For me, a Libertines gig will always be full of nostalgia. Like many other people, I spent much of 2003 and 2004 scrambling frantically to every gig of theirs I could: the early days in Whitechapel, their stints at the Forum, day trips further afield. Hyde Park this summer should have been their triumphant return, if not for the incompetence with which it was organized. Having recently upped sticks and relocated to the Lowlands, I couldn’t wait for another opportunity to recapture the good old days.
Stepping through the big doors into the darkened venue, it’s immediately obvious that at least 70% of the crowd has made the journey over from Blighty, as I’m surrounded by English accents and Fred Perry. Before long, Dame Vera Lynn is crackling over the speakers, and a screen high above the stage flickers with shot after shot of Brick Lane graffiti – brick after brick containing paeans to Albion, love notes to Bilo and Biggles. The lights go down and there they are, tearing into early track ‘The Delaney’ and following it up with ‘Campaign of Hate’ – a nice little indicator of how this career-spanning set is going to play out. They skip merrily between first and second album, with a few more early fan-pleasers, and even a little acoustic outing for Carl on his own (although one of my companions insists that his solo track ‘The Ballad of Grimaldi’ makes it sound ‘like we’re in a Mexican restaurant’). There are emotional sing-alongs to ‘Music When The Lights Go Out’ and ‘What Katie Did’, during which Carl sets down his guitar and wanders the stage mic in hand, looking almost Byronic. But the biggest cheers and most frantic enjoyment are reserved for those epoch-defining first album classics – ‘Horrorshow’, ‘Boys In The Band’, the barrow-boy chants of ‘The Boy Looked At Johnny’. The English contingent belt out every word, and Pete is quick to acknowledge them, asking for a show of hands from all the Brits. There are certainly some unexpected moments – God knows I never expected to hear the Libertines covering Ocean Colour Scene, let alone an obscure B-side like ‘Robin Hood’, and yet here it is, unaccompanied by the hysterical shouts of one or two shocked fans, before closing on the twin delights of ‘What a Waster’ and ‘I Get Along’ – two more for the old faithful.
There’s something different about them outside the UK, relieved from the ties that bind. They may not be as huge here, but they’re also free from the scrutiny and schadenfreude, from the tabloid paparazzi looking for their latest ‘junkie scum’ headline. Pete indulges in plenty of between song banter, even if some of it is perhaps a little ill-judged; that said he seems to make up for his comedy Dutch accents and addressing the crowd in Germany, by announcing that they are ‘much better than the Belgians’. This version of the Libertines seems more relaxed, less tightly wound, and the music is all the better for it. As the four of them hug at the end of the set, and the screen flickers with static, I can’t help but feel nostalgic, not just for those golden years of Up The Bracket and Bilo and Biggles, but for good old London herself. Both now and then, the Libertines have her spirit running in their veins – they’ll always be a taste of home.