– everyone’s favourite rock’n’roll ragamuffins – are making the best music of their career. It has been a convoluted and often outright terrifying path from 2002’s chaotic era-defining debut, Up The Bracket, to this point. Yet, with All Quiet On The Eastern Esplanade, their fourth outing together, the quartet have gathered from their new-found homes variously in France, Denmark, Margate and London, to solder a strongest-ever internal bond, and scale new creative heights.
All Quiet… displays a dazzling songwriting breadth and sophistication which has always lurked within their punky aural anarchy, but is now proudly and unashamedly accomplished. And all without losing touch with those feral energies which see them perennially cited as the most exciting band in the land.
The new LP’s story started as far back as 2017, when singing guitarists/songwriters Carl Barât and Peter Doherty, together with bassist John Hassall and drummer Gary Powell entered the real estate business, buying the dilapidated Palm Court Hotel on Margate’s Eastern Esplanade with a view to converting it into their own residential studio HQ, and making their next record there.
“We wanted to find somewhere we could chance our arm and bed in,” explains Carl. “With the same amount of money in London, we would’ve got a one-bed flat in Clapton, whereas in Margate we could have a five-storey gothic-looking hotel to play around with.”
Once the rebuild was mostly complete, the four members spent a bonding couple of weeks on site, to feel their way into the idea of working there, but when The Albion Rooms officially opened in September ’20, it was unveiled as a “creative sanctuary” accessible to the general public, to bands and artists of a like mind.
In September ’22 Doherty and Barât decamped to Geejam in Port Antonio, Jamaica, a tropical hideout once favoured by Peter and Carl’s late friend Amy Winehouse. Away from any distraction The Libertines notorious songwriting partnership got going in earnest, “putting demos down and getting in that space again”.
Fast forward to February ’23 and Peter and Carl regrouped with John and Gary at The Albion Rooms, and, says Doherty, “we really came together as a band. It was a moment of rare peace and unity, with all the members contributing.”
With their storied history of internal bust-ups, as documented on ’04’s fraught The Libertines album, and overwhelming popularity (see the scary, 65,000-strong crush at summer ’14’s headlining show in Hyde Park), this has always been a band with a reputation to live up to, and Barât freely admits that expectation can weigh heavily going into album sessions.
“I’m sure Peter will say there wasn’t, but I think there was some worry about where this record was going to sit in our pantheon,” says Carl. “When you’ve been together this long, there is the old, the new and the current to think about, and how it’s all going to be reflected. But this is the beauty of having 25 years of chemistry: that thing kicks in where the band is greater than the sum of its parts, and it kind of takes over. So Lady Libertine woke up and did a lot of our work for us, and answered all those worries.
“Because we don’t live together and roll together like we used to,” he goes on, referring to their original house-share Albion Rooms in London’s Bethnal Green. “Nowadays we all pre-write stuff separately. So, when we come together, we listen back to it all for a couple of days and pick things out that we could then work on together. We kind of bulldoze the chaff and write on the best stuff together, and then we also reliably come up with other songs on the spot, once we’ve got into the moment of writing.”
Where, as likely lads in the early ’00s, they enlisted The Clash’s Mick Jones to capture their youthful ferocity in the studio, this time they drafted in French-born West London producer Dimitri Tikovoï to helm proceedings in Margate. With a CV ranging from Placebo and The Horrors, through to Charlie XCX and Becky Hill, he’d also co-written with Carl on Black Honey’s A Fistful Of Peaches.
According to John Hassall, “Dimi had read somewhere that Phil Spector used to work his musicians so hard for hours on end that they would get to such a point of exhaustion, they wouldn’t really think about what they were doing. So, we were in the studio from 12 till 12 literally every day for three weeks, and the method worked. We just got in that really creative bubble, where everyone was doing different stuff, really working to their strengths, and not holding back – definitely the most enjoyable album process that we’ve ever had.”
For the first time, Hassall contributed as a songwriter: Man With The Melody was a sublimely stately tune he’d presented to the band in its early days, but which Doherty and Barât had declined to use, jokes Pete, “because it’s one of the best melodies ever, and we didn’t want John being known as the good songwriter, so it just got buried”. In the emerging spirit of collaboration, the verses were “tinkered around with”, and ultimately sung, in order of appearance, by John, Carl, and Pete, with Gary chiming in for the final chorus.
As ever, Pete and Carl’s co-writing unfolded naturally. As Doherty clarifies with a helpful shrug, “Songs like Shiver were very 50–50, to the point where I would find it difficult to work out who did what because we were both there the whole time through its creation.”
In terms of musical style and mood, Run, Run Run and Oh Shit reignite the punk-pop fury of early Libertines, while Doherty’s vocal on Baron’s Claw in particular brings a chilling, haunted vibe.
