Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Lifeguard, Save Me From Life: Bona Drag and the Professional Misery Of Steven Patrick Morrissey

Morrissey is a professional wallflower, who has made a career out of being painfully self-aware. Lately, though, he has started tinkering with his back catalogue in ways which are not always easily explicable. Southpaw Grammar and Maladjusted have been given the revisionist treatment, with mixed results. Now Morrissey turns his attention to Bona Drag, the singles/oddities collection which was released in the difficult period between his solo debut Viva Hate, and his second LP, Kill Uncle. On its release, 20 years ago, Bona Drag was a curiosity; Morrissey as barely established as a solo artist, and only his most ardent follower would have argued that his output matched his work with The Smiths. It was – it seemed then – characterised largely by the absence of Johnny Marr and, as a consequence, an uncertain sound.
Two decades later, what’s changed? Well, there are a few cosmetic revisions. The colour of Morrissey's shirt on the cover changes from red to black, and the record is released on the revived imprint, Major Minor, a label begun by Radio Caroline manager Phil Solomon, and previously home to ‘Gloria’ by Them and ‘Je T’Aime’ by Jane Birkin. At some level, Morrissey has always wanted to be a Golden Oldie – Johnnie Ray channelling Oscar Wilde - and now, as he curates his own myth, he can be.
Hindsight isn’t always cruel. True, there are things to regret in the production. Who would have imagined a classicist such as Morrissey  would sanction the drum and synth sounds which hang like smog over Everyday Is Like Sunday’; one of his loveliest songs? Its apocalyptic imagery updates Betjeman’s ‘Slough’, with Morrissey calling for a hard rain to fall on a drab seaside resort (“Come, come, come Nuclear Bomb!”). A shame, then, that the  indelicate production carries faint echoes of ‘The Final Countdown’. The same is true of ‘Piccadilly Palare’, with our fey narrator crooning mournfully in The Queens’ Vernacular. Was it always so obviously a song about being a rent boy? It seems blatant now – it was merely mysterious then. Whatever, the drums have far too much splash, when the tune demands a skiffle approach. And ‘He Knows I’d Love To See Him’ – another tender rumination on gay love – features a fretless bass; a transgression too far.
But let’s not nitpick. Taken as a whole, Bona Drag shows that Morrissey was still writing  great songs in the aftermath of The Smiths. ‘The Last Of The Famous International Playboys’ is an examination of celebrity (“Those who kill – the newsworld hands them stardom”), expressed through a character who identifies with the Krays. ‘Ouija Board, Ouija Board’ is a music hall ditty about a lonely man trying to get in touch with a dead friend; extract the rock guitar, and you could imagine it being sung by Arthur Askey. ‘Hairdresser on Fire’ is a sharply-observed comic vignette about fashion and loneliness in London, “home of the brash, outrageous and free”. “You are repressed,” he sings, “But you’re remarkably dressed.” An unsympathetic listener might detect a whiff self-parody, but really, it’s glorious stuff. 
There are six unreleased songs. The demo of ‘Please Help The Cause Against Loneliness’ has a delicacy that Sandie Shaw couldn’t locate. ‘Let The Right One In’ drones on. ‘Happy Lovers At Last United’ is a bitter-sweet love song. ‘Oh Phoney’ is a fragment, but is notable for the chorus “Who can make Hitler, seem like a bus conductor? You do.” ‘The Bed Took Fire’ (aka ‘At Amber’) has an interesting conceit – self-pitying narrator moans to invalid friend on the telephone – but a turgid production.
The pick of the bunch is ‘Lifeguard on Duty’. It’s wry, funny and serious, with Morrissey exhorting a lifeguard to live up to his name and “save me from life”. If the verse was by was Philip Larkin, you might interpret it as a cry of help to a God who may not exist. Since this is Morrissey, it comes across as a piece of camp whimsy, finding heroism in meekness.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Goodbye Alex Chilton, Andy Hummel RIP. Your band, Big Star, was like The Beatles, if the Beatles Had Come From Tennessee


