The last time I saw Carl Barat, he was still playing a rock star. Dirty Pretty Things’ final gig brought down the curtain on a part he played exceptionally well. A year on from their demise, out in the wilds of west London, Neil Sheppeck’s production of Sam Shepherd’s Fool for Love sees Barat audition for a different role. He’s always been a performer, with the Libertines’ and DPT’s gang mentality a fairly transparent protection against chronic insecurity and fear of isolation. There’s a similar protection afforded by having a part to play – a costume to wear and a script to follow which relieves the worry about being judged on your own merits. Doing so for a living seems a logical if precarious next step.
When I first got into music, in the moribund middle of the 1990s, not only was I living in a godforsaken postindustrial blackspot, but I was living there without the internet. The only place in my town which sold records was Woolworths, which sold the Top 20, on CD and cassette, and that was it. I once, as a thirteen year old Manicsfan, went into Woolworths and tried to preorder a copy of The Holy Bible. My enquiry was met with the same look of horror-struck uncertainty with which my mother, that same year, asked whether I’d been in a punch-up (I hadn’t; Rimmel’s ‘Gothic Miss’ eyeshadow palette and I were in our ill-advised experimental period, but the mistake is understandable). The nearest town whose emporia offered more cosmopolitan fare was an hour’s bus-ride away. In alternative cultural terms, the last one to leave my town had not only turned out the lights, but also painted the windows black and pissed on the stereo. Oh how I suffered.
Missy Elliot, ‘Get Ur Freak On’ (2001)
The best of several crossover cuts with which a bona fide goddess in hoop earrings and an inflatable binliner punctuated the first half of the decade, ‘Get Ur Freak On’ leads with a whiplash bhangra-bashing beat that doesn’t bother catching the ear but goes straight for the hips. Missy jerks the song’s strings like a demon puppetmaster, firing off smokily spare vocal rounds. Instantly infectious and a sufficiently sparkling gem as an original, its jittery genius was also picked up and polished in a glittering array of remixes that made the post-Nineties dancefloor a brighter place to be.
The Coral, ‘Dreaming of You’ (2002)
The Coral debuted in 2002 with a melting-pot of an album, bowled along on waves of retro-rummaging and sea-shanty-imbued psychedelia. Second single ‘Dreaming of You’ is perfectly structured pop that shines like a diamond dug out of a Merseybeat time-capsule, but remains sufficiently scratched with the band’s spirit of unpolished experimentation to rise above mere emulation of their influences. It’s a deceptively jaunty two-and-a-bit minutes, smoothing over the raw melancholic isolation displayed in its lyrics with a torrent of ramshackle harmonies and a restless and infectious melodic vitality. While subsequent albums would see The Coral’s envelope-pushing lead them down increasingly complex musical paths, ‘Dreaming of You’ is a slice of straight up-and-down genius whose star has yet to fade.
The Libertines, ‘Time For Heroes’ (2003)
Not the spuriously-compiled Best Of lately issued by those intent on picking clean the bones of a band long-buried, but the five-years-younger standout single from a band lean, hungry and arrestingly articulate. Its guitar-led opening clamour was urgent enough to turn heads away from the barren wastes of contemporary indie and onto the sea of possibilities and passions that swirled in the space between stumbling drumbeats and Doherty’s smoothly confident evocation of a once and future urban utopia. Amidst flashes of modern May Day folklore, ‘Time For Heroes’ forged its own mythology of young bloods, obscene scenes and stylish rioters, its lyrics rich with in-jokes, countercultural cast-offs and quietly camp wit. How long had it been since the charts were troubled by a piece of such grammatical, political and aesthetic perfection as the line ‘There are fewer more distressing sights than that of an Englishman in a baseball cap’? The song throws open the doors to a kingdom of self-reference and self-reverence and, with a knowingly urchinish doff of the cap, ushers you into Arcadia and urges you to consider yourself at home. The Libertines flame was soon to be extinguished in a whirlwind of smack, self-destruction, supermodels and speculation on Pete and Carl’s domestic harmony, but, while it lasted, this was a band on fire.
[written for Sweeping the Nation‘s best of the 00s.]
