By Eleni P. Austin

20 years after the Libertines self-titled sophomore album debuted at #1 on the British charts, they’ve repeated that same feat with their fourth long-player, All Quiet On The Eastern Esplanade. Quite frankly, it’s amazing that they’ve managed to reach this milestone. Even more so, since no one expected lead vocalist and erstwhile enfant terrible, Pete Doherty to survive his 20’s.

Back in 1997, Pete and Carl Barat became acquainted when the latter shared a flat with the former’s sister, Amy-Jo. Both were studying at separate universities in London, and they immediately bonded over shared influences like The Clash, Sex Pistols, The Jam, The Doors, the Velvet Underground and legendary Gypsy Jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.

Rather quickly, they formed The Libertines, nicking the moniker from the Marquis de Sade’s Lust Of The Libertines. While Pete and Carl split vocal, guitar and songwriting duties between them, they enlisted John Hassell and Gary Powell to play bass and drums, respectively.


The four-piece gigged relentlessly, sometimes in their flat, sometimes at Filthy McNasty’s, the Whiskey Café where Pete tended bar. They began stockpiling a cache of original songs and their incendiary live shows netted them a manager and a publishing deal. Their sound was an infectious mix of Punk and Garage Rock. Coincidently, U.S., bands like The White Stripes and The Strokes were mining that same stripped-down aggro style, earning critical plaudits and a modicum of commercial success. Record labels in the U.K. began paying attention and soon enough, The Libertines inked a deal with Rough Trade.

2002 saw the release of their stunning debut, Up The Bracket. The album was produced by Clash guitarist (and Punk elder statesman) Mick Jones. A heady elixir of Punk Rock rebellion, literate lyrics and infectious, hook-laden melodies, it garnered rave reviews and steadily climbed the charts in Great Britain. The band opened for everyone from the Sex Pistols to Morrissey, and gained a toe-hold in the U.S.

Sadly, Pete began experimenting with drugs. He became hooked on heroin and crack cocaine following The Libertines first major tour. Carl, John and Gary clashed with Pete during recording sessions in New York. They ended up junking the recordings, but they wound up being released on the internet for free. When they returned to the U.K., Pete continued his downward spiral, missing gigs and recording sessions. First, he was caught burglarizing Carl’s flat (!), later, he was arrested with a switchblade. Sentenced to a six-month stint in prison, he was released after just two months.

Carl was waiting at the prison gates when Pete got out. The band played a triumphant show that night. But Pete’s behavior became more erratic as his habits increased. He missed so many gigs that the band replaced him on tour.

When the foursome finally returned to the studio, Mick Jones was back to handle production chores. But relations were so strained that security was hired to keep Carl and Pete from brawling. Somehow, Mick snatched brilliance from the jaws of chaos. The Libertines was released in late 2004. Even better than their debut, it hit #1 on the U.K. charts. Pete checked into the same recovery facility twice, but failed to complete treatment. After he promised to enter a rehab center in Thailand, the band performed a short set that night. It would be several years before they shared a stage again.

During their time apart, Carl formed a new band, Dirty Pretty Things, releasing two albums, as well as a solo effort. Despite his addictions and skirmishes with the law, Pete returned with his new group, Babyshambles. They managed to make three records, even as Pete made headlines, carrying on a tempestuous love affair with super model Kate Moss. The Libertines reunited briefly in 2010, playing sets at The Reading and Leeds Festivals. Unfortunately, Pete was still in the grip of addiction.

Fast-forward four years later and they played a series of successful gigs around England, and by early 2015, Pete had actually completed rehab in Thailand. Carl, John and Gary joined him in a studio close to his treatment center and they recorded their brilliant comeback effort, Anthems For A Doomed Youth. Rampaging, spiky, erudite, contrite, the remarkably protean record was hailed by critics and fans alike, reaching #3 on the U.K. charts.