I’ve been thinking a lot about Big Star since Alex Chilton died in March. His sudden passing produced a flurry of tributes. Suddenly, just as it was too late, Chilton seemed to be everybody’s favourite. Now the group's bassist Andy Hummel has succumbed to cancer, the tributes are flowing again.
So what was it about Big Star? How can they be so many people’s favourite band, yet remain so obscure? They never really sold any records. Not when the albums were first released, when they were too soulful and strange, and not later, when they were too weirdly melodic.
The first thing to acknowledge is that Alex Chilton didn’t always make the best case for himself as a genius of rock'n'roll. He may have been arrogant – some people have said as much – but he gave every impression of being suffused with embarrassment whenever a compliment was thrown his way. And let’s be clear, the compliments were justified, even if Chilton’s custodianship of his career seemed careless. His teenage adventure with the Box-Tops, and their hit with The Letter, would have been enough for one great life. But those two Big Star albums are as heartbreakingly beautiful, and prickly and innocent, and eternally unknowable as any in rock, while Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers is an unmatchable essay in desolation. Chilton knew how to make a melody, and he knew how to break one. If perfection threatened, he liked to smash it.
Chilton’s solo work is patchy, lazy, and barely available, but there may be a case for rediscovering that, too. Gerard Love of Teenage Fanclub – the Glasgow group who did much to keep Big Star’s name alive – told me recently that while the first two Big Star albums represented “chiming guitar pop in its perfect form” he remembers the Fanclub being more influenced by Chilton’s later work. “I remember us listening more to the Third album and to Alex’s solo records such as Bach's Bottom, Like Flies On Sherbert, High Priest and Black List as we travelled around in vans in our early years. There was always a real mixture of different sounds and different approaches to his songwriting, and to his recordings, and I guess that this eclecticism would have inspired us more than the perfection of early Big Star.”
Eclecticism is the word. But it wasn’t a word you’d hear from Chilton himself. In interviews, he could be taciturn to the point of rudeness. I tried once, for Radio Forth, and Alex couldn’t have been less cooperative if I’d suggested performing root canal surgery with a hammer. We were in a dressing room in Glasgow, with Alex’s cohorts lined up behind him, listening in. As he affected increasing disdain, there was a sense of him playing to the gallery, as if it was better to impress the five people in the room than the thousands who might be listening to the radio.
That was my memory, anyway. But I recently came across a transcript of that interview, and it made me wonder whether I had misinterpreted Chilton’s intentions. On the page, deprived of his languorous disengagement, Chilton’s words contain little animosity. Reading them now, I can see that he was doing whatever he could to avoid being trapped under the shadow of his reputation. Of the Box Tops, he said: “They were a group that had a connection with some big independent record producers in Memphis, and, uh, they just did whatever the producers said. There was no concept involved from the group at all. So it wasn’t meant to be anything. We didn’t mean anything.”
And of Big Star, this: “Well, you know, it was another group. I guess that people join groups because they don’t think they’re good enough on their own. So it was a group that I joined, and sort of submitted myself to the will of the group.”
That seems oddly reductive, but it makes some sense. A couple of years ago, I visited Ardent Studios in Memphis. Ardent was modelled on Abbey Road by the engineer John Fry, who modelled himself on George Martin.
Third/Sister Lovers was recorded in Ardent’s current location on Madison Avenue, the first two albums were made at the old address on National Street. But the sense of history was all around. Fry pointed to studio’s original four-track recorder in the lobby. “That had four whole tracks, and we thought we’d died and gone to heaven. Four tracks. By 1968 we had eight. By 1970 it went to 16. 1973-4 to 24. Then you lock two 24s together and you’ve got 48. We’ve got 32 track digital machines. That’s not enough? Two of those together and you’ve got 64. Now, because of HD you’ve got as many as you want, which is something more than what you need.”
Jody Stephens at Ardent
