When artists write about each other, it usually either takes the form of a songwriter writing about a musician outside of their own creative sphere (take for example, previous posts this week such as Patti Smith writing about Kurt Cobain or Ian Dury writing about Gene Vincent) or bands writing about members who are no longer with them (take for example, my posts earlier this week about Pink Floyd writing about Syd Barrett). Occasionally, bands who have split up may write out their grievances with their ex-band mates in a song (take for example, John Lennon writing about Paul McCartney and vice-versa on my post earlier this week). It is more unusual, however, for members of a band who are still together to write about other members in the band, particularly in a frank and personal manner.
One band who did just this was The Libertines. Their second and final album before their original break up, The Libertines, from 2004 was bookended by the tracks Can’t Stand Me Now and What Became of the Likely Lads, frank and honest duets co-written and sung by Pete Doherty and Carl Barat detailing their grievances with each other, their love for one another and questioning whether there was any future in their relationship. The love affair between Doherty and Barat had kept us enthralled, and had been an endless source of press interest, for the previous two years. On these songs, we were witnessing a divorce; the messy fag end of a turbulent relationship being pulled apart largely by Doherty’s addictions to crack, cocaine and heroin.
In a 2004 interview for the BBC Radio One documentary, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, Roger Sargeant, the band’s photographer and a close friend, described the relationship between Doherty and Barat as like “first love, and all the jealousy and obsessiveness that comes with that … I think there’s, y’know, obsession and jealousy on both of their sides. They bitch about each other to each other or to other people. They have a bond, intellectually and spiritually, like nothing I’ve ever seen … but sometime, you know, you just think, God, why don’t you just get a room”. In the same documentary, when asked how close the relationship between him and Barat was, Doherty responded: “I love him. Wouldn’t go, um – certainly not on Radio one – go into much detail, but we had lots of wonderful times together, yeah”. When questioned similarly by The Guardian in 2010, Barat fervently denied that the relationship had involved anything “physical” and insisted that “people are really into conjecture”. In a 2011 interview with Attitude magazine, when asked if the two had ever had a physical relationship, Barat replied: “Does that include violence? There have been moments in our relationship where physicality has ensued. I’ll leave it there. I wouldn’t like to say. The volatile nature of Doherty and Barat’s relationship informed a significant part of the music of The Libertines, as well as their live performances.
Whilst the band were recording their debut album Up the Bracket (2002) and on its supporting tour, Doherty’s drug addictions had increased greatly, with the singer now regularly using both crack cocaine and heroin. His ever-heightening drug problems were already starting to cause a serious deterioration in relationships between him and the three other members of the band. During a trip to the US to promote the band, The Libertines stopped off in New York, where they recorded the Babyshambles Sessions, versions of current and future Libertines and Babyshambles (Doherty’s other band) releases such as Last Post on the Bugle (featured on The Libertines), as well as Albion and In Love with A Feeling (featured on Down in Albion by Babyshambles, 2005) and Side of the Road (featured on Shotter’s Nation by Babyshambles, 2007).
It was whilst they were in New York that Doherty and Barat got the “Libertine” tattoos that they have on their arms. The tattoos, written in Barat’s handwriting, were a sign of commitment to the band and probably to each other, and can be seen on the front cover of The Libertines. The pair had obviously been thinking about the tattoos for a while because on The Good Old Days, from Up the Bracket, after the lyric “A list of things we said we’d do tomorrow!”, Doherty shouts, “Get a tattoo!”
Despite this sign of commitment, Barat was becoming increasingly exasperated with Doherty’s drug-fuelled behaviour, the people whom he was choosing to spend time with and the drugs they brought into the band’s circle. Barat quit in disgust, leaving Doherty to finish the recording alone. The resulting sessions were given to a fan named Helen Hsu, who under Doherty’s instruction, put them on the internet for free.
Once back in the UK, tensions between Doherty and Barat continued to grow. Doherty organised guerrilla gigs which Barat did not attend. During the recording sessions for the non-album single Don’t Look Back into the Sun (2003), Doherty did not work well with producer, ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler and was very rarely present. Because of this, Doherty’s vocal parts had to be pieced together from what he provided whilst he was in the studio and Butler, who had previously produced the band’s debut single What a Waster / I Get Along, had to play Doherty’s guitar parts.