As a Valleys expatriate, part of my filial duty is to call home every so often and update my mother on how her golden child is getting on in the big city. Usually this is a simple matter of concise summation, adjusted for altered terms of reference based on the fact that my mother last went adventuring in 1972, but when describing what I did the previous evening to her I ran into difficulties:
‘Well… I went to an art gallery in the bit of London where all the bookshops are and stood in an exhibit of books which haven’t been written and only exist within the fields of reference of other books – it’s called an invisible library, right – and we heard a bloke play guitar and read bits out of Dylan’s experimental abstract novel and he had to stand in the window and play to the street because there wasn’t room for everyone inside, and then he’d tell us various writers were great because they didn’t give a fuck, and then he read some more which proved that the same writers actually did give quite a significant fuck about several things, and then some other blokes played guitar but we had to wait because they were in the pub so we told each other what we were reading and then Carl Barat, I’ve told you about him, turned up and he played guitar and everyone cheered and then we went to the pub. No, no, there wasn’t anything to drink in the art gallery.’
‘…Oh,’ said my mother, ‘you went to a happening.’
I suppose I did. There’s no clearer way of describing what went down in Theatreland’s shoebox-sized Tenderpixel Gallery. For an hour before doors the queue snaked along a drizzly and damp Cecil Court – a fantastically bijou Victorian remnant full of bookshops and antique emporia – drawing curious glances from shoppers and shopkeepers. I’d stake my reputation on the bet that everyone’s here for Carl Barat. Pity the dude who strode the length of the queue determinedly handing out postcards for a private view, before asking what the purpose of the queue was. ‘Do you mean to say I’ve given these out to musos, not art-lovers?’ he lamented, watching several get used for roaching material or impromptu shelter from the rain.
Had he been talking to me and not the impossibly glamorous girls behind me, I could have pointed out the irony of his agony, what with Kieran Leonard’s Pages in Plectrums night being basically an attempt to blend music, art and literature. The gallery’s tiny space featured a windowledge as makeshift stage, scattered with dog-eared copies of Improving Tracts. As many of us squashed inside as could fit, with about half as many again left outside to peer through the window like Dickensian urchins. Kieran takes to the stage, looking fretful. An organiser hauls half the PA system to the doorway and turns it to the street. A voice from the back: ‘It’s like the Beatles!’
I’m never sure what to make of Dylan-bothering beanpole Leonard, the latest in a long line of Friends of Carlos. In the current cultural climate I’m loath to criticise someone so obviously well-intentioned and good-natured and who knows one cover of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas from the other. So, to be charitable, here is a list of things Kieran Leonard is better at than singing:
1. being a compere, albeit in the manner of a trendy English teacher getting the guitar out on the last day of term
2. keeping people entertained while the rest of the bill is reportedly in the pub
3. being the only other person in the world to rate Tarantula
4. earnest rants studded with nervy swearing
5. making sudden eye contact from under his eyelashes to EMPHASISE the IMPORTANT parts of his SONGS
And here is a list of things Kieran Leonard is worse at than singing:
1. white-water rafting (I’m guessing here, and stand to be corrected).
He talks about Harold Pinter, then he does a song about Harold Pinter. Cans of Red Stripe are passed among the organisers. My lips twitch.
A voice from the back: ‘Is he here yet?’
Kieran looks troubled: ‘D’you want to give him a call? I think he’s in the pub.’
And another thing about daytime dry gigs: there are children in the crowd. Real actual children. There are children who look like cartoons of children: gap-toothed Gavroches in Converse, talking of that time they saw the Specials support the Horrors and repeatedly droning the wrong words to ‘Gangsters’. I glance around me. No, there’s still no bar.
Thankfully, we are at this point graced with the presence of Drew McConnell, Peter Doherty’s erstwhile Babyshambles lieutenant and more recently anchor of the Phoenix Drive and Helsinki. He’s solo tonight, bearing an alarming resemblance to Zammo from Grange Hill and a disarmingly sweet stage presence. His couple of songs, one new and one a Fionn Regan cover, slip down well and are a welcome reminder that in terms of Meaning It trumping vocal talent, Dylan is still the exception not the rule.
A voice from the back: ‘Carl’s here! …oh, no, okay. He’s just getting some soup.’
