The Libertines and their fans

They threw impromptu gigs, pulled beer-soaked all-nighters and tattooed their fans. As the Libertines reform, Tim Jonze salutes the band that put the madness back into pop

Blog: Why Graeme Thomson won't welcome the band's return

It's summer 2004 and a motley crew has gathered outside Buckingham Palace. At the centre, a pale-skinned Pete Doherty – exiled frontman of the Libertines – holds court with an army of bands who look like fans, or is it fans who look like bands? This is for an NME feature, headlined London's Burning, that will declare: the music scene is changing and if you don't like it then see you later, Grandad.

This was the Libertines' true legacy: not a series of finely honed albums for the rock canon, but a loud reminder that rock'n'roll bands could still be sexy, chaotic, poetic and dangerous. That's why hordes of bands formed – and still do form – in their wake. And that's why, when the reformed Libertines play Reading and Leeds festivals next weekend (after a warm-up show at Kentish Town Forum in London), it will mean more to a certain generation of music fans than every other band on the bill put together.

"I guess the band were an accurate snapshot of the time, which became a soundtrack," Carl Barât, Doherty's songwriting partner in the Libertines, said earlier this year. "Their friends told their friends and then it all swirled round into one big pop nebula."

The Libertines legend is action-packed. The full story involves inter-band burglary, toe-curling TV documentaries, Thai monasteries and EastEnders' Dot Cotton, but the basic facts are thus: group form in 1997, around the fraternal friendship of Doherty and Barât (along with bassist John Hassall and drummer Gary Powell); write songs indebted to both the Clash and Chas and Dave; break down the barriers between artists and fans like no British group since punk; then fall apart when Doherty's drug intake becomes too much to handle; Barât boots his best friend out of the band until he cleans up his act; the ensuing drama (involving burglary, jail and more drugs) captivates fans until they begin to realise that the Libertines story was all over before it had even begun.

"They burned brightly and quickly and were gone long before they ever had the chance to do anything mediocre or half-arsed," says NME editor Krissi Murison. "They were scandalous and outrageous, treated their fans like they were in the band, and wrote two albums that more people really should get around to listening to." The NME calls the Libertines "the band of our generation". Other groups sold out bigger venues, had more hits and made better albums – but no other band gave music fans something to believe in quite like the Libertines. Fans such as Richard Day, who discovered the band aged 19 when he saw them play Derby's Vic Inn during their second Tour of Albion in 2002, and ended up hanging out with Doherty.

"They blasted a really raw, punky, sweaty set out for half an hour," he recalls. "Up until then, the only gigs I'd been to were bands like Travis. But at home I'd be listening to the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Joy Division, and it seemed like there was a band right here in front of me who were giving us the same raw, unpolished rebellion."

As so often happened at Libertines gigs, Doherty invited fans – including Day and his friends – along to a club after the show. It wasn't long before Day was immersed in the singer's world, getting to know him properly after a solo gig in Doherty's own flat: "After the gig, a few of us were sat around having a drink," says Day. "I mentioned that I had to catch the last train home when Pete said not to bother as he had a spare mattress behind his fridge! We sat listening to [the Smiths'] Hatful of Hollow and the Velvet Underground. I remember Pete reading through a journal of my writing I carried around and complimenting it, which I was chuffed about."

Day remembers countless nights with the Libertines: from climbing through broken windows to watch impromptu gigs, to the band offering free Libertines tattoos to anyone who met them in Chinatown the morning after an all-nighter. It's tales like these that make it foolish to judge the Libertines on the strength of their recorded output alone. Although the clattering melodies of Horrorshow, Can't Stand Me Now or Time for Heroes (about the May Day riots, with the memorable line: "There are fewer more distressing sights than that/ Of an Englishman in a baseball cap") are classic British pop songs, it's more that the Libertines were just as much about the adventure. You could draw parallels with the Sex Pistols or the early Manic Street Preachers, but what separated the Libertines was their understanding of the internet.

Day remembers Doherty handing him a blank CD-ROM at his flat and then leaving him alone with his laptop, which was full of demos of the Libertines' second album (the implication being: record them, upload them, I didn't see you do it, OK?). These demos, along with last-minute gig announcements, were posted at, which became a hub for diehard fans. "A real community evolved," says Day. "At one time, I posted on the forum asking what Libertines-related books people could recommend. Pete replied with a list of his 10 favourite books."

By using message boards and forums as well as the traditional music press, the Libertines increased the pace of band/fan interaction and helped create a generational divide in which older, less tech-savvy music fans with less time on their hands were largely left on the sidelines. It didn't take long before this emerging community started forming their own groups and a scene (the same Whitechapel scene scaring the tourists outside Buckingham Palace) was born, featuring bands such as the Paddingtons, Thee Unstrung and the Others.

When he was 13, another fan, Sam Wolfson, encountered Doherty while he was having a fight with a bouncer before a show. "We'd follow him everywhere after that. We used to go to his court cases and watch from the gallery. I'm still close with people I met at Libertines gigs and Pete's flat."

Wolfson is now 19 and writing for the Observer and NME, a career path he thinks was due to his involvement with the band: "Not least because the Libertines made reading the music press worthwhile. They were a band who proved that there are stories that should be told about music that aren't on record."

It's taken more than five years for the Libertines' story to approach anything remotely like a happy ending. Doherty's relationship with Kate Moss, along with court cases and drug problems, gave the tabloids license to create a cartoon villain far less interesting to music fans than the troubled but gifted free spirit Doherty once was. The new dates may help erase some of these memories as well as serving as a nostalgia trip for those who were there first time around.

Day remembers his time fondly but doesn't think the demands of being a full-time devotee suit adulthood. "Announcing gigs at the last minute, or giving away music online, may have been lost on older generations who just didn't have the time or inclination," he says. "The Libertines rarely took to the stage before midnight, which was no good for someone who had a job. It was all about catching the train home at 9am in beer-soaked jeans and a T-shirt you picked up off the floor from whichever house party you ended up in – and still being in the same outfit the following night."

On YouTube there's a charming clip of a teenage Doherty – before the drugs, before the drama – queuing outside an HMV in Oxford to buy Oasis's Be Here Now. Asked if he'd mind speaking to MTV, Doherty rises to the occasion claiming that he "subscribes to the Umberto Eco view that Noel's a poet and Liam's a town-crier". A couple of years earlier, that same poet advised listeners: "Please don't put your life in the hands of a rock'n'roll band." But it seems that neither Doherty nor an entire generation of fans bothered listening – a fact their reunion will celebrate.


Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

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