What became of Pete Doherty.

I didn't want to like Babyshambles. Those of you who are unfamiliar with the trials and tribulations that marked the short, illustrious career of The Libertines may not understand why I say this. In fact, I've been surprised to discover quite a few times that a decent amount of Libertines fans don't get it. I suppose it's a case of my being less able than some to separate a person's music from their character. I'm specifically referring here to Pete Doherty, who was one of two vocalists/guitarists in The Libertines, along with Carl Barat. After the success, at least in their home country of the United Kingdom, of their first album, "Up the Bracket", Pete got a bit carried away with the rockstar lifestyle. This didn't come out in any typical form of rock n' roll debauched behavior, either. Soon after sabotaging their promotional tour that was intended to bring "Up the Bracket" to American audiences, Pete, who'd developed quite the crack habit, broke into Carl's apartment, stole one of his guitars (among other things), and sold it for drug money. The burglary was soon solved, and Pete ended up in jail for a few months. You might expect The Libertines to have dissolved in bouts of furious acrimony over this, but instead Carl, who'd known Pete since long before their band or Pete's drug addiction, forgave his friend, and reunited with him upon his release from jail in order to make another Libertines album. The self-titled result of this collaboration was even better than "Up the Bracket", and began with a song called "Can't Stand Me Now," which featured Pete and Carl trading lines back and forth about finding ways to deal with someone you care about who messes you up time and time again. If you didn't know the history between the two, you'd think it was told from the point of view of two halves of a dysfunctional couple who couldn't stand the thought of being apart. But if you knew the true story, it was obvious that they were singing lines about their own real-life relationship.

This could have been the happy ending if the story stopped here, but it's been a couple of years and time has marched on. Pete quickly returned to his old ways, falling apart onstage and ruining gigs so many times that Carl hired a "temporary replacement" touring guitarist and did what few American dates The Libertines finally managed to make it to without Pete. This decision was apparently the straw that broke the crackhead camel's back, and The Libertines officially broke up a few months later, before Pete ever had a chance to rejoin the fold. His side project, Babyshambles, became a full-time affair, but a more Doherty-centric one, giving Pete the chance to burn through sidemen the way a chain-smoker goes through cigarettes without having to worry about accidentally breaking up the band. This method might be working better for his mercurial personality, but thus far it's been almost two years and Doherty and company have come up with nothing official except for a couple of EPs. There've been plenty of bootlegs leaked on the internet, consisting of sloppy acoustic takes of half-finished songs and plenty of drug-fueled wankery, but they are far more effective at documenting the trainwreck of a talented young musician squandering his potential than they are at delivering the sort of musical shot in the arm that the best Libertines material provided without even working up a sweat.

And as I said, I want to hate all of it. Hearing about the whole sordid affair of The Libertines' breakup, my heart went out to Carl Barat, the standup guy who tried to stick by his friend even while he was getting robbed. He took all he could take and when his patience finally wore thin, he lost his friend and his band over it. It made me want to punch Pete Doherty in the face. But on the other hand, it couldn't be denied that he was releasing product, and considering how much I enjoyed the music of The Libertines, I guess it was only a matter of time before I checked it out.

When I did, I went hunting for the official material. I figured that if there was anything worthwhile to extract from the detritus of bootlegs like "Acoustic Lullaby" and "Shaken and Withdrawn", it would show up on the EPs. But what's really worth hearing here are the A-sides. "Kilamangiro" is the best, a catchy, uptempo track with the undistorted yet strident guitar strumming that was always a Libertines trademark, and Pete's signature just-rolled-out-of-bed singing style that carries a perfect air of nonchalance without being loose enough for him to risk missing any notes. Its B-side, "The Man Who Came To Stay", is a bit slower, but still carries the same spark of early punk-rock energy that came through in all of The Libertines' material. It's this hard-to-define element that garnered comparisons with seminal punk acts like The Jam and The Clash, and you can hear similar antecedents in Babyshambles' music. The Clash in particular show up on the internet-only track "Gang of Gin", which incorporates reggae guitar upstrokes on the verses. By the way, the lyrics to this song are apparently Pete complaining about the manner by which The Libertines broke up, and for the life of me I can't figure out how the fuck he justifies this attitude, considering their breakup is entirely his fault. Anyway, "Babyshambles", the A-side of their first EP, is not as outstanding as both songs on the "Kilamangiro" EP, but fits well with them, and certainly shows up its two acoustic B-sides. In particular, the version of The Libertines' "What Katie Did" that appears on the B-side of the "Babyshambles" EP is notable only for the handclaps at the beginning of the track, which are irresistible when placed under the retro-50s "shoop shoop" chorus. Aside from this, though, The Libertines' version is far better.

"Fuck Forever", the third Babyshambles EP, is longer, with more B-sides, and this gives it enough time to demonstrate the inconsistency that I figured would show up eventually. The slightly faster rerecording of "Babyshambles" is not bad, but the guitar sound is more distorted and therefore loses some of its unique qualities. The original sounds more like The Libertines, and while Pete Doherty may have rerecorded it in order to distance himself from that band's sound, all he's really done is taken some of the spark out of it. "Fuck Forever", the A-side here, is also a bit lackluster. The tempo is slowed down a bit from earlier singles, and again the frenetic jangling of the guitars has been more distorted, which is less Libertines but also less exciting. I wouldn't normally say something like this, but I'm also a bit unsure as to why the song has such a provocative title and chorus. The lyrics don't really seem to justify it, and in fact I'm a bit happier with the clean version that's tacked onto the end of the EP, because I can at least play it at work without cringing.

I don't want anyone to think that I'm taking a "third EP and they've already jumped the shark" stance on Babyshambles, though. The new B-sides here are mostly really good, "Monkey Casino" being particularly excellent. Doherty's backing band, particularly the drummer, shine here, pounding hard and propelling the song forward in a way that seems to drag Doherty along with it, hollering all the way. This may be the best Babyshambles song so far. "Black Boy Lane" is almost as good, mixing "Gang of Gin"'s subtle reggae-isms with "Fuck Forever"'s slowed-down tempo, then adding an element of street-tough menace that takes the song to a higher level and makes it more than the sum of its parts. "East of Eden" is primarily acoustic, and sounds jazzy, almost like swing. It's little more than a toss-off, more what you'd expect from a B-side than the two songs it follows, but with "Monkey Casino", "Black Boy Lane", and to a lesser extent the clean version of "Fuck Forever" justifying the price of admission, everything else is gravy.

Word has it that Babyshambles are recording a full-length album with Mick Jones of The Clash producing called "Down In Albion," and in fact some websites I've found while Googling them list a release date of a month from now. But considering the footage released from the sessions that ruined Kate Moss on British television last month (if you don't know what I'm talking about click here), I have to wonder how much work is actually being done. Time will tell, I suppose, and I certainly don't want anyone to think that I've let Pete Doherty off the hook. He's still a scumbag, and I still think he deserves a punch in the face for how he treated Carl Barat. But I have to admit... the guy writes some pretty great songs, even now. Let's hope he cleans up soon. Maybe then he'll be more consistent about it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey, wow. brilliant article. i totally agree with it. slightly unnecessary lenths of very in-depth descriptions of babyshambles songs though. i think all of Pete's faults you highlighted are true, but i also think he is the more talented, origial and unique musician of the pair.

4:10 PM  
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