For Barat’s birthday on the 6th June, Doherty organised a special celebration gig, which he hoped would relieve the tensions between the pair. However, Barat was already attending a party organised by friends and the hosts convinced him not to leave. Doherty was left to play the gig alone. Feeling hurt and betrayed, Doherty refused to travel to Germany the following day for the band’s European tour. The band were forced to play without Doherty and a guitar technician learned and played his parts whilst several songs had to be dropped altogether. Angry at Doherty’s behaviour, Barat refused to let Doherty back in the band unless he cleaned himself up. Whilst The Libertines toured Japan without him, Doherty concentrated on his side project Babyshambles. Distraught and angry at his exclusion from the group, Doherty burgled Barat’s flat and was arrested as a result. He pleaded guilty to the charge of burglary at the preliminary hearing on the 11th August 2003, a week before the release of The Libertines’ Don’t Look Back into the Sun. On the 7th September, Doherty was sentenced to six months in prison, although his sentence was later reduced to two months.
When Doherty was released in October 2003, Barat was waiting for him at the prison gates. The band played an emotional reuinion gig at the Tap ‘n’ Tin pub in Chatham, Kent on the same day. The show was later named as the NME’s Gig of the Year.
Shortly afterwards, the band started to record what would become The Libertines with Bernard Butler producing. However, the relationship between Doherty and Butler was just as unsuccessful as before and Butler left, forcing the entire sessions to be abandoned.
Doherty recorded a single, For Lovers, with his friend, local poet Peter ‘Wolfman’ Wolfe, credited to Wolfman and Peter Doherty. Despite Barat’s distaste for Wolfe and the associated drugs, he recorded guitar for the single’s B-side Back from the Dead. The single was released on the 13th April 2004, reaching number 7 in the UK charts, higher than any Libertines singles up until that point (Don’t Look Back into the Sun had reached number 11).
The Libertines attempted to record their second album again, this time with Mick Jones, formally of The Clash, who had also produced their debut album. Security guards had to be hired in order to stop Doherty and Barat from fighting. In spite of the in-band tensions, the album was finished. Doherty left the mixing and dubbing to the Jones and the rest of the band and would never return to a recording session with the band again. On the 14th May, he was admitted to high-profile retreat The Priory in order to overcome his addictions. He left early, then went back only to leave again a week later on the 7th June. The Libertines played their final UK until their first reunion in 2010 shortly afterwards; Doherty wasn’t permitted to play with them. Doherty continued to concentrate on Babyshambles, who were gaining a large following and exposure in the media.
Meanwhile on the 9th August, the first single from the second Libertines album, Can’t Stand Me Now was released. The highly autobiographical Can’t Stand Me Now reached number 2 in the UK singles chart (the band’s highest entry) and details the breakdown of the relationship between Doherty and Barat. In the BBC documentary series The Seven Ages of Rock, Doherty describes the song as “a Samuel Beckett-like dialogue between me and Carl”, whilst in a March 2008 interview with Q Magazine, Libertines bassist John Hassall said, “The song that stands out is Can’t Stand Me Now. Maybe the only thing Pete and Carl could honestly sing about was the situation, what they felt about each other. Almost a sort of therapy in itself”. The harmonica section of the song is an allusion to the harmonicas which Barat would buy as Christmas presents for the rest of the band.
The music of Can’t Stand Me Now is also notable for the way in which it starts with a snippet of music taken from the end of the previous single, Don’t Look Back into the Sun, cleverly reflecting Can’t Stand Me Now’s opening lyric, “An ending fitting for a start”. “An ending fitting for a start” details the fact that what brought Doherty and Barat together (i.e. the freedom of an undisciplined life, music, drugs etc) is now tearing them apart. The following line “You twist and tore our love apart” has a double meaning. Firstly, we have Doherty’s point of view referring to Barat, with Doherty feeling that Barat betrayed him when he was struggling with his drug habit and secondly, Barat’s point of view referring to Doherty, with Barat feeling that Doherty twisted and tore the pairs’ love apart with his drug-influenced behaviour and the events caused by his addiction. The lines, “Your light fingers through the dark, Shattered the lamp, into darkness it cast us all” are a reference to Doherty breaking into Barat’s flat.