Lyrically, says Carl, the band have leant more directly into contemporary issues – war in Europe, environmental catastrophe and the immigrant experience in Brexit Britain – with “songs that are more topical than we have had before. In the past, our songs have been purely places to escape to, and I guess we’ve steered clear of being topical because the issues can get lost in time, and maybe that’s not what you listen to music for, but we couldn’t ignore what’s going on.”
Carl, who’s moved with his family to Margate, notes that it’s “the original UKIP seat”, which may have increased their urgency to react in song, while Doherty explains that “many immigrant families fresh off the dinghies are being put in housing in the streets around The Albion Rooms, while a lot of Margate has become quite gentrified. It’s become a real melting pot.”
Other songs, reckons Carl, are “more in that familiar Lou Reed style of writing, telling stories about people with names, but you have no idea who they are”. These include Oh Shit’s irredeemable hedonists, the eerily disturbed ex-army general in Baron’s Claw, and, from Mustang, “the day-drinking mum in the JUICY tracksuit”. Night Of The Hunter, meanwhile, a cautionary tale of a misguided geezer who gets caught up in a stabbing beef and winds up waving goodbye to his missus as he trundles off to chokey, is simply devastating.
Some songs are given magnificent wall of sound orchestral arrangements, hitherto rarely heard in the Libs canon. “We’ve held off with the orchestras, but we can’t make it all brutal spiky guitars all the time anymore,” says Carl. “They all still sound good on a bashed-up guitar, but some of these, with their searching sentiments needed the luxurious treatment. We have to honour the past, but also recognise who we are now and where we’re going.”
After three intensive weeks on Spector hours at The Albion Rooms, it was agreed that everyone needed a breather, and a change of scene. By this stage, Pete’s wife, Katia, heavily pregnant with their first child, was approaching her due date, so in late March ’23 the sessions resumed for a concluding week at La Ferme de Gestein deep in the countryside in rural Normandy.
“When we got out there,” Doherty recalls, “Carl said to me that he never felt that the third Libertines album [2015’s Thailand-birthed Anthems For Doomed Youth] was a proper album, which shocked me because he’d never said anything like that before. It was almost like a deathbed confession! I was like, is he dying or something? I think what he was saying was, he didn’t worry anymore about trying to sound cool, he just wanted to write beautiful songs. I said, ‘That’s what it was always all about, Carl!’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah!’”
The album they duly completed and sent off to Dan Grech-Maguerat (Liam Gallagher, Paul McCartney) for mixing and co-production – entitled All Quiet On The Eastern Esplanade as a dual nod to their hotel’s street address and their enduring love of the early Twentieth Century War Poets – is an unequivocal triumph.
The final song Songs They Never Play On The Radio has been a labour of love for Doherty across many years, early versions dating as far back as ’06, but nailed at last alongside these illustrious compadres. “I was fussy about it,” he reveals, “because it means so much to me. It had to be brilliant. It was bouncing around, in and out of life, and we finally finished the verses for it. It may actually be the best recorded version of a Libertines song ever. Whenever I listen to it, by the time it gets to the end I’m in that much of a mess, I’m blubbing my heart out.”
This compositional conquest is surely a signifier that The Libertines are just getting better and better over time, at their own patient speed adding enduring classics to their illustrious songbook.
“It was a game of two halves,” proclaims Peter, referring to the twin-centred sessions, “but at the end of the day, we’re over the moon, and the ball is in the back of the net… and I’m chuffed for the lads!” He adds, more seriously, “I don’t know, I feel like we’ve completed a cycle of some kind as a band, and finally now we can add these songs to the set list, because we’ve got some bangers in there. Now we’ve opened the hotel and used the studio ourselves and it’s all worked out – more Libertines records? I should hope so!”
For Carl, the whole Libertines journey has been leading to this moment. “We all still love Anthems For Doomed Youth‚” he reasons, “but it came at a fraught time, whereas this one came in a time where we were lucky enough to get a moment of relative calm between us – certainly compared to how it normally is. Because of that, it’s a different record. The first record was born out of panic, and disbelief that we were actually allowed to be in a studio; the second was born of total strife and misery; the third was born of complexity; this one feels like we were all actually in the same place, at the same speed, and we really connected.”
Gary Powell, the more seasoned sticksman who views all the chaos from the best seat in the house – the drum stool – characteristically offers some clear perspective with which to conclude. “It went great, purely on the basis of our rekindled relationship,” he says. “The relationship was good beforehand, but now it has been kind of galvanised to a point where anybody can say anything to each other, and even John is coming up with song ideas, whereas our job was always basically just to back up Peter and Carl, and fill in the gaps.
“Having The Albion Rooms has stirred the loins of creativity between us and reinvigorated that old bond that we used to have together. It’s an album where we almost don’t care whether people like it or not, because this is what we actually love, and we want to do it again.” He grins. “Let’s get back to Marbados!”
Greater London, 8 September 2023