HOW TONY PARSONS delighted in playing the contrarian on last Friday’s Newsnight Review. Having lived with Babyshambles’ long-awaited debut album for a week, the Mirror columnist took the opportunity to tell us about his late, great mate Johnny Thunders — whose lifestyle bore many similarities to that of Pete Doherty.
Shall we just run through the parallels once again? Well, both of them took heroin and both were in a band. Um, well… that’s it actually. Thunders died, and so might Doherty soon – certainly if the songs that make up Down in Albion are anything to go by: ‘Fuck Forever’; ‘Back from the Dead’; ‘Sticks and Stones’.
Parsons, of course, knows a thing or two about martyrdom. He portrayed the straight-talking single-parent dad of Man and Boy as one for doing what most mothers do as a matter of course. Funny, then, that he had little to say about the likely impact of Doherty’s lifestyle on his young child (or indeed, children, if recent quotes from the singer are to be believed).
In the short term it’s a source of immense inconvenience to Doherty’s myth-makers — NME, the singer’s small but fervent band of disciples, Parsons — that far from being a hero for our times, the former Libertine, like all junkies, must be a bloody nightmare to know. In the long-term, they’ll get their way. And here’s why: Down in Albion suggests that as its creator gradually shuts down, his musical instincts may by now be most of what’s left of him.
To say that he sounds like a man reconciled to his chosen fate is something of an understatement. On the recent single ‘Fuck Forever’, Doherty nails his colours to the mast of Rimbaudian excess while his band just about hold it together for the album’s most anthemic chorus. Lest we miss the allusion, the CD insert features a picture of Kate Moss dressed in a QPR top beside the lyrics of ‘What Katy Did Next’. It follows a long tradition of pop songs that can’t decide if they’re about drugs or a girl: “I may never learn (you never know)…I may crash and burn (oh no).”
On the wolverine beat-pop of ‘La Belle et la Bête’ – named, presumably, after Jean Cocteau’s telling of Beauty and the Beast — she even gets to do a couple of lines (ho ho), impassively singing: “Is she more beautiful than me?”
While Doherty’s coy come-hithers at the Grim Reaper can get a little tiresome, the musical effects of his band’s substance abuse are more complex. It’s hard to sustain a career on Class As, but for a short while the fuzzy logic of an altered state can yield surprising results.
The freewheeling narco-funk of ‘The 32 of December’ presses all the right pop buttons, while ‘Pipedown’ and ‘8 Dead Boys’ have a dissolute swagger reminiscent of those literate Aussie post-punkers the Replacements. Inevitably the anything-goes ambience of working in a band whose members are rarely all conscious at the same time can backfire. Quite what it is about hard drugs that makes groups want to try their hand at reggae is anyone’s guess. Whatever the reasons, the wan ‘Sticks and Stones’ and ‘Pentonville’ are best edited out of existence. Navigate your way further, though, through the fug of half-formed ideas and self-mythologising blather and what ultimately emerges is a sad, simple little album.
Announcing itself like a broken, millennial postscript to the Jam’s That’s Entertainment, Albion is a world away from the exuberant idealism that once propelled the Libertines to wider acclaim. ‘Merry Go Round’ is no less unsettling.
Syd Barrett, the former Pink Floyd singer, may have engineered his demise by different means but the fragility of Doherty’s playing on this final song, combined with the not-quite-thereness of his delivery, certainly invites the comparison.
The ambulance-chasing contingent of his fanbase will no doubt be thrilled at this latest messy instalment in Doherty’s legacy. For those of us who were baffled by the adulation heaped upon the Libertines’ tinny indie racket, Down in Albion is also better than we could have reasonably expected.
Should he want to go ahead and see out his death wish, at least there’s some decent music to go alongside the other memorabilia.
© Pete Paphides, The Times, 11 November 2005