Jody Stephens (right), Big Star’s drummer, now manages the studio. He was happy to talk about Big Star, and was quick to confirm that he never made any money out of the group. (Chilton would have done OK when In The Street was used as the theme for That 70s’ Show, but he also vetoed concerts where the band would have reprised their albums in full).
Stephens met John Fry in late 1970, but teaming up with his bandmates was, he said “the most amazing experience. Up until that point my brother Jimmy and I had been in a band, and we did some originals, but then to meet Andy (Hummel) and Chris (Bell, the other creative spark in Big Star)… They were working with a guy called Steve Ray. Steve played drums, and they were playing this song called All I Need Is You. It just blew me away.
“To go into the studio with just a blank canvas,” Stephens continued, “it was the opportunity to create a vision. It was exactly way I wanted to do.”
Chilton joined after Ray left, so his observations about submitting his will to that of the group may not be entirely facetious. 
At this point, we were joined in the studio by Scott Bomar, a Memphis musician (with the Bo-Keys, among others), who recorded the soundtrack for the film Black Snake Moan at Ardent. He led me to the room where the Mellotron which features on Third/Sister Lovers is stored.
“The third Big Star record is cinematic to me,” Bomar said. “I hear that record, it’s like a film. It was really cool to be able to come here and use the Mellotron that was on Big Star’s Third. It’s a very special instrument to me. There are tape loops in it – there’s a flute, a cello, a violin. And when you press the key down, there’s a motor – each key is like a tape machine in a way – the notes hold for eight seconds.
“In a way, it’s the poor man’s orchestra. It’s considered one of the first samplers, because they recorded people playing. If you have it on a flute sound, you’re hearing the sound of someone playing who was recorded elsewhere.”
For a few minutes, Fry and Stephens reminisced with Bomar about some of the groups who have recorded in Ardent, a roll call which stretches from Led Zeppelin to Primal Scream and Jack White. When Fry excused himself, Stephens gestured towards the mixing desk, which was identical to the desk at the legendary Stax studios. “The guy building these consoles called in to see John, and he said ‘Hey, this is the console I’m building for Stax’. John probably had some say and guidance as to what he wanted. I mean, he knows what the knobs do, but he could also take you through the wires and tell you the path of the signal and how it’s affected by each little piece of electronica.
“In those Big Star sessions - it happened once or twice – John called it ‘window editing’. He’d have a two-inch piece of tape, and there’d be an undesirable sound in a place where you couldn’t comfortably get rid of it without endangering something that you really wanted to keep. So he’d go in and locate the sound and put the tape on the editing block, and just take a razor blade and cut it. I don’t know how the hell he did it, but with a razor blade, he’d cut that noise out, and there’d just be this hole in the tape, the right spot – the exact location. It was always like: ‘Drum-roll please!’ We’d be sitting in there and there’d be complete silence. And he’d do it, and we’d put it back on the machine, and it was in exactly the right place.”
All of which gives some indication of how Big Star was, as Chilton acknowledged, more than one person’s vision. It was a sound established by Chris Bell (whose contribution requires a chapter to itself), by Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens, playing Chilton’s songs against a backdrop created by a genius producer.
Or, to put it another way, it was the Beatles, if the Beatles had come from Tennessee. Just as Ardent is a very Memphis studio (adding Stax manners to the studio experiments of the Fabs) Big Star was a very Memphis band. Chilton, in one of those answers which seemed to evince nothing, but may just have been truthful, said as much.
“Music that comes from Memphis, that’s what I am. I didn’t really get interested in rock’n’roll music until The Beatles came along. Before that I had been listening to my dad’s jazz records.
“I just thought [The Beatles] was exciting music. There had been a few bad years of pop music in the early 1960s. I guess if I’d been of a sufficient age when Elvis came along, I would have been more swept up in that. He was passé by the time I got to be 12 years old, so there wasn’t really anything to look up to.
“I’ve always been influenced by rhythm and blues,” Chilton said. “You know, all the African-American music, pretty much.
“A lot of times, I’m sort of anti-intellectual about music. I think that the best music is not always made by the best musicians. It’s made by the most inspired people with the best idea.”

