First of all, it’s not going to happen. There is no way I’m going to do this thing without mentioning Pete Doherty, Babyshambles, or the Libertines. It might be lazy and predictable, but the shadow cast by Doherty and Carl Barat’s severed alliance looms impossibly over ex-Libertine Barat’s new band.
In truth, it’s a bit of a shame that Dirty Pretty Things are destined to gather so much curiosity and so many waiting-to-be-impressed, folded-arms poses, because they immediately strike one as pretty free of baggage. There’s an urgency and hunger about everything they do. From the whiplash rock n’ roll exploding from the distorted speakers to the gang-regulation leather jackets on stage, such things usually suit a fresher-faced band with half the turbulent history.
10 Mar 2006: Sheffield Leadmill Sheffield, UK
For Barat at least, the last few years have seen more than enough dirty linen aired in public. Firstly there was the chucking of his bandmate from the tour bus, followed by flogging the dying horse of the Doherty-less Libertines round the world as their wide-eyed, ramshackle career ended in a whimper of contractual obligations and tired, tragic gigs. As Doherty’s new outfit, Babyshambles, lurched from city to city in the UK, constantly teetering on the brink of collapse (for all his hijinks, the music that resulted was quite good) Barat was taking advantage of the calm after the storm. Of course, nearly two years of frustration and hope have meant that the expectations confronting Dirty Pretty Things are now pretty massive.
Taking the stage just about on time before an anxious, eager crowd, the Sheffield date on Dirty Pretty Things’ first proper tour comes with the promise of sparks. And while there might be something predictable about the clattering tunes on display tonight, Barat is far too clever to descend into indie rock by the numbers. Opener “Dead Wood” is a taut, Western sea shanty, bursting to life and frothing at the mouth. It’s a genuinely brilliant song, which comes as much or a relief as it is does a thrill.
Most of what will be played tonight is unreleased, and to these ears unheard, but the songs have enough inspired turns and skewed pop choruses to make you believe there are at least a handful of future anthems among them. From the muffled heat of the crowd, it sounds like there’s a fantastic, tightly coiled ska number that comes on like the Specials in a riot, as well as a memorable bruising thrash called “You Fucking Love It”.
Of course, it’s the few Libertines tracks the band rattle through which are greeted with predictable hysteria, but you feel that Dirty Pretty Things have a couple of their own theme songs in waiting. Notably, the band’s first single “Bang Bang You’re Dead” already inspires a familiar, fervent buzz as the crowd threatens to bounce through the floor and crowd surf onto the stage.
Ultimately, Dirty Pretty Things are starting from scratch. The fanbase which ensured that the whole tour sold out in minutes might already be there, but there’s a palpable sense that people need to be won again, and Barat in particular needs to become known as more than just junkie Pete from the Daily Star’s former mate.
But you know what? They’re going to pull it off. There might not be anything surprising or impulsive about Dirty Pretty Things, but there is no doubting that they do this indie-rock thing better than almost anyone around.
But while that’s enough in a sweaty heaving club or on a sticky dancefloor, there’s still a sense of something missing here. Every box is ticked and everything looks just right, but the thing is, no matter how much I try, there’s no way of forgetting about the Libertines. Having a band that can soundtrack a rousing night out just can’t compare to having a band that could change your life. It’s unfair that people like me insist on doing this, but for now, the misty-eyed romance, the punk and the poetry, and the inexplicable hope and charisma that meant you could fall in love with The Libertines and occasionally Babyshambles, is not quite there.
On their own terms, Dirty Pretty Things offer a thrilling rock ‘n’ roll riot, but like Doherty, their frontman can’t escape his ties to the past. They remain undeniably present, and for me (and I’m sure many others) they’re impossible to cut.