Time Forgot: The Libertines, "Up The Bracket"
The early 2000s were a noisy and hectic time for new music. Indie rock seemed to be exploding from all corners of the world thanks to the Internet, which made a lot of it easy to discover and instantly accessible. Acts like The Strokes, White Stripes, The Vines, The Hives, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were leading the “new rock revolution.” Landmark American festivals like Coachella were just getting going.
Stateside, it seemed like there were so many new bands riding waves of hype it was difficult to keep up. That’s partially why, for instance, as a reporter at a college newspaper in 2003, I spent 32 paragraphs talking about a band like The Music. As so often happens, given the rapid onslaught of artists, many were unintentionally ignored in all the noise.
In 2002, England’s The Libertines released its debut album, Up The Bracket, which was warmly received in the UK. The Libertines became a legit phenomenon across the pond, with a legacy (good or bad) that persists.
In the early 2000s States though, with New York City seemingly manufacturing a new indie band every night Up The Bracket just slightly registered. Sure, it was a critical darling, but The Libertines weren’t in the same popular music press conversation with American acts like TV On The Radio, Interpol, Kings of Leon, or even head-scratchers like Fischerspooner.
Part of that may have been due to the fact that, at the time, The Libertines could barely hold it together long enough to complete a full UK tour, let alone one in the US. And yet that same prone-to-explosion vibe that beset the group at the start of its career was also responsible for its brilliant debut.
At just 36 minutes, the dozen songs on Up The Bracket rip by in a riotous, chain-smoking blur. The frenetic, opening 1-2-3 punch of “Vertigo,” “Death On The Stairs,” and “Horror Show” play like a band on the verge of combustion, ready to start a riot or self-destruct with few other options (see video below).
Lots of bands can create a sound like they’re recording in the middle of a squalid drug den, of course, but what made The Libertines special was the underlying songwriting. The charging guitars, the breaks, the duel vocalists: it was all a carefully crafted, beautiful tornado of a mess. As if to prove it, the punked-up drive of “Horror Show” leads into the gorgeous “Time for Heroes,” which feels unexpected, not just because of its slower pace, but the way in which it illuminates a deeper dimension to the band.
In quintessential Libertines fashion, “Time For Heroes” mixes lyrical images of riots, disease, and bloody coughs with an over-arching sentiment of romanticism. Leave it to the duel songwriting and singing team of Pete Doherty and Carl Barât to pull something like that off. Allegedly, "Time For Heroes" was based on Doherty’s experiences at London’s May Day riots in 2000, but among all the disparate references are some memorable insights, which he always had a knack for. “The stale chips are up and the hopes stakes are down/It’s these ignorant faces that bring this town down,” he sings, before adding later, “There are fewer more distressing sights than that/Of an Englishman in a baseball cap /Yeah we’ll die in the class we were born/That’s a class of our own my love/We’re in a class of our own my love.”
“Time for Heroes” gets followed up with the bouncing “Boys In The Band,” which feels either like a celebration of girls who are into musicians or a parody of that same concept. And that wry confusion seems like the point. In particular, Barât singing “I know you like the roll of the limousine wheel” as if he was in Mötley Crüe, although at the time of recording he was most likely a broke guitarist, always seemed pretty funny.
Things finally slow down on “Radio In America,” a quiet, Doherty-sung acoustic ballad that, from that point on, signals a slight dip in quality but not energy. Aside from a few standouts like the melodic “Tell The King” and first-pumping closer “I Get Along,” the second half is what keeps Up The Bracket from being a perfect album. Many might argue with me on that point, but either way, Up The Bracket remains a memorable collection of songs by any measure.
To its credit, all the hysteric energy you hear at the beginning of Up The Bracket wasn’t manufactured. The band really was that volatile, so much so that by the time the follow-up, The Libertines, was released in 2004, Doherty had already spent some time in jail for breaking into Barât’s apartment and stealing some items. That album’s excellent lead single, “Can't Stand Me Now,” detailed the breakdown of the songwriters’ relationship.
The Libertines broke up not too long after the release of that second album and it stayed that way for a long while. For rest of the decade, Doherty became a fascinating, cartoonish portrait of the damages of hard drugs, youth, and fame in a new millennium— constantly showing up high to interviews, getting arrested (Rolling Stone estimates his total number of incarcerations to be at least 20), dating Kate Moss, starting a fee-based reality web series, selling blood paintings with Amy Winehouse, and managing to make an underwhelming album here and there under the moniker Babyshambles. For their part, the other members of the Libertines remained much healthier, with Barât, in particular, playing in a range of decent bands like Dirty Pretty Things and The Chavs.
The Libertines finally reunited in 2014 and released a new album, Anthems for Doomed Youth, which still sounded like the band but wasn’t entirely a memorable experience either. The Libertines are still around, touring this summer, in fact, although just a few dates in the UK have been announced.
It’s a cliche to say a band never got its due in the US, because that’s a classic sentiment of an endless number of artists. Too many bands deserving of recognition got just a fraction of the amount of attention as The Libertines did in the States. And sure, the ensuing years after Up The Bracket weren’t kind to the band either, especially from a professional standpoint. I’m not even sure how many clubs The Libertines could fill in the US these days, although I'd love to see them give it a go.
None of this, however, should take away from the fact that 15 years later, Up The Bracket still sounds like raging bonfire of fireworks doused in gasoline. If anything, it makes you appreciate just how rare those fleeting moments are in music, and how they’re never really meant to last anyways.
Grab a special limited edition of The Libertines’ Up The Bracket on colored vinyl from Newbury Comics here.