Babyshambles: Down in Albion

[3 November 2005]

By David Kootnikoff

Oh pretty boy, can’t you show me nothing more than surrender?
—Patti Smith

You know the type—their remains lie in the tower of song: Dee Dee, Kurt, Sid, Johnny Thunders. The fagged out druggie, the misunderstood fop lost in the spotlight clinging helplessly to a bottle, syringe or Telecaster for dear life while the crowd, like some incantatory Greek chorus, eggs him on to go one more round. The latest contender for this pathetic lineage is, however, still standing—enter former Libertine, now a Babyshamble, Pete Doherty. Give him a hug.

Blamed by the tabloids for causing uber-model Kate Moss’ recent fall from the catwalk, Doherty has also been busy engineering his long awaited Babyshambles release, Down in Albion, as well as writing a

“ska number” for his favorite football team, Queens Park Rangers, and getting implants to prevent heroin abuse, if you believe the tabloids.

In simpler times before the ‘Shambles, Doherty played ragamuffin sidekick to the more sober Carl Barat, his partner in the sloppy, full on English fry-up, the Libertines. In the Libs, Doherty’s mark on the songs—“The Boy Looked at Johnny”, “What Katie Did”—reveled in a love for the English music hall tradition (the British equivalent to vaudeville), while combining the rose-tinted nostalgia of The Kink’s Muswell Hillbillies with the new wave quirkiness of The Only Ones. It was a recipe for the ages and made their first album Up the Bracket, a platinum sensation in the UK.

Along with drummer Gary Powell and bassist John Hassall, the four-piece spit and spewed their way across Albion until Barat was forced not once, but twice to show Doherty the exit. This came on the heels of arrests for narcotics, imprisonment for stealing and a trip to a Buddhist monastery in Thailand to clean up. And only last month, he was arrested after a gig for possessing class A drugs. The boy is a handful.

The press, not surprisingly, has lapped it up with predictable schadenfreude. The “troubled singer” moniker hangs around Doherty’s neck like a noose and he repeatedly pops up in headlines looking like a poor sod “severing ties” with reality. Like the grand performer he is, Doherty rarely disappoints.

In a peculiar way, he has come to symbolize the helpless frustrations of an alienated British youth that finds life in a post-Iraq, Bliar/Dubya world a farce, so much so that transcendence is willed at any price. But like Iggy before, Doherty’s lust for life is an affirmation, not a denial. So contrary to public perception, he hasn’t gone off the rails, yet—he’s not only standing, he’s swinging with blows connecting. Careening antics may have threatened to overshadow the music, but his raw talent won’t allow it. It still shines through.

Down in Albion, as the band’s name suggests, is a shambolic, and at times, glorious mess. The album, like the band, is Doherty’s to win or lose. He shares Pogue-poet Shane MacGowan’s literary bent, as they say in remedial classes. The boy can pen a line. This from the closer, “Merry-go-Around (That Bowery Song)”: “You should get some sun on your face / We’ve been sitting like a lord in the bath for days / It’s getting like I don’t even know you.”

A published poet, Doherty is celebrated as much for his literary musings in the Books of Albion as for his music. Not since MacGowan was splashing through the gutters of Soho in the mid-‘80s has such a pitch-perfect ruffian catalogued London’s underbelly so well.

The album opens with “La Belle et La Bete”, the sound of a “coked-up pansy” with one eye on the clock, the other on his dealer and still another on Kate Moss, who adds vocals. Bassist Drew McConnel tries desperately to hold it all together, but to no avail—everything falls apart; first the guitars disappear, then Doherty, laughing, seems to forget the words. Finally, the bass sputters to a halt before picking up the tempo to try it all over again.

On “Fuck Forever”, a magnificent, two fingered kiss-off to authority, the band steps up to deliver a truly awe-inspiring performance. Released during the summer, it’s also the best use of “fuck” for a song since “Too Drunk to Fuck” and the greatest single I’ve heard all year: “I can’t tell between death and glory / New Labour and Tory / Purgatory and no happy families.” The swaggering menace of the rhythm section, bassist McConnel and drummer Adam Ficek, matches the snide recklessness of the lyric. Like the early Replacements, the song captures rock ‘n’ roll in all it’s spontaneous, sneering abandon: “I sever my ties / Because I’m so clever / But clever ain’t wise.” Doherty single-handedly overthrows the skewed, backward looking ethos of Oasis’ “Live Forever”, while Patrick Walden’s slicing guitar scrapes away what’s left of “Cool Britannia”: “So fuck forever, if you don’t mind.” It’s the misplaced propriety of “if you don’t mind” that makes Doherty such a charming shit, more reminiscent of the “fuck-it-all” mutilations of Johnny Thunders than the aggression of Cobain. There may be an animal trying to claw itself free, but his lackadaisical wit rages on.

“Paddy, put the pipedown!” goes the chorus on “Pipedown”, while Doherty asks “Can you play ‘No Fun?’” and Walden cops the Stooges’ riff. The music swings from verses as jagged as shards in a broken window to the propelling, straight ahead chorus.

On an album with Mick Jones as producer, Clash references are inevitable and “Killamangiro” comes closest to sounding like an outtake from London Calling. From the tight drum snaps and melodic bass to the chiming guitar arpeggios and Strummer-inspired delivery, it could have easily come from the same session as “Spanish Bombs”.

The unsung hero that emerges from the wreckage is guitarist Walden for his metallic-bright licks and half bent, frazzled stops and starts. His attack churns like a cement mixer one minute then ascends a scale with delicate precision the next.

“8 Dead Boys” starts with a clanging riff smashing through the speakers with the force of a car crash. Doherty sings all mealy-mouthed, “They give you a line and they call you a waster,” wailing “Miiiine! Miiine!” while the band chants, “You’re a Friend of Mine,” Pistols-like beneath the mix.

“Albion”, a brilliant acoustic sit down, reaches for the dizzy heights of the best MacGowan ballads such as “Rainy Night in Soho”: “Down in Albion /They’re black and blue / But we don’t talk about that.” A moving tome for dear old England, it evokes Westerberg’s “Skyway” or Morrissey’s “Come Back to Camden” from last year.

These are the makings of “best of the year” album, thanks in large part to Mick Jones—he lathers Clash-inspired “cheese-grater” touches all over “Albion”‘s sprawling mass like the keyboard riff that opens “The 32 of December” or the reggae reverb of “Stick and Stones”. The gaffer-taped vibe keeps Down in Albion as loose as a bag of marbles, while maintaining its fevered core intact.

OK, but is it as good as Up The Bracket? Naw, but it’s better than last year’s The Libertines. Unfortunately, for some of “Albion”‘s 16 tracks the band is led astray by what literally sounds like too much late-night boozing. “Pentonville”, a four-minute jabber that should have been edited down to a 10 second intro or outro, is written with and sung by General Santana. Apparently, Doherty met him in Pentonville Prison during his residency there last year. While it may fit right in with the afterhours tone of much of the album, it plays like a gaff without any tape. “Back from the Dead” is just junkie filler, and even Jones’ background vocals can’t save “Up the Morning” from slipping into a mumbled wisp that dissolves into thin air.

Enfant terrible is a label that fits Doherty at his best. Like others who have embodied the term, such as 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who rattled the Parisian literary establishment as an adolescent and quit writing at 17, Doherty continues to upset expectations.

Down in Albion offers a similar challenge. Those who are chanting for Doherty’s downfall will reject it out of hand. But those who are pulling for this self-proclaimed “waster” will recognize its power. Down in Albion isn’t the sound of defeat or surrender—it’s the sound of a “likely lad” embracing his promise.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/babyshambles-downinalbion/