Thursday, July 8, 2010

If Captain Beefheart Had Come From Glenrothes He Would Have Sounded Like Good And Gone (But I Like To Think He Wouldn't Have Tried To Drown Me In The Municipal Swimming Baths)

A CD by Good and Gone arrives in the mail, and with it comes a memory of my first encounter with this Glenrothes r’n’b group. (This is r’n’b in its old meaning: G&G were a fierce post-punk combo who sounded as if they had chewed up, and half-digested, the gnarly bits of Dr Feelgood and Captain Beefheart. ) It was 1987, though it might just as easily been 1897. I was a stringer for the NME, a glamorous job, the circumstances of which now seem amazing. There was no email then, and only one or two fax machines in BT shops. So an evening’s work would often involve watching a group till 1am, then typing up a review at home. The review was then sent to London, with the pictures, on the first train out of Waverley, at 6am. I would finish my shift with scrambled eggs and grilled tomato at the Carolina Café in Bread Street. Anyway, it was worth it. Not for the £25 I would earn for the review. For the experience. I learned how to write, by first learning how not to write. I also saw many bands who were learning how to play, and some who could have done unlearning their skills.
Anyway, on one of those nights, I must have seen Good And Gone, and I must have written about them in the NME. I have no memory of the concert. What I do remember is standing in Edinburgh’s famous Doric Tavern, and being surrounded by the group, who were urgently demanding an explanation.
Now it is possible that I have misremembered this. (I have a natural aversion to people from Glenrothes, due to a teenage incident in which some local boys attempted to drown me in the town’s swimming pool.) But what I remember is being surrounded by three angry men, whose names I was struggling to catch. The angriest, whose nickname I recall as “Psycho” – he was the drummer – made plain his disquiet. Let’s imagine that he said something like: “What the fuck was the review about?” Let’s imagine that he said with a degree of menace.
I replied confidently, in an almost inaudible mumble, that I believed I had been fair, and that on balance the review was positive. In my memory of the event, the man called Psycho brought the argument to a close by saying, “My fucking granny didnae think it was fair.”
It was a good point, well made. There were no further threats. Somehow, good will prevailed.
Did that really happen? I believe it did. A version of it occurs in the excellent essay, by Good And Gone’s singer (now a sculptor) Eddie Farrell. He also spells out the unglamorous reality of being in a band in Edinburgh during the 1980s – shit venues, dodgy agents, Hell’s Angels.
But, reading Eddie’s sleeve notes, and listening to Hollow Heads (which includes Good And Gone’s Methil Box EP, and a whole lot more), I feel an apology is in order. Because, while these two CDs capture a band who haven’t yet worked out how to transcend their influences (the Screaming Blue Messiahs can be added to the names above) there is a vitality to their playing which was scarce in 1987, and rarer now. And this isn’t pastiche. I remember the growling Woodchop Man, but what I didn’t appreciate – probably because I couldn’t hear it through bad PA systems in shitty venues – is that Good And Gone’s version of the blues had its own sense of geography. Signing Point 13 – a brisk song about signing on, which is what we all did – features perhaps the only recorded mention of Mr Boni’s ice cream parlour (and must thus be filed alongside the Hey Elastica! song about the Three Coins café on Home Street.)
So, treat yourself. Try to get hold of Hollow Heads. Play it loud while rubbing beer and spittle in your hair. Imagine the country is going to the dogs under a brutal Conservative administration. Go on, knock yourself out. Stir in a bit of punk bile and the unfocused anger of young men from a New Town. Do it for Psycho’s granny. She was right. Good And Gone were good, and they were gone before anyone noticed.

