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Clockenflap Music Festival

Clockenflap: The Libertines are reunited and ready to rock Hong Kong

More than a decade after breaking up amid a haze of drugs and recrimination, The Libertines are back with Pete Doherty and heading for Clockenflap

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 November, 2015, 6:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 November, 2015, 11:53am

To the uninitiated, The Libertines are a tabloid cartoon of punching pals who couldn’t handle the excesses of rock’n’roll fame.

But behind the headlines that have swirled around one of the biggest coup bookings at this year’s Clockenflap festival is a band that have battled demons, drugs and violence to become one of the most vital and visceral acts in the world.

Having reunited earlier this year after more than a decade of one-off gigs and rumours of a reformation, Pete Doherty, Carl Barat, Gary Powell and John Hassell will arrive in Hong Kong for their performance at West Kowloon on November 28 as a tightly knit unit once again.

READ MORE: The life and near deaths of Pete Doherty, frontman of Clockenflap headliners The Libertines

They may not be as close as they were during their heyday in the early Noughties, when they rewrote the rulebook for garage rock in two albums that alloyed furious open-heart paeans of love, life and friendship to spiky indie-punk. But they are certainly closer than during their wilderness years when lifelong friends Doherty and Barat seemed to spend most of their time sniping at each other or, in Pete’s case, burgling his friend’s home.

“We’ve probably spoken to each other more this morning than we did for months at a time when we were living together back in the [old] days,” Doherty told Spin magazine earlier this year, referring to one of rock’s most acrimonious splits. “It wasn’t even a question of body language back then either. You just snarl and you noticed right away.”

For fans, the break up of the band in 2004 was heartbreaking. The Libertines had forged a new consensus in rock, one that had given independent music back to the fans. In a riot of so-called guerilla gigs at friends’ flats, in the band’s romantic vision of an English music that encompassed the values of Albion (the oldest known name of the island of Great Britain) and in their grotty street-urchin appearance, they rescued indie from a slow death brought on by the gaudy success of Britpop in the late 1990s.

Like the punks before them, the Libertines made rock people’s music again, but success didn’t last long. “The moments of joy and achievement were completely overshadowed by the need to have a punchline or a riot,” Doherty told The Guardian soon after this year’s release of the band’s long-awaited third album, Anthems for Doomed Youth. “We had something pure and true at the core of it, but a lot that was around it was ugly to me. It was horrible. Going on stage by the end became like a war.”

The reasons for the split were many. Doherty and Barat had been mates since their college years and had lived together in squats and squalid flats while trapped in poverty, at times reportedly turning to prostitution to bring in cash. Their dissolute lifestyle had a purpose - it gave them the room to hone their vision of Albion; a rose-tinted view of an England that never was, based on a mish-mash philosophy seemingly culled from Carry On films and kitchen-sink dramas from the 1960s, the music of David Bowie and the aesthetics of The Smiths.

While the heady prospect of a new English folk music won them a devoted fan base, by the time the band had finished promoting their debut album, Up the Bracket (produced by Mick Jones of The Clash), the rot had set in.

Doherty’s prodigious drug intake had begun to take on ferocious proportions. Angry at his bandmate’s unreliability, Barat sacked Doherty and The Libertines toured without him for a year. They folded soon after the release of their self-titled second album.

While all the band members went on to solo projects, only one remained in the headlines, and for other reasons. Doherty was photographed taking drugs, filmed taking drugs and arrested for taking drugs. His relationships - most notably with supermodel Kate Moss - were doomed by drugs and his performances with his new band Babyshambles were cancelled or rendered unwatchable because of his addictions.

Repeated attempts to wean himself off heroin and crack cocaine proved futile until late last year, when he checked into rehab in Thailand - a stint chronicled in Post Magazine. Doherty’s apparent success in kicking his habit was the galvanising force that brought the band back together. “Whatever happened with the heroin and the situations I was in that I knew Carl despised, I always carried on pushing myself, in terms of the music or travelling or different affairs and adventures,” Doherty told The Guardian.

“I just love life and I enjoyed it all, but there came a point where I had no option but to stop. Your body won’t have it. Alas. And when Carl looked me in the eye and actually believed me when I said I was going to give it a f***ing go, it was like a miracle. Everything else was forgotten.”

The reunion proved a huge relief for all members of the band. “It was this colossal f***ing row that took 10 years to get over, basically,” Doherty told The Guardian. “I did my best to demonise The Libertines and the world of Peter just so as I could protect myself and move on,” Barat says. “And then, of course, I have to unravel all the barbed wire from the beaches and blow up all the mines and trust myself to do it without defences, and it’s all right.”

Anthems for Doomed Youth was the natural outcome of the reunion. While it failed to ignite the critics as the first two albums had, it proved that The Libertines remained a force to be reckoned with. Produced, surprisingly, by One Direction engineer Jake Gosling, songs such as Gunga Din and Heart of the Matter were as spiky and urgent as any of their previous tracks.

“We were a bit nervous,” Barat told the NME. “We were aware people might say, ‘Hang about, he’s One Direction-ed The Libertines!’ That’s why we said to him: ‘We’re gonna make a dirty f***ing rock’n’roll record!’ He said: ‘OK, great!’ That didn’t faze him at all. In the end, parts of it are very dirty rock’n’roll, but not all of it. If it was all like that it would just be going in, well, one direction.”

So what can Clockenflap expect from the rejuvenation of one of the most storied bands of the past couple of decades? A blistering show, if their headline slot at the Reading and Leeds Festivals is any indication, and one full of old favourites.

“I get really pissed off at a gig when bands play nothing but stuff you don’t know,” Barat told the Gigwise website ahead of the band’s current tour. “I think when you go and see a band that you like, it should be a celebration of them,” Powell agrees. “There’s not much point in celebrating something you don’t really know.”

The Libertines play the Harbourflap Stage at 9.45pm on Saturday, November 28