Headlines today look cynically upon Argentina, having swaddled itself in economic crisis in a stagnant trend of overspending dating back seventy years. Coverage has frequently pointed to reckless policy and the acquisition of debt behind its shortcomings. “Argentina seems trapped by its own history,” said Argentine economist Daniel Marx this year. As matters are exacerbated by COVID-19, the world is reminded of the last time things came to a head between 1998 and 2002, when a series of assassinations and riots broke out in city streets.
Released only a couple of months after the conclusion of the riots, a photo of Argentine protestors clashing with police would feature on The Libertines’ anticipated debut, Up the Bracket. There was not a lot of explanation for the album’s artwork, nor has there been since. But the photo has apparent significance.
By 2002, The Libertines were already an established name, renowned for their messy MTV appearances, media scandals and underground live sessions. The band were notorious for making friends with fans and ending nights with police raids during intimate ‘guerilla gigs’ in London tenements. Outfits of Libertine loyalists followed the band around the country in uniform striped t-shirts, appropriately embellishing the ironic lyric, “did you see the stylish kids in the riot?” Already, there was a sense of chaos, of conflict, ever driving the band forward towards explosion. Then in their early 20s, Doherty and Barât were at the head of an uncertain movement, pushing back against mediocrity, pioneering the British branch of rock music’s first major revolution of the new millennium. On the other side, they seemed trapped by their own history; the band’s lore was wrapped in fanciful tales of excess and self-destruction. Reportage often highlighted misconduct prior to the music itself. At once, The Libertines were the protestors and the protested. Internal conflicts between band members would spill over into the second album, The Libertines, ultimately leading to the band’s split.
Upon the release of Up the Bracket on 14th October 2002, many of its songs were already known. Fan websites still propagate early demos, complete with full listings of every time a song has been played in the last twenty years. ‘Someday’-inspired ‘Tell the King’ draws live audiences to sing along to the original lyrics, predating the album and not officially published until 2003. The song is also noted for its live outro, a jaunty, ad-libbed retort to one of The Libertines’ more forlorn moments: “He’s buying a Chinese takeaway / When two blue eyes did look his way / Says that love will find a way / And takes him by the hand.”
Keeping Up the Bracket together was this willingness to self-examine, to embrace paradox and own up to inconsistency. The Libertines never shied away from parody or self-ridicule – something still evident in the informal studio recordings of unreleased fan-favourites on 2015’s Anthems for Doomed Youth (Deluxe). Within the first two tracks of Up the Bracket, The Libertines had found a home at the top of their world and at its bottom; raunchy opener ‘Vertigo’ yielded barely a second before diving into instrumental, only for ‘Death on the Stairs’ to follow up with a brutal exploration of Barât’s drinking tendencies. The Libertines were complex, difficult to follow, impossible to understand – but willing to lay everything bare for the listener.
In essence, it was this ability to appreciate and utilise contradiction that allowed The Libertines to keep the momentum going between 1997 and 2004. ‘The Good Old Days’ and ‘Boys in the Band’ could have been gaudy fillers if not set to the context of a band struggling against its own ideas. The sentimentalism of the metaphor of Albion and the Arcadian dream – quaint, poetic imaginations of England that filtered the lyrics of The Libertines and Doherty’s Babyshambles – clashed with the underlying sense that not all was well. Instead of writing tacky songs about romance and heroism, Up the Bracket was tainted by the open secret that the revolution was not coming: “It chars my heart to always hear you calling / Calling for the good old days / Because there were no good old days / These are the good old days.”
Today, on October 14th 2020, Up the Bracket comes of age. Eighteen years have passed since the release of the album and The Libertines, now in their early forties, are set to outlive and overcome their musical adolescence. The band seem not trapped by their own history but positioned to carve out an alternate timeline. Having recently opened a hotel in Margate, The Libertines seem worlds away from the instability of 2002, excepting the odd misdemeanor. Carl Barât recently confirmed new music was in the works after a five year gap and all seems to be coming together. One can only wonder what place The Libertines will have in the world of 2020.
Words by James Reynolds
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