In the ensuing years, Pete started his third musical project, Pete Dougherty & The Puta Madres, they toured extensively and released their self-titled debut in 2019. He also collaborated with French singer/songwriter Frederic Lo on the 2022 album The Fantasy Life Of Poetry & Crime. Carl, along with his band The Jackals also released an album. John Hassall stayed busy with his band April Rainers. Gary Powell remained in demand, playing drums for SKA legends The Specials and and running his own record label, 25 Hour Convenience Store. Now, The Libertines have reconvened with their new effort, All Quiet On The Esplanade.

The opening three tracks hurtle out of the speakers with a thrilling velocity. On “Run, Run, Run” downstroke riff-age and angular bass lines are bookended by staccato handclaps and a walloping beat. Carl spits out a fusillade of lyrics that suggest life is best lived when the candle is burned at both ends: “It’s a lifelong project of a life on the lash, I’ve forgotten how to care, but I’ll remember for cash, it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to, light the fuse, sing the Blues I can die if I want to, tonight we’re going to bring tomorrow’s happiness.” The impossibly hooky chorus is anchored by a skittery guitar solo before the song stops on a dime.

As though someone has flipped the radio dial, sleek guitars, chirpy backing vocals and a hi-hat kick drift of out of the speakers as the final notes of “Run…” recede. “Mustangs” drafts off The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” blueprint, trenchant lyrics offer vivid sketches of all of the lonely people, living lives of quiet desperation: “Traci don’t mind a bit of chorin’ she likes a one-litre liquor prize, ah, Traci likes a drinkie when the kids are at school, in her Juicy Couture track-suit, she stares at the wall….Sister Mary shivers at the touch of the Lord, and the pastor behind her tells her not to wear short-shorts, She’s alone with her thoughts in the Garden of Eden, oblivious to dogs and the advances of heathens.” Each escapes grim reality at night: “You can see her every night riding Mustangs at night.” A raffish guitar solo unspools on the break, tethered to a chugging rhythm. Woozy organ and a tambourine shake usher the song to a close.

A slightly accelerated “Be My Baby” drum break announces “I Have A Friend.” Pete takes the lead here, rushing ahead of slashing guitars, tensile bass and a basher beat. Sentient lyrics note we are all in the grip of 21st century malaise: “It’s more like sadness composed by a fragmented soul, all the words in a whirl, I just don’t know where it goes, you holding the line, or scuttling away, is life a blockbuster film, or a half-rehearsed play, and the pig’s on the spit and the wolf’s at the door, do the bad need the good, like the rich need the poor?” A scattershot guitar solo is unleashed on the break, mirroring society’s collective angst. Meanwhile, the final verse offers no respite: “So hard to theorize, when you’re being brutalized, and the tears fall like bombs without warning, follow the tracks in the mud down to where the sea is black with blood, and the tears fall like bombs without warning.”

The action slows on a few tracks, the Jazzy, piano-driven “Shiver” touches on Pete’s lifelong obsession with Albion (the Greek Greek term ancient England). Lyrics manage to slyly address the death of Queen Elizabeth and her complicated legacy: “It’s all too much today, Liz has gone away, well, the giant courtesan with the tiny hands that makes me shiver, shiver for the Albionay/They all queued up to see the old girl’s gone away, as the tattered standard hits the ground, another coronation day.” Despite the skepticism, there’s a hint of melancholy as he admits “I shiver on the Esplanade.” “Barron’s Claw” weds strummy Spanish guitars and tippling piano notes to a loping rhythm. Pete’s whispery vocals add a bit of Tom Waits heft as he darts in and out of the meandering melody. Lyrics offer a bit of fabulist Jabberwocky: “Next time I saw the Baron’s claw, it’s ripping through the grocer’s door, he saved a family from the fire’s roar, the Baron’s claw. On the break, the band locks into a relax-fit, Dixieland groove, with a blowsy trumpet leading the way.