We then find Doherty telling Barat that it was him who started the disintegration of their relationship by trying to cut him out of his life and using Doherty’s various drug addictions as an excuse in the lines “No, you’ve got it the wrong way round, You shut me up and blamed it on the brown”. These lines are followed by the lyrics “Cornered the boy, kicked out at the world, The world kicked back a lot fuckin’ harder now”, a reference to Doherty’s arrest for burglary and his subsequent punishment.
Following this, the lines “If you wanna try, if you wanna try, There’s no worse you can do” find Barat and Doherty deciding that it wouldn’t hurt to give their friendship another try. The next lyrics, “I know you lie, I know you lie, I’m still in love with you” tell of how, despite Doherty’s broken promises of staying clean, Barat still loves him. The bridge of “Can’t take me anywhere, I Can’t take you anywhere, Can’t take me anywhere, Well, I won’t take anywhere, I’ll take you anywhere, I’ll take you anywhere you wanna go” is a prime example of the Barat and Doherty so wonderfully bounced off each other whilst singing The Libertines’ songs and perfectly encapsulates their love / hate feelings towards each other at that point in time. The chorus of “Can’t stand me now …” finds Doherty lamenting that Barat hates him because of his various misdemeanours and Barat feeling that Doberty no longer likes him in return.
Possibly the key lines in the song, “Have we enough to keep it together? Or do we just keep on pretending and hope our luck is never ending?” which finds the pair wondering if they have enough of a relationship left after all they have been through in order to be able to keep The Libertines together.
“You tried to pull the wool, I wasn’t feeling too clever is Doherty feeling that Barat betrayed him whilst he was in a bad way, whilst the next line, “And you take all that they’re lending, Until you needed mending” is Barat telling Doherty that he has taken all that the drug dealers (“they”) are selling (“lending”) and now, as a result, he needs “mending”.
The brilliance of Doherty and Barat trying to struggle through their problems with each other put to music on Can’t Stand Me Now, the opening track of The Libertines, is complimented by the closing track of the album, What Became of the Likely Lads. Very much the band’s swansong, thus being perfectly positioned as the last song on their last album, What Became of the Likely Lads was also released as the second single from The Libertines and the band’s final single overall. The song’s title and the lyrics of the chorus echo the title and theme tune of 1970’s British situation comedy Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads.
Interestingly, there are parallels to be drawn between the stories of Doherty and Barat and Rodney Bewes and James Bolam, the actors who played the two main characters, Bob and Terry in the series with Bewes and Bolam having fallen out with each other at the end of the programme’s run. Additionally, the bond between Doherty and Barat could be seen as being quite similar to the bond between the programme’s main characters. Doherty particularly is known to be a fan of classic British comedy, which perhaps inspired the humour and distinct brand of Britishness found in many of The Libertines’ songs.
What Became of the Likely Lads starts with the lines “Please don’t get me wrong, See I forgive you in a song, We’ll call The Likely Lads”, a verse in which Doherty and Barat forgive each other for past misdemeanours before the song moves on to talk about the pair’s brotherly bond. This bind is discussed in lines such as “Just blood runs thicker, oh, We’re thick as thieves, you know”. The allusion to the term ‘Blood runs thicker than water’, meaning family obligations before friends, reinforces the idea of Doherty and Barat being family. The use of the term “thick as thieves”, as well as emphasising the pair’s closeness, could also be an allusion to Doherty burgling Barat’s flat.
The bridge of What Became of the Likely Lads echoes the bridge of Can’t Stand Me Now in its back and forth conversation style and further emphasises the bond between the two singers, showing both agreement and argument: “If that’s important to you, It’s important to me, I tried to make you see, But you don’t want to know!”
In the following verse, we find a reference to Doherty’s drug use in the lines in the period leading up to the recording of the song: “If you pipe all summer long, Then get forgiven in a song, Well, that’s a touch, my lad”. Next, we find the lines “They sold the rights to all my wrongs, And when they knew you’d give me songs, Welcome back, I said” which are a riposte to the record industry, which doesn’t much care about the personal and emotional effects Doherty’s drug use and such had on Barat; it cares more about the songs that will be produced from it, thus record sales and money.
Can’t Stand Me Now and What Became of the Likely Lads are brilliant confessional conversations which perfectly frame an album which has become a classic. The Libertines has become a snapshot of a period in the lives of its songwriters and of our lives as we listen and remember being right there watching the saga of Doherty and Barat unfold.