Monday, May 31, 2010

A remembrance of my friend, Alan Ruddock, who died yesterday

Where to start with Alan Ruddock? Just before the start, perhaps. Hard to explain, without impugning the reputations of others, but when Alan was introduced as editor of The Scotsman in 1998, Sue Douglas, the left-hand woman of The Publisher, Andrew Neil, made great play of how “collegiate” he was going to be. The previous editor had many strengths, but being collegiate wasn’t one of them. And so it proved. On reflection, Alan was perhaps too collegiate at times. But on the one or two occasions when he tried to be monstrous, he wasn’t very good at it, and bad consequences ensued.
We called him Chieffy, though not to his face. He was the best of the six or seven Scotsman editors I worked with, at a time of great turmoil in the paper. His good qualities seem like obvious qualifications for an editor, but they aren’t always. He was intelligent, and personable. He liked people, though not all people. He was curious. He had read some books and had a wide vocabulary. He liked good writing, and believed in the notion – unfashionable then, unheard now – that good writing could sell newspapers. He was a fine writer himself, when the fancy took him.
There is no immortality in newspapers. They come and go with less consequence than good journalists hope. But at the risk of seeming sentimental, I think it’s worth remembering what Alan’s vision for The Scotsman was. Yes, he wanted to give proper space to an understanding of Scottish politics and culture (running a series of essays by Angus Calder, illustrated by Alasdair Gray, was a highlight of my time), but, as an Irishman, he had no time for Little Scotlandism. Alan’s vision was of a great European newspaper, which happened to be headquartered in Edinburgh. He wanted to look outwards, rather than navel-gaze. That’s still the Scottish newspaper I’d like to read.
The word journalists always use about Alan is “urbane”. I’ve never known what this meant. In Alan’s case, I suspect it alludes to the fact that he was fond of a glass or three of Jameson’s and smoked too many cigarettes. He wasn’t always prompt when it came to morning conference, and by the time he did arrive, he often looked as if he had run through a car-wash en route. But his mind, once the fug cleared, was scalpel-sharp.
If not urbane, what? He was a team-player, and as a boss he sometimes gave the impression that he’d rather not be in charge. His dream, oft-expressed, was of a staff who took responsibility, and stopped bringing him problems. I’m not sure he understood how insecure everyone felt back then. He may have misjudged one or two people, who acted as if they were on his side, but weren’t.
Alan edited the way he talked, in a murmur. In one-to-one meetings, I was often aware that his attention was elsewhere: he had a habit of staring into the far distance, at the horse racing on the television. And at the end of the week, his focus drifted, towards home, and the evening plane to Dublin.
This refusal to move to Scotland was cited as one of the reasons he was sacked. I’m not sure that was true. I tend to think the problem was the opposite. Despite weekending in County Carlow, he had started to go native, in a period when the paper’s proprietors prescribed a more sceptical approach to Caledonian affairs. Towards the end of his reign in 2000, Alan commissioned me to fill the front page of the Millennium issue of The Scotsman with an essay on the subject of time. I didn’t much fancy this idea, and pressed him for more details. “Just make it up,” he said, rushing from the building with a half-packed holdall. “I have a plane to catch.”

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Amadou & Mariam say "Don't Shoot" at South Africa World Cup


Amadou & Mariam
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey
The Malinese musicians Amadou & Mariam are the latest recruits to IANSA’s campaign for a Gun-Free World Cup. Amadou & Mariam are on the bill of the historic World Cup concert on June 10, 2010, at the newly-renovated Orlando Stadium in Soweto, Johannesburg. Speaking in London, where Amadou & Mariam were launching their autobiography, Amadou Bagayoko said: “We want peace in Africa. No arms, no war, just joy.” See iansa.org/worldcup

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Aaron Mokoena Supports A Gun-Free World Cup


Aaron Mokoena
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey
Portsmouth FC's Aaron Mokoena, captain of South Africa, shows his support for the IANSA Gun-Free World Cup campaign (iansa.org/worldcup).
"When I was growing up playing football, I always dreamed about playing for Bafana Bafana. To play for my country and be captain, particularly when the World Cup is being hosted on African soil, is a real honour. This is an opportunity to demonstrate to the world the beauty and diversity of our country. So let's be a united Africa and ensure that our country is safe. Let's support a gun-free World Cup." The T-shirt, designed by Katharine Hamnett, is available from the iansa.org/worldcup

