Libertines biographer Anthony Thornton on how the band have matured, their Camden roots and new album

The Libertines. Picture: Roger Sargent

The Libertines. Picture: Roger Sargent - Credit: Archant

The Libertines are celebrating their new album, Anthems for Doomed Youth, with a week of events in Camden. Their biographer, Anthony Thornton, tells Alex Bellotti how the band have changed since their early days in the area.

Near the height of their fame in 2003, the future of Britain’s most notorious indie newcomers was cast into doubt when a drug-addled Pete Doherty pleaded guilty to burgling the flat of his best friend and bandmate Carl Barat. When it came time for his release from prison, the pair reconciled at the gates, and in a now iconic picture by photographer Roger Sargent, proceeded later that night to get matching tattoos, spelling out in spindly handwriting the name of their band, The Libertines.

The photo went on to adorn the cover of their eponymous second – and, until recently, final – album, and was for many symbolic of the intense, turbulent friendship between the two front men which fuelled their music. As thousands of young fans rushed to get matching tattoos, however, it also became the sign of an equally powerful bond between the band and its followers, the embodiment of a consuming cult lifestyle that hadn’t been seen since the days of groups like the Manic Street Preachers or The Smiths.

“That gang mentality of them against the world is definitely part of what The Libertines are about,” says Anthony Thornton, the band’s official biographer. “They have a world of their own and you’re either in it or outside of it completely. It’s a great place to be, and the fact is that anybody who likes the music can be part of it; you can go and find out about what makes them tick, whether it’s Tony Hancock or Siegfried Sassoon.”

Twelve years after that photo was taken, and one band reunion later, The Libertines are preparing to release their third album, Anthems for Doomed Youth. Never ones to stick to the strict publicity schedules of their record company, the group are hosting a week-long series of special events called Somewhere Over The Railings at Camden’s The Dublin Castle from Monday to celebrate.

For over a decade, it was a record that never looked likely to appear. Since Doherty’s infamous drug addictions forced the dissolution of the band in 2004, his exploits with the likes of Kate Moss and the late Amy Winehouse earned him more of a reputation as tabloid fodder, but Thornton believes both he and the other Libertines – Barat, John Hassall and Gary Powell – are now changed for the better.

“I think they’ve all grown and changed and matured. They’re all fathers now, of course, but it’s probably less to do with that and more to do with the realisation that they have something special when they’re in a room together.

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“When you’re young and in a band, you just assume that you’re doing this and that it’s easy, and that if you work with someone else then it’ll be a similar thing. I think it takes a few musical relationships to realise that this stuff comes around very, very rarely. If it comes around again and you can make it work without killing each other…well…”

As Thornton notes, “Camden is about as close as you can get” to the roots of The Libertines. In the early 2000s, when the group was just starting out, Doherty and Barat shared a flat together on Camden Road; it was here they first established their reputation as Britain’s answer to the Strokes with a poetic devotion to old England and ‘Albion’, and songs including Can’t Stand Me Now and Time For Heroes.

Up the road, a series of headline shows at Alexandra Palace last year also proved the spark behind their new record. Despite officially re-forming in 2010, other projects and certain rehab attempts had proved a roadblock for new material, but last summer’s shows saw them forge a new chemistry and momentum that culminated in a recording stint with producer Jake Gosling in Thailand.

The question on every fan’s mind now, however, is whether the record lives up to its predecessors. Even if it does, can it still be relevant in an age where guitar music has slipped out of the mainstream and into an increasingly nostalgic corner?

“It is a brave thing to carry on and make new records,” admits Thornton, “but on the other hand the spark is there. If this was a cynical exercise I think there’d be a problem, but the fact that emotionally the four of them are so invested in it – I think that’s what makes this such a great record.”

Having heard Anthems For Doomed Youth, the former NME journalist is optimistic. “Speaking as someone who knows the band, but more accurately is a fan of the band, I obviously approach these things with hope but also some trepidation. I was completely blown away. It’s an album where Pete and Carl are entwined – and their song writing is entwined – in a way that it hasn’t been since perhaps the first album.”

As part of Somewhere Over The Railings, The Libertines are welcoming back familiar faces from their heyday: Sargent will be holding a photo exhibition, while ‘Libertines expert’ Thornton will be hosting a pub quiz.

“It’s going to be brilliant,” he says, “but I’m also slightly terrified because I think there’s going to be a lot of people in the room who know as much, if not more, than me.”

Whatever the future holds, there are few bands whose fans could feasibly know them better than their own biographer. Luckily for The Libertines, those tattoos weren’t temporary, but for life.