They started out with a couple of guitars and a shared dream of reaching Arcadia, yet only after achieving their dreams of success did the relationship between them break down to the point of mutual hatred. What had happened to The Libertines? How did a band that were once the laughing stock of record company offices become Britain’s first cultural icon’s of the 21st century?
Led by the unique and intimate friendship between co-frontmen Pete Doherty and Carl Barat The Libertines were heralded as the successors to Oasis as the leaders of British rock/indie music. Yet only 3 years after being signed by legendary British Indie record label Rough Trade the band split up after various infighting. Why did such an influential band implode just as they achieved mainstream success?
From the outside 2003 was proving to be a good year for The Libertines. Their debut album Up The Bracket had achieved critical success and magazines such as the NME were hailing them as the next big things for British music. Yet behind the scenes all was not well with The Libertines as Doherty increasingly felt that he was alone in respect to taking the band seriously, exasperating this was a period where Carl Barat would often go out in London to find what he later described as “the movers and shakers” , often bringing strangers home with him to carry on their party.
The anger Pete felt at this time was numbed with a significant increasing in his drug abuse. Whilst other members in the band had occasionally took drugs in the past Doherty’s increasing use of crack cocaine and heroine led to increasing tensions in the bad during the recording of Up The Bracket. This tension continued into 2003, reaching critical mass around the time of Barat’s birthday in June. Doherty was deeply hurt when Barat didn’t attend his celebration gig, refusing to take part in their European tour . After finding out the band left for a Japanese tour without him things reached fever pitch when a distraught Doherty burgled Barat’s flat and was subsequently arrested and sentenced to 6 months in prison (afterwards reduced on appeal to 2 months).
Doherty’s period of incarceration appeared to vastly improve his relationship with the band with Barat waiting outside the prison gates for him, even managing a comeback gig that same night. Again the outside perception of increasing mainstream success appeared the reality as their string of gigs at the London Forum in December 2003 became “I was there moments” for the fans in a similar manner to how Spike Island 1990 felt for Stone Roses fans or how Knebworth 1996 felt for the legions of Oasis fans. Afterwards these gigs were frequently used by music journalists to explain the significance of The Libertines for breaking down barriers between fans and bands as each night saw stage invasions . The band’s success morphed into 2004 with a Spring UK tour receiving rave reviews from fans and journalists alike.
The time had come for their second album yet it would prove to be their last. Tension’s flared again as Doherty’s ongoing drug addictions hampered recording. The protracted recording time only increased the tension between Doherty and Barat, to the point of bodyguards being used to keep them apart during the album process. Because of their close relationship with fans the troubles were soon common knowledge with the ticking time-bomb as The Libertines were now seen coming close to detonation by the end of the album recording process in Summer 2004. Indeed, this proved an awkward period as by the time of the album’s release in late August 2004 the relationship between Barat and Doherty had broken down completely to the point of mutual hatred. The Libertines had jettisoned Doherty by this point yet it quickly became apparent the band had lost their major spark as they struggled on the rest of 2004.
Ironically, the band’s best selling single was “Can’t Stand Me Now”, a autobiographical depiction of the once deeply intimate and close relationship between Doherty and Barat breaking up. Doherty later described the lyrics as being intended as ” a Beckett like dramatic statement of intent on both mine and Carl’s parts, yet in reality it’s more a sort of play for today.” Barat would also later describe the song as being “an awkward one to sing.”
In conclusion it appears that the mainstream success the band achieved affected Doherty in a major way to the point that he felt the need to escape it all which is where his drug abuse started. This abuse then led to both professional and personal tension between him and Barat, with their easy compatibility also meaning feelings of jealousy and anger an everyday part of their relationship. These feelings were exaggerated as Doherty’s life was increasingly controlled by drugs which seems to have worried and scared Barat a great deal. Whilst the relationship ultimately ended in despair and sadness a sign of it once love and intimacy were revealed as Barat admitting to considering becoming a heroine addict himself simply to remain close to Pete.
This story of sadness and betrayal does however have a happy ending as The Libertines announced their comeback in early 2010 by headlining Leeds and Reading festival. The sold out shows were a must see for fans of music not simply The Libertines which shows their ultimate significance to British music, and in my opinion what a fucking great band they were.