[12 November 2003]
The British music press, or more exactly the long-established New Musical Express, has been working itself into a lather in recent weeks over the imprisonment of one Pete Doherty, a young musician who probably means very little to most UK readers, never mind those cast across the rest of the globe. But for those of you who have encountered the Libertines, a much-touted, next-big-thing, indie rock outfit that combines an ample helping of spite and attitude with an equal measure of spiky, sparky rock tunes, then Doherty may at least be familiar to you, as the co-leader, singer and guitarist of this acerbic four-piece. NME‘s close trailing of Doherty’s plight even included an appeal to the halls of justice which echoed the famous Times editorial of 1967 when two Rolling Stones members, Mick Jagger and Keith Richard, faced incarceration on drugs charges, only to see the editor of the voice of the establishment make a powerful appeal on their behalf and help persuade the judge to take a more lenient view.
Now, rock’n'roll and law breaking are hardly unfamiliar bedfellows, at least in the legend that surrounds this rebellious music. It doesn’t take long to recall widely-reported run-ins between the forces of authority and famous musicians: McCartney and Jim Morrison, Sid Vicious and Snoop Dogg, Peter Buck and Liam Gallagher come to mind for a range of infringements over the decades. Phil Spector and Courtney Love are among recent major names facing widely reported legal wrangles. Yet, mostly, these misdemeanours are of the kind that involve some speedy legal manoeuvring from which the star, having grabbed the tabloid headlines, scuttles back to his pad, smarting a little from the experience, but also basking in the afterglow of Infamy. For nothing adds a more notable notch to your studded belt, nothing sharpens the spurs on your blue-suede shoes better, than a bit of disorderly disrespect for the social code.
But it’s not always that way, it must be said. David Crosby, James Brown and former Stone Roses front man Ian Brown have all ended up behind bars for more than a mere overnight stay. So a high profile isn’t always sufficient to keep you out of the jaws of the prison cell. But Doherty’s case is rather different. Why did he end up behind bars in Wandsworth prison with a six-month rap? He was jailed because he raided the home of his erstwhile buddy, fellow band member Carl Barât, while Barât was on tour with the remaining Libertines in Japan. Doherty walked out with a collection of personal items, some of which were sold on and others lost in a murky smog of amnesia surrounding the offence.
Doherty, seriously strung out on something stronger than cough syrup, had experienced a tortured period in which he had been sacked from the band for his erratic behaviour. He pursued a chaotic route as an impromptu solo performer and then descended to burglary in a last-gasp cry for help, which saw him, surely, not only burn his Libertines ticket for good but lose his liberty, too.
But the prospect of half a year in the nick, while daunting, was always likely to fade sooner rather than later. On appeal, Doherty received a lesser, non-custodial sentence and, much to the delight of the NME, which had followed the story with a creditable sympathy rather than down-market voyeurism, the short-term jailbird met his ex-mate Barât outside Wormwood Scrubs in London on his release just a couple of weeks into his term. The pair appeared to be reconciled and the group seem determined to re-establish what a lengthy feud had ripped apart.
Yet, to return to the theme, the Libertines’ brand of roisterous indulgence they are notorious party people has long been linked to that kind of graceless, sometimes gross, misbehaviour that keeps rock’s cauldron bubbling up and holds the attention of the music magazines and, on occasions, even the daily papers and celebrity glossies. While Doherty’s dalliance with imprisonment is a touch too esoteric for most mainstream publications, a story that has allowed the tabloids and the starzines to run riot is the one concerning Cheryl Tweedy, a singer with the group Girls Aloud. Girls Aloud emerged from last autumn’s British reality TV trawl Popstars The Rivals in which ten unknown performers were recruited as two competing quintets, a girl and a boy band.
Girls Aloud won the battle they clinched number one spot with their debut track and One True Voice, the boys, disappeared virtually overnight. Yet their female adversaries have become one of the most talked about acts of the last year. They have wriggled free of their media manufactured image and actually earned the respect of many critics for their opening three singles, winning comparison with not only girl power predecessors but even, yes even, the Sex Pistols.
But their Pistols’ personae had been somewhat exaggerated until mid-October that is, as a trial hit the headlines. The aforementioned Tweedy, not long after the group emerged, became involved in an ugly rumpus with a toilet attendant in a nightclub. Fists flew and the singer’s sparring partner ended up with significant facial bruising. The fact that the black complainant had alleged a racist dimension to the clash soured the matter still further. Tweedy, who had claimed self-defence, was found guilty of assault, ordered to do 500 hours community service, and pay the injured woman £500 compensation. But the alleged racial slur was unproven and Girls Aloud’s management said that in the light of this she would not face expulsion from the group. Yet it seems that the incident, while unsavoury for the accused and manna from heaven for the press, will do more to underpin the girl group’s status than undermine.
Britain’s most famous celebrity publicist, Max Clifford, who has played a role in many a tawdry tale over the years, believes that the Tweedy set-to may have been a fillip rather than a foul up. “I think people saw them as squeaky clean before,” Clifford told the daily Metro, “but now they might think ‘they’ve got balls, they’ve got spirit’”. Where the balls may be found in an all female fivesome, we’ll leave to one side, but it still seems that even the spawn of TV reality can also be boosted by the taint of insolence. As for the Libertines, maybe their name says it all. Rock bands are never slow to cash in their notoriety vouchers and Doherty’s stay at Her Majesty’s pleasure looks likely to not only re-invigorate his personal musical career, but also add to the kudos of his band.
So, it’s a kind of happy ending for a girl group and for a rock band, but can the same be said for the wider social scene? Burglary and assault are serious charges and, while they ought not to be a cause for eternal damnation, nor should they be regarded as badges of honour. Yet entertainment’s sometimes-skewed value system can ride such shocks if there’s a chance that recklessness can lead to a rise in revenue.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/warner031111/