The Last of Barat’s Privateers: a Dirty Pretty Things retrospective

I never had especially high hopes for Dirty Pretty Things, and not just because they chose to operate with a bassist called Didz. Carl Barat’s self-destructive and self-fulfilling pessimism seemed to make their dragged-out demise inevitable. The man is essentially a throwback to a half-confected, distinctly pre-Sixties matinee-idol world of crypto-chauvinist chivalry and genuine honour, dignity and class, any product of which could never find mass acceptance or acclaim in a triple-distilled popular culture where pantomime, melodrama and public humiliation are painted as gritty reality, angst and authenticity are faked or appropriated wholesale, and the self-assurance of slick and cynical ironic posturing carries more weight and gets you further than this band’s faltering steps towards emotional sincerity. When did you last hear a song as guilelessly earnest and heartfelt as ‘This Is Where the Truth Begins’? If you don’t cringe, you’ll cry.

For a man out of time, engaged in a culture war where your side can only hope to go down fighting and where snarling gets you nothing but praise for how pretty your mouth is, the best you can hope for is a shrug and a smile. Much of Carl’s work post-Libertines has been you know how I feel out of place until I’m levered off my face writ large. ‘Bloodthirsty Bastards’ and the frankly astonishing ‘Buzzards and Crows’ transcend what begins as myopic scenester-baiting to make a stab at expressing universal and eternal human tragedy. Their protagonists are cornered, boxed-in, trapped, disgusted and despairing, Up The Bracket’s swaggering urban sprawl reduced to spying on cities through cracks in the floor. (Carl dedicated ‘Gin and Milk’ to longstanding fans last night. You have to wonder.)

Their second album gave up the fight in its opening song, its narrator abandoned face-up to the vultures, and then slumped into halfhearted crowd-pleasing fluff (‘Come Closer’, ‘Plastic Hearts’) or half-articulate railing (‘Kicks or Consumption’, ‘Best Face’), picking itself up only for the quietly embittered, finally accusative closure of ‘Blood on my Shoes’. By this point my feelings on the band had come almost full circle. Their first UK gig left me with an aftertaste of baffled disappointment at a frustratingly lacklustre affair, Carl’s head-hanging and the band’s general insubstantialness overshadowing their tightness and competency. They lacked entirely any hoped-for spark, that moment of connection which makes you glad you’ve made the effort. Their second tour saw them switch stasis for spontaneity, with unpredictable setlists and endearing interband dynamics, and subsequent gigs in Oxford, London, Sheffield, Cambridge, Paris and Edinburgh led me through unqualified adoration to a comfortable, affectionate familiarity, with a side-order of horror at the encroaching tides of industry imperatives that made the band at times little more than a soggy, sorry exercise in marketing and money-making. Study and work aside, it’s been a year or so since I felt compelled to go chasing round the country in search of some definitive, catalytic bangbangrocknroll glory-story that seems to have proved as illusory for them as for us.

And so we arrived at The Last Hurrah, a diminished hardcore of provincial girl veterans, reminded of better times and absent friends. A half-full thousand-capacity club in the bowels of the metropolis, plastered with aftershow posters that dripped with desperation. A solitary tout outside in the cold. The stage ungarnished except for a Union flag. The sound periodically fucking up. An ending fitting for the start?

Their songs are full of endings, of course, each delivered in an angry and bittersweet manner that rendered them equally apposite, from the bleakly resigned (they all followed me down here / to the story’s sorry end) to the grimly dignified (I know when I should leave in disgrace) to what passes for optimistic (here’s to tomorrow and the lonely streets we’ll roam / but if we don’t leave now we’ll find ourselves with no way home). With them providing the closing credits to their own biopic, there was little else fitting to do but join in.

The last ‘So…’. The last obnoxious oi-oi intro to ‘Playboys’. The last what would it take for me to be your man? The last digging out the deadwood, the last post on the trumpet and the last words: yeah yeah yeah. Carl is still breathtakingly beautiful. No Pete, god rest his musical soul, no Libertines songs and no special guests to speak of, just all the boys together. A final defeated bow, arms linked. No hope of hope and glory, but one of their better gigs, and one I’m glad I made the effort for. I know the essentials of what this band gave me: a friendship group imbued with the same spirit of adventure, defiance and recklessness, the same last-gang-in-town camaraderie as the songs we paid and travelled and shared all we had to sing along to. They gave me catharsis and connection. I can only give them the credit that appears to elude them even now.

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4 comments

  1. Biggles

    I hate to ressurrect a long-dead-and-gone post about a dearly loved, criminally underapreciatted lovely band, but I just wanted to say that I feel your pain, mate.

    Being an ocean and many linguistic miles away, it sure was strange to have these guys as that kind of band that are like your ideal gang a world away, those guys that in a boring, completely fake world, praised their sincerity above all else. The band that, as a kid, I most wished would dare to take a tour in these south-american wastelands.

    The sad thing is, there’s no one else in music but Barat that can sing “give me something to die for” and make you believe they mean it.

  2. Rhian Jones

    This was a really lovely response to get – thanks for taking the time to comment.

    DPT’s last-gang-in-town mentality was one of their most attractive aspects, and I don’t think a band meant it as sincerely as they did since maybe the Clash – it wasn’t even really there in the Libertines (as opposed to Pete-and-Carl). I also wish more of their non-UK fans had been given the chance to see them live.

    And yes, I wish there was more critical appreciation of Barat, both as a musician and in terms of how interesting he is personally.

  3. Shawn

    Cool blog, nice taste, slick wording, well done. Very well written, I agree with all your thoughtful observations. I was very lucky to have seen DPT on their first American tour, at the Henry Fonda Theater in Hollywood. It was the night after Carlos had broken or sprained his arm in Japan. He took to the stage with no guitar, his arm done up in a Union Jack scarf sling, and the set was ravishing. Fierce, thundering, the crowd was really into it. Maybe because the lack of truly talented bands here is enormous, but I swear when they played the hits the floor was shaking like an earthquake from scenesters jumping up and down.

    I was greatly saddened when they called it quits. The second album was sketchy in spots but not deserving of the bashing it took by the press. I will say this though, the style, grace and class of Carl Barat is a powerful force of inspiration far beyond his native shores. Anthony, Didz and Gary are no jokes either. They will be missed….

    I very much enjoyed your writing if you have a chance please give my bands music a listen, it sounds like the Beatles/Rolling Stones if they were American and lived in Los Angeles in 2009. We are called SONS OF JACK, you can find media on our website http://www.sojmusic.com or myspace.com/sonsofjack

    Thanks and have a great weekend,

    SHAWN

  4. Pingback: Diminishing gigs and gigs of diminishing return. « Velvet Coalmine

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