[19 December 2006]
To most observers, Babyshambles are more of a reckless circus than a band. Led by the wayward ex-Libertine Pete Doherty, they seem to exist in a constant tabloid storm, stumbling from the courtroom to the next chaotic gig—if they even turn up to the gig at all, that is. To write a bit about the band and their singer would involve recycling thrilling, ridiculous and sordid stories detailing drug busts, arrests, riots, supermodels, oh, and more drugs. Tellingly, there would be little mention of the music, which so far remains something of an afterthought, a footnote to the band’s career—though quite what sort of a career Babyshambles actually have right now is questionable.
At the time of writing this, they were reportedly without a record deal, and whether it’s all Doherty’s fault or not, the wave of post-Libertines enthusiasm and curiosity that ensured Babyshambles sold out their gigs and hogged columns in the music press and tabloids alike seems to have faded out to boredom and sheer bloody exasperation. Even the NME, who last year named Doherty their “cool icon”, has just ran a vitriolic piece calling their erstwhile hero a “worn out drug addict”. And though the truth is a bit more blurred than that, there’s no doubt that, recently, Doherty’s dance towards rock and roll oblivion has been played out with an increasingly tragic, tiresome air to it. Pete has talked about upping the stakes and making this year about the music rather than all that other stupid stuff, and really, if we are to keep believing in the music at all, then the stakes are going to have to be upped a fucking hell of a lot. And whilst a digital release of Babyshambles’ b-sides isn’t going change anyone’s opinions of Peter Doherty, for those who still don’t think the bloke is an over-hyped waste of space, there might be a fair bit to get excited about here.
After a series of delays and false starts, last year the Mick Jones-produced Babyshambles album eventually arrived. It was about a year too late and clouded in hype and madness and crack fumes, and was received with confusion and, mostly, derision. It was ragged, all-over-the-place, and grubbier than Doherty’s fingernails, but coming back to Down in Albion months later, it still sounds strangely fantastic to me. Full of rough-hewn pop gems and wired, stumbling thrashes, it wasn’t quite the dangerous, poetic masterpiece it could have been, but neither was it the disaster some would have you believe. As the songs lurched from chaos and disarray to genuine beauty, Down in Albion sounded like a record of rare character. These were romantic, flawed tunes that bristled with battered, restless talent.
Quite who is going to want to hear a Babyshambles b-sides album right now, I’m not too sure, but though the tracks that make up this ragged collection are about as slick and polished as Peter Crouch’s dance moves, there’s a constant stream of melody and bruised romance that runs through them. “The Man Who Came to Stay”, in particular, is surely one of Doherty’s finest songs. Almost a new-wave punk song driven along by Patrick Walden’s frenetic guitar, it was inexplicably wasted on the b-side to “Kilamangiro”. Doherty croaks, “If the whole world tells you you are the one / I defy you not to believe them my son”, and he sounds bitter, wounded, and undeniably vital.
If “The Man Who Came to Stay” is the high point of this collection, it’s closely followed by “East of Eden”, a dusty barroom strum, which careers off the tracks and heads for a very dark place indeed. It finds Doherty confessing to being, “lost, cold, lonesome as a sparrow in the rain”, as the band hold it together just long enough to steer the song to the end. Unfortunately, they’re a million miles away from being able to hold “Piracy/Why Did You Break My Heart” together. Whatever the reality, Doherty here sounds too far gone to make any sense of the song as it falls apart in a mess of “shoop shoop” vocals, random shrieks, and lazy squeals of treble heavy guitar. Elsewhere, regulars in the Babyshambles live set, “Do You Know Me” and signature tune “Babyshambles”, are both noisy and effortlessly thrilling. True, they both mimic closely the sound of a drum kit being chucked down a flight of stairs, but Doherty still does this shambling melody thing just about better than anyone.
Most of the b-sides here, as well a handful of songs that are yet to surface on official releases (“Gang of Gin” and “I Love You (But You’re Green)”), could have easily found a place on Down in Albion. Indeed, the album would have benefited no end from gaining the fantastic “The Man Who Came to Stay” in the place of deadwood like “Pentonville”. The b-sides are darker and harsher than the cuts on the album, and for all their roughness, they still shine with unexpected flashes of melody, pathos, and eloquence. The frenzied crack-den blues of “Monkey Casino” features the lyrics, “And believe me / You know you wouldn’t wanna be me / Nor would you want the shame or the strain of my name / But if I can live my life all over again / There ain’t one single thing I’d change”, and, just for a minute, you’re willing to forget about all the shit and believe that maybe, just maybe, Doherty could be the special talent you want him to be after all.