To Ruin’
Seemingly Carl’s riposte to Pete’s mumbled excuses in ‘The Saga’, ‘Road To Ruin’s explicitly honest lyrics (“How can we/ Make you understand/ All you can be/ Is written in your hand?”) and overt title need little decoding. Another track ‘All At Sea’ was also temporarily known as ‘Road To Ruin’ during some earlier demo sessions.
‘What Became Of The Likely Lads’
Taking its name from the British 70s sitcom of the same name, ‘…Likely Lads’ ends the record in similarly honest and questioning fashion as ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ began it: “What became of the likely lads?/ What became of the dreams we had?/ What became of forever?”
The Libertines are reforming to play the biggest gig of their lives in Hyde Park. Are they only in it for the money? Or is this a fresh start for the ultimate star-crossed couple? NME tracked down all four members to find out. Pick up this week's magazine to read all about it or download this week’s issue on iPhone or iPad here.