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Don't Shoot


Don't Shoot
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey
I'm working on a campaign for a Gun-Free World Cup, for IANSA, the global movement against gun violence. This is the T-shirt Katharine Hamnett designed for the campaign, modelled by Steven Pienaar of Everton and South Africa. It is available from www.iansa.org/worldcup

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Carl Barât:: The Libertine Who Fell To Earth

Up the BracketThe LibertinesUnder the Influence

Carl Barât
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey
Carl Barât’s acting CV is, to be kind, brief. The former-Libertine
played a version of himself in the YouTube serial Svengali. And he was Gene Vincent in Telstar, Nick Moran’s 2009 Joe Meek biopic. “But Telstar,” says Barât, “was just like: walk on the set, say one line in a funny voice and walk off.”
Barât’s current project is more demanding. He shares the stage with Sadie Frost in Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love. It’s an intense drama, in which a couple’s doomed relationship is played out in a desert motel."It’s about cycles you can’t break,” says Barât. “Like the hold of a relationship coming back after years.” He is not, at this point, talking about his friendship with Pete Doherty. But he could be. He also gives his strongest indication yet of a Libertines reunion. “I don’t know that that’s ended yet. We’ll see where life takes us.”
In the meantime, Barât is soaking up the technical aspects of acting. If that seems like a vanity project for an off-duty rocker, the South London rehearsal rooms tell a different story. Actually, there is one room, inside a warehouse on a snowblown industrial estate. Within that room, there is a table and two chairs, a mattress, and an oblong of masking tape representing a door. Fortunately, Barât looks the part. Dressed like a punk Brando in jeans, boots, and white vest, the 31 year-old exudes charisma. “I was always sounding off when drunk to Sadie about my great acting prowess,” he says. “Which, of course, I made up. “I’m doing it for the challenge, really. Because it scares me so massively, petrifies me, it’ll help me in other areas of my life. I’m proud of myself or seeing something through.”
Acting isn’t entirely mysterious to Barât. He studied drama at Brunel University – where he met Doherty’s sister - before being diverted by music. But Brunel “was more of a diversionary tactic, to avoid the nine-to-five. “I knew I wanted to go into performance in some way, enough to own a guitar, but I suffered years of fear. So now I’m trying to fight that fear. Rather than do a parachute jump, I thought I’d do a play.”
Frost says that she persuaded Barât to read for the role because, “I wanted somebody really raw, really dangerous, but really vulnerable, who could relate to the character’s dysfunctional upbringing. I didn’t want anyone too conformist. And Carl had a quality that a lot of actors who have trained don’t have – a kind of recklessness and unpredictability.”
The dysfunction Frost alludes to isn’t something Barât is interested in discussing. He had an unconventional childhood, being raised by a hippie mother and an artist father, who latterly worked for an arms company. Barât started taking drugs before his teens, through “a combination of boredom, and the things that lead to depression in later life. My parents split up, shit goes on. It’s a story anybody could tell. I wasn’t trying to get away from anything specific. I
don’t think. As with any depressive person – maybe it’s just chemical.”
He was treated for acute pancreatitis in June 2008, but brushes aside concerns about his health. There were suggestions that illness had forced him to give up drinking. He hasn’t. “But I don’t need to be blitzed all the time. I’m quite enjoying being alive.
“I gave up the weed a long time ago. It was making me very confused and tired and lazy. Well, I thought it was that, but then I remained confused, and lazy. But I’m less tired.”
At school in Hampshire, he wasn’t sporty, but he wasn’t bullied either. Music, he says, “was like worlds. I used to listen to my Velvet Underground records with the lights off. That’s how I used to spend an evening , just on my own. A bit of incense. Or I’d listen to Rage Against the Machine – it was like a current through my body. I was part of it.” He laughs at the memory. “It’s like I was a method music listener. I don’t love that many things, but when I do find something, it lights me up.”