There’s a cinematic edge to “Night Of The Hunter.” The opening chord cluster echoes Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, as theremin partners with jangly guitar, rattling percussion and a chunky backbeat. The opening verse pays sideways homage to the 1955 film, Night Of The Hunter. The Southern Gothic thriller starred Robert Mitchum,Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish: “’LOVE’ and ‘HATE’ tattooed on the knuckles around the handles of a blade, on the knuckles around the handles of a blade, your bloody blade.” But as the arrangement expands, layering lush strings, lowing whistle and shivery keys, the lyrics reveal a more insidious malevolence: “ACAB tattooed on your knuckles, does the world know what that means? Now they’re slipping on the bracelets are you so young and hard and mean, so cold and mean…”

On a record stacked with superlative tracks, three stand out from the pack. “Oh Shit” returns them to their Punky roots, a furious “1-2-3-4” count off folds into thrashy guitars, boinging bass lines and a piledriver beat. A trio of young fuck-ups live on the edge, longing for love and chemicals: “Every moth to a candle finds a flame too hot to handle, and Jamie broke down at Imo’s every scandal, Imo went west and Jamie sang the Blues, it was Niki’s raw heart that lit her fuse. The guitars ratchet up the tension through every misadventure, verging on cyclonic by the instrumental break. The irresistible chorus keeps the party going: “And we go ‘oh shit, oh shit,’ we need some money, just enough to get us by, and everybody goes ‘whoa’ we got the dollars in our eyes, we go ‘oh shit, oh shit,’ we need some money just enough to get us by, Oh, I want you when you smile, I want the dollars in your eyes.”

“Merry Old England” opens with noodling electric piano and a tick-tock beat. The mordant melody shares some musical DNA The Jam’s “The Butterfly Collector.” It also recalls late ‘60s era Kinks. As swoony strings connect with pounding piano and spidery bass, lyrics address the diaspora of refugees from war-torn countries that has fueled the Brexit strategy: “Oh yeah, now they’re Russian through Albania, they’ve got to get to Merry Old England, and Syrians, Iraqis and Ukrainians, how you finding Merry Old England?” The track powers down to a coda of swirly strings and a propulsive Latin rhythm.

Finally, the frenetic athleticism of “Be Young” is something of a rant & rave, echoing their forever musical lodestar, The Clash. A bit of twangy guitar and kick-drum beat are quickly supplanted by windmilling guitars, boomerang bass lines and a breakneck beat. Lyrics offer a crisp carpe diem, noting “We were born astride the grave” so we better make the best of it: “stand up or shut up, rise up or give up, get up, stand up, are you coming out tonight?” Guitars ricochet through the mix with a ferocity that’s matched by the verbal alacrity of “This lyrical tautology, freedom and democracy, enslavement and autocracy, the planet still will rot, you see, music and mythology, fire gods and astrology, autoeroticology are you coming out tonight?” Rather deftly, the song shapeshifts, locking into a skanking Reggae riddim that reminds us “You’re one degree away from total fucking annihilation,” before revving up through the homestretch.

The record closes with the resigned lullaby of “Songs They Never Play On The Radio.” A tender requiem, it’s anchored by chiming acoustic guitars, sinewy bass and a shuffling beat. Pete’s quiescent croon cradles lyrics that mourn the record biz of yesteryear: “Songs they never play on the radio, as cobwebs fall on the old shipping wrecker, the needle skips a groove, I hate to say how I told so, but I told you so….the A&R man’s head rests on his desk, you know since 45’s were digitized, his heart’s bereft and his left ear’s deaf, the songs that they never play on your radio, you can stream them now for for free and save your soul.” Squally electric riffs dart around the bridge, accompanying the last gasp of nostalgia: “What was that song they played, what was that pact we made, what was that song we played the day I went away?” Prickly electric guitar wash over ebbing strings, as the song winds down, underscoring that yes, the times, they are a’changin.’ It’s a sweet finish to another brilliant record.

More than 25 years ago, Pete and Carl came together united with a love for Punk, Poetry and chaos. Through it all, they fought, stagnated and imploded more than once. Yet they summon the strength to keep roaring back. Their melodies, raw and richly evocative, their lyrics, nuanced narratives equal parts pithy and poignant. All Quiet Along The Esplanade is a triumphant return.