Looking back at The Libertines’ classic ‘Up The Bracket’
All my life I have wanted to write a review of The Libertines premiere album Up The Bracket. Well, perhaps not all my life, for I only encountered The Libs in my later teens, a situation said debut record now finds itself in. I’ve wanted to share the joy of the album not purely for its chaotic poetry or blood bond ethics, but the way it shaped not only mine but so many other people’s lives.
In 2000, the rock ‘n’ roll scene was dead. Britain’s Britpop era had naturally consumed itself with commercialism as an after-dinner mint. The sonic landscape looked bleak but for a shining light from over the Atlantic in the form of New York’s uber-cool band The Strokes. Made up of the sons of film producers and models, all as clean as the lines they shoved up their nose, the group were America’s own rag-tag gang. The Libertines were our answer to The Strokes, our fish and chips to their burger and fries our, perhaps more pertinently, our Lord Byron to their Hemmingway.
Up the Bracket was released amidst a furore of rap metal and under the shadow of Britpop. The formative genre had sold its soul to the devil the moment Noel Gallagher posed with Tony Blair and claimed Cool Britannia was a new way. Its sense of disregard for the economic boom was all summed up by The Libertines and their leading front men—and best friends—Carl Barat and Peter Doherty who used poetic justice as a reason to explore the exponential wisdom of destroying yourself.
The album starts fast and never really lets up. ‘Vertigo’takes the heart of the new millennium and turns it into a fury of bouncing guitar, rolling drums and slurring harmonies as Doherty and Barat sing about the slums of seedy London. Then, ‘Death on the Stairs’ with its hooky lead provided by Barat and the meandering, gin palace lyrics, continue to scream of a life where little matters but love, drugs and living for now.
The next track on the album, ‘Horrorshow’,is about as close to punk as Britain has got since Joe Strummer and his mates retired to their beds. Full of screaming vocals and music hall camaraderie that descends into drunken revelry, a place where tomorrow is feared and self-deprecation is the name of the game. This was the band’s ethos was to provide the entertainment and that was all. They were not heroes or icons but people like you and me. The band demanded only one thing, love letter loyalty (often in the form of Libertine tattoos) but in return, you were treated to an act where sweat was burned and blood was literally spilt and it was all done for you, the fans.
‘Time For Heroes’, which later became the title of the band’s greatest hits album, is a song which perfectly describes the band. Written about Doherty’s involvement in the poll tax riots where he was bludgeoned by an officer after checking his hair in a riot shield, the band dip and peak to a Clash-infused Beatles skiffle. Britishness at its musical best.
This is something The Libertines were desperate to pursue. A sense of identity in a rapidly changing world, the band decided to revert back to the Gin Riots of the 19th century and fight for ‘Good Ship Albion’. Albion, an old word for England, became the band’s trademark (later featuring as one of Doherty’s most revered songs with his band Babyshambles) because of their now infamous guerilla gigs. This was a scenario in which Doherty and Barat would play ramshackle sets in their own home for a minimal fee, a decision which was usually used to fuel the after-party—but in doing so created a loyal army of adoring fans willing to fend off all invaders, including the police.
As the album continues this sense of disorder and heroin-based poetry, the band intends to explore the depths of modern Britain as hits like ‘Radio America’and ‘Boys in the Band’fly by with a toothless smile and a knowing nod to the irony of it all.
The title track ‘Up the Bracket’rears its ugly head just over halfway through the record. The song deserves its accreditation as its punk ethos is displayed in the opening seconds with Doherty’s indistinguishable gargling making way for crashing riffs and flowing rhythm. We see in the music video the band’s love of British comedy (Tony Hancock in particular) as they lark around with each other with a Beatlesque slapstick.
The LP continues to deliver this souped-up skiffle in all it’s unashamed, reckless glory and as ‘The Good Old Days’ bassline kicks in Doherty and Barat yet again demand our loyalty and patriotism with their lyrics so full of imagery and their instrumentals brimming with nostalgia. Simply put: “If you’ve lost your faith and love in music, oh the end won’t be long.”
‘I Get Along’is the finale and my, what a finale! Gathering up all the energy of a pit bull on speed and stamping as hard as a brogue will allow, the opening riff is as thundering as Thor himself. This incendiary song is designed to fuel the fire of hedonism and rouse the hearts and minds of thugs and poets alike.
In essence, Up the Bracket is perfectly described by the aforementioned visitor of 10 Downing Street, Noel Gallagher, when he said: “People said Oasis was the sound of the council estate singing its heart out. The Libertines are the poet behind the estate’s dustbin.”
This sense of chaotic hedonism and driving declarations of war against the modern world completed by brilliant musicianship and socially scything lyrics all entrenched in a deep Britishness, are what sets this album apart from anything at the time and leaves it standing alone, still.
With The Libertines it can be very easy to get caught up in the furore of lad rock mischief they left behind in their wake. It’s true that for every member of the band’s fanbase that saw the poetry of it all there was a lad who just wanted to wear a trilby and drink gin. It’s also true that Pete Doherty’s tabloid escapades and the unfurling of the 2000s indie scene have all contributed to the band’s overlooked status. But there’s one thing to remember, The Libertines were the real deal.
If you ever needed proof then it is on the beachfront in Margate. A small seaside town holds on its promenade a hotel owned by The Libertines called The Albion Rooms and it’s not only their dose of proof that it was all for real but also their own little slice of Albion.