If Barât is vulnerable, it seems to be a weakness he is determined to confront. He is planning a solo album, his first release since splitting his post-Libertines’ group Dirty Pretty Things in 2008. The songs are written, the record deal is being finalised, and he hopes to complete recording by the end of April. “It will sound very different because I don’t want to have loud
electric guitars,” he says. “I feel like I’ve hidden behind those for years, and I want to do something that’s more wordy. Or at least where the words are more exposed. It’s quite naked sounding… at this point. I could suddenly go: ‘This needs guitars and it’s gonna be dynamite!’ But it’s more intimate.” The new sound was inspired by Bonnie Prince Billy’s sparse, confessional album, I See A Darkness. “That started me. It gave me the inspiration to think: why can’t you do it with just your voice and a melody?
“The way I see it is: the approach I’ve taken before is still part of my vocabulary. I could revert to doing that without it being false or phoney. This is exploring another voice. I don’t want to get too wanky, but if you learn the guitar, that’s one form of expression, and if you learn to control your voice that’s another form of expression. There are so many styles of music, and maybe I’ve not flexed those muscles yet. If they are indeed there.”
The demise of Dirty Pretty Things was a product of disillusionment; with record company expectations, and the limitations of working in a group. “Especially through trying to have a democracy. There’s always natural leaders emerging, so it becomes enforced democracy.”
From this distance, Dirty Pretty Things look like they were always doomed, if only because they existed in the slipstream of The Libertines, a group with an irreplaceable chemistry, founded on the competing talents of Barât and Doherty.
“I was trying to have the same spirit as the Libertines without the sparring leadership,” Barât says. “And once you take that away, you’re dealing with a whole different thing. I believed in the music and I believed in the people, and I’m sure we’ll play again one day. But it was a distraction. It was something to hide behind. And I chose to hide behind it because I’m intrinsically quite a lazy person – lazy and nervous. So I’m going to get rid of all of that, and then I’ve got no choice.”
This is surprising talk for a man whose musical career has been swathed in the mythological swagger of rock’n’roll. Both of Barât’s bands had had a sense of identity which made them more like gangs than pop groups. “That’s what I’ve always been after,” says Barât. “But part of being in a gang is hiding. That’s why people join gangs, because they need support. And I’ve grown in confidence through having that.” He hesitates. “Maybe not enough confidence to release a solo record just yet!”
Which may be why has been giving serious thought to a reunion with Doherty. “It’s not definite definite,” he says. “I can say 2011, but it’s hard to plan the Libertines until next Tuesday. But 2011 is where there’s room for that to happen. So if everything’s all right, then, yeah, it would be glorious to get on the old jacket and venture forth, into the known.”
Barât says he and Doherty would meet to see if the old chemistry still worked. “If it works, and there’s a window for that… no, a window makes it sound like a business meeting. If there’s a doorway, then certainly we’ll go through it.”
I ask whether the reunion depends on Doherty controlling his drug habit, and Barât answers hesitantly. “Well, once he’s settled into his grooves, and he’s fine, and he’s not hurting himself or anyone else, then that’s all fine with me.”
Certainly, the conditions seems ripe for the return of the Libertines. Their speedy reinvention of English pop, wreathed in poetic tales of a mythical Albion, would suit a country mired in financial woes and political uncertainty. “I know what you mean about there being a pre-punk feeling just now,” Barât says. “I did buy a couple of Rage Against the Machine downloads before Christmas [to thwart the X-Factor winner reaching Number One]. I had to work out how to use the internet just to do it. It drives me potty that people are being told by the X-Factor that that’s the correct way to approach a song. I find that revolting.”
On the broader question of English culture, he is less certain. “It’s very hard to see what our national identity is, really, unless we get the World Cup, or a war, or a nationwide blizzard. Then it’s good to see that Spirit of the Blitz kicks back in, and there’s pride and unity. That’s the only time you see it. So is there going to be a renaissance, through anger and frustration? Probably – it’s going to come at some point, isn’t it? So, yeah – vive la renaissance!”