Babyshambles have a new album out today. Expectations are usually low for the band fronted by former Libertine Pete ‘Peter’ Doherty, he of Bethnal Green and Paris, Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs. But the album, Sequel to the Prequel, is attracting positive reviews including ours. J Leonard Lucas tells us about the early Doherty demos & why he thinks they represent Doherty’s best output.
Pete Doherty is one of those media darlings not so much loved by the red tops but lovingly reviled. Editors would hate to see the epithetical ‘junkie rocker’ shake off their contemptuous attentions because when he’s on (bad) form he’s a source of endless tabloid gold. The tragedy is that Doherty does, or did, possess considerable talent.
There are, of course, the numerous occasions he’s taken up residency at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Then there was the time he headbutted fellow rocker Johnny Borrell; the time he squirted blood from a syringe at an MTV camera crew; the time he skipped past the body of a dying man who’d fallen from a balcony of a flat where Doherty and co had been partying; the time a car in which he was travelling seriously injured a pedestrian; the time drugs fell out of his pocket while he was in court on another matter; the time a documentary-maker died of an overdose after following Doherty for several weeks. Oh, and the time he gave his cat a crack pipe.
But despite all this, Pete Doherty still has a loyal, even obsessive, following. His live performances are chaotic, unpredictable, sometimes intimate and always exciting. I remember seeing Babyshambles at the Brixton Academy when, halfway through a song, Doherty began brawling with the band’s guitarist. The gig was held up for fifteen minutes or so before they resumed. It was messy but, like another Brixton occasion when the gig ended somewhat abruptly after Doherty invited the crowd up on stage, it was pure rock and roll.
But apart from the raucous antics his fan base persists for a rather more prosaic reason; he’s written some bloody good songs, and not all of them are to be found on his six studio albums. During the noughties Doherty released several albums-worth of material for free on the internet. These demo recordings, known by such enigmatic titles as The Sailor Sessions, Shaking and Withdrawn and Acoustical Lullaby, were markedly different from the guitar-thrash pop of The Libertines and formed the basis of many of the songs on the first two ‘Shambles albums Down in Albion and Shotter’s Nation and some of the best tracks on 2009 solo effort Grace/Wastelands.
Most of these demos were simple, stripped back acoustic affairs, featuring just Doherty and guitar. His hard-core fans will tell you they remain some of his best recordings, carrying a raw authenticity that still evades British singer-songwriter contemporaries like Ed Sheeran.
Unfortunately, many of the ‘official’ releases never quite lived up to the delicate promise of the demos. Songs like Albion, I Love You But You’re Green, Lady Don’t Fall Backwards, Bollywood to Battersea and East of Eden all sounded immeasurably better in acoustic, demo form (particularly in comparison to the dreadful Mick Jones-produced version of East of Eden released as a B-Side to Fuck Forever.) Other songs, like The Ballad of Grimaldi and Through the Looking Glass made a similarly lacklustre impression once given the studio treatment.
Many of the tracks never even made it to the studio proper. In the hands of a more cogent and sober musician some of them might have gone on to become classics, demonstrating, as they do, a whimsical lyrical élan. Songs like Hooligans on E:
Hooligans on E, meat pies and Burberry, and a scooter if you’re lucky
You’re going home in a London ambulance
You’re going home in a cosmic ambience,
Love Reign O’er Me:
I’ll never really understand why I believe you
You’re so sly and underhand
I can’t believe you’ve listed everything I stole since we met
I stole no kisses just some books and the odd cigarette
If I hear this song on the radio I swear I’ll go out of my mind
I try not to think about you every second or so
but they sold you as a prize’.
None of these songs from the Doherty demo archive have made it onto the new album.
There’s no doubt that over time, until now, the quality of Doherty’s output has diminished. One of his managers once said of him: “The only time I can be sure he’s not doing heroin or crack is when he’s in rehab or prison or asleep,” and his well-documented drug problems are primarily responsible for his creative malaise. But he has also, for one reason or another, abandoned several fruitful writing partnerships, first with Libs band mate Carl Barât, and later with friend Peter ‘Wolfman’ Wolfe and ex-Babyshambles guitarist Patrick Walden.
There may come a time when some of the old demos are given a polish, packaged up and officially released. If that ever happens they might just help to rehabilitate Doherty as a songwriter and an artist. But for now, if you’re still baffled by the existence of Pete Doherty fans, try tracking down his old demos and wonder at the promise that never quite came to fruition.
All words by J Leonard Lucas.