Third up is Mark Morris. At first I wasn’t sure why that name should strike such dread into my heart, but as he clambered on ‘stage’ it all, like a hideous acid reflux, came rushing back: the Bluetones. The mid-Nineties. The horror, the horror. I suppose if Tim Burgess couldn’t make it, someone has to play the desiccated indie casualty still smearing around the lukewarm shite of their Britpop glory days. They haven’t changed a bit. According to Kieran, much of the Bluetones back catalogue drew inspiration from the relationship between Byron and Shelley. Odd, as the only line I could previously recall of their oeuvre ran When I am sad and weary, when all my hope is gone / I walk around my house and think of you with nothing on, and even that was an Adrian Mitchell rip-off. See also ‘dull’, ‘plodding’, ‘quavery’, ‘utterly wet and a weed’, and ‘the reason I became a Sex Pistols fan at the age of twelve.’
Before fucking off, Morris nods to the upcoming attraction: ‘Can never pronounce his second name, but you know Carl – the hat, the hair…’
A voice from the back: ‘He’s not wearing a hat tonight!’ A visible ripple of anticipation. ‘Ooooh.’
Kieran’s back and he gets us to précis Oedipus Rex – ‘Greek tragedy, yeah, that’s some fucked-up shit’ – before doing the best song of his I’ve so far heard, setting the tragedy’s narrative in the contemporary London club scene. More flashbacks to lower-Sixth English class.
As the ‘stage’ is prepared for El Barat’s grand entrance, I think about The Sixties redux. There are inherent problems with the sort of unexamined ancestor-worship that gets Dylan to number one with his most mediocre album in decades, to say nothing of its choking-off of many aspects of progressive politics. Sure, this country’s headlong dash back into the maw of the 1980s in political and economic terms calls for a cultural renewal based around civil rights, feminist, anti-racist and youth activism, but, with the exception of Love Music Hate Racism firebrand McConnell, this evening was more Sixties-chic. The fusion of music, art and literature worked, but it doesn’t make up for the music in question being well-meaning-white-boys-by-numbers, nor for the readings being the usual roll-call of dead white modernist males – Eliot, Hemingway, Pinter. The currently pressing issues of racism and wider politics were engaged with only through the prism of readings from Thompson and Dylan and by Leonard’s (like the man himself, well-meaning and tolerable if you grit your teeth) cover of ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’. I suppose it’s not a bad start, but blinkers and boundaries need to dissolve if Pages in Plectrums is to be anything other than a contribution to the Scene That Celebrates Itself.
A voice from the back: ‘Wahey!’
And then Carl’s here, and my attendant privileges (white, Western, in London, employed) mean that I can stop chin-stroking for a while and start putting my hands together. Polishing off a full glass of Guinness, he kicks off with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’. For the first verse, there is not a dry seat in the house. And then you’re struck anew by the fact that, Christ, the man can mumble. The misjudged nature of this cover becomes apparent when he fucks up the line that has the title in, rolls his eyes heavenwards and peels the written chords off the back of his guitar, shaking his head and muttering about only having done that as a favour. He tosses his hair back and, to the biggest – actually, the only – roar of approval all evening, he throws himself headlong into ‘What a Waster’. The song provides an accidentally apt showcase for the Libertines’ golden touch with cultural references, having that line that juxtaposes the Beano and the unabridged Ulysses (or, as Carl has it tonight, with perfect impromptu scansion, the Celestine Prophecies). Just as I’m marvelling at how a musician of Carl’s status can be unfamiliar with the Cohen canon, he reminds me that he’s also got the technological understanding of an elderly maiden aunt: glancing around at the forest of handheld cameras and videophones before him and looking baffled as ever at his own charisma, he exclaims ‘Stop Youtubing me!’.
On the set’s very brief evidence, it’s difficult to tell if he’s still got it, but this is at least nothing like the dark days of his ‘DJ’ and ‘club night’ wheelings-out. He’s in good voice, holding his guitar like a long-lost lover, and remains the only man in the world capable of giving a convincing rendition of the ‘Time For Heroes’ solo. It’s also telling that Carl’s giving up on Cohen and launching into his own intricately expletive-strewn missive gets the best reception, perhaps elevating the need to do it for yourself over the contrived sincerity of paying homage to the old masters. Though his inability to fake it for the space of a song does make me fear for his acting career.
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.