When Louis Theroux asked Pete Doherty and Carl Barât about the mid-2000s meltdown of The Libertines, in a recent BBC interview, both co-frontmen seemed close to tears.
“It’s not nerves about the show… it’s more thinking about Carl and what mood he’s in,” Doherty mumbled.
Since they reformed – both as a band and in terms of Doherty’s deathly drugs intake – years of reliable live performances gave the impression that the choppy relationship fuelling The Libertines had calmed. It was almost comforting to learn that London’s last recklessly decadent rock band, now comprised of middle-aged family men, might still collapse under the weight of bro-mantic emotion at any time.
At Saturday’s show in Margate, where the band own a shabby-chic hotel, Doherty and Barât almost touched lips to share the microphone. This was partly logistical: the stage in the Lido Cliff Bar is so thin, the four-piece were one mega breakfast away from not fitting on it at all.
Recently the band headlined big arenas unsuited to their chaotic sound, so playing this sea-lashed bunker felt like a homecoming for reasons beyond hospitality industry interests. The legacy of The Libertines – hedonistic romance, literary London, scumbag poets – was written in apartment gigs and small venues like these, as they helped shove a renaissance of British guitar rock through the noughties.
Many of the seven new songs played, too, harked back to these days. Opener Run, Run, Run, lead single from forthcoming fourth album All Quiet on the Eastern Esplanade (released on March 8 2024), had clatter-y charm, with Barât singing of “life on the lash” and “the streets of Camden”. Familiar stomping ground for Libs fans, but also the catchiest song the band has released in two decades.
Night of the Hunter, bolstered by extra guitar from the band’s tour manager Andy Newlove, seemed a close genetic match with Doherty’s 2009 solo song Salomè. Over emotive guitar strumming, Doherty’s cracked drawl showed that lyrically, The Libertines are still streets ahead of the landfill indie bands that followed in their slipstream.
Doherty, wearing the trilby glued to his head since 2002, weaved a yarn of blood washed from clothes, police lights approaching, and “love and hate, tattoo-ed on the knuckles round the handles of a blade”. Not everyone swallows the “Peter Poet” image Doherty serves, but you just don’t get that depth of imagery with, say, The Wombats.
Mustang and Man With the Melody, which saw all four band members take vocal turns, meandered in search of, well, melody. The frenetic Have a Friend was the best new song, featuring wasp-sting riffing from Barât before he and Doherty played a loose impromptu cover of The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York. “Rest in peace”, yelled Doherty, a friend of Shane MacGowan, whose funeral was on Friday.
The dedication earned beery cheers, but minor classics like Time For Heroes and Don’t Look Back Into The Sun got the plastic pint pots flying. Twenty years ago, these were rallying missives from the coolest band in Britain. Now they’re hits of nostalgia for a time, just beyond touching distance, when rock and roll still meant great songs, great stories and bad behaviour.
Indeed, with Broadway-level production values and on-stage activism now considered the sharp end of British guitar rock, The Libertines’ cultural clout has dimmed with time. The new songs played on Saturday didn’t sound strong enough to turn that ship around, but this gig was a reminder that no-one does up close and dangerous quite like them.
Touring from January; Tickets: thelibertines.com