Has music lost brilliantly flawed friendships like that of The Libertines' Pete Doherty and Carl Barât? Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Are Pete Doherty and Carl Barât the last of British music’s tempestuous best friendships?

As once estranged Libertines frontmen passionately reunite, they highlight the dearth of stormy musical partnerships in today’s music.

We're a unit now.  And Carl's my brother. There was a time when I'd have died for him, and that turned into a time when I wanted to kill him. But now I'm ready to die for him again.

These are the words of Libertines frontman and the early Noughties’ favourite baby-faced mess Pete Doherty about his bandmate Carl Barât. Speaking to the NME following a reunion gig at Hyde Park on Saturday, Doherty claimed that the tempestuous pair have rediscovered their best friendship.

And what a best friendship it is. Watching the two of them perform their first show since their 2010 Reading and Leeds reunion gigs to a crowd of 60,000 as the sun went down on Hyde Park, the frenzied audience was treated to a plain display of them rediscovering their love.

Merrily jangling out chords and coruscating riffs, glancing over at one another and grinning. Desperately sharing the mic, singing into one another’s mouths. Draping their arms around each other, and at one point tumbling to the floor in a clammy embrace. Like two affectionate drunks at closing time, but wearing guitars and luxurious overcoats, they were clearly reigniting the flame of a once fruitful and captivating musical alliance. They’ve since even hinted at releasing a third album next year (their last album came out ten years ago).

During a friendship splintered by drugs, absenteeism, estrangement and even prison – when Doherty burgled Barât’s flat in a fit of jealous rage – The Libertines faded away into separate bands headed by each of the wounded frontmen.

But while Doherty and Barât rekindling the flame, or at least relighting the roll-up, is a joy for Libertines fans – mainly boys in self-conscious trilbies, and twenty-something women nostalgic for teenage years spent smitten by Doherty’s boyish vulnerability – it also highlights the sad fact that British music is perilously low on tumultuous partnerships.

The inspired moments from bands like Oasis, The Smiths, The Clash and The Beatles – not to mention non-British outfits like Simon and Garfunkel – come from brilliant yet fractured partnerships between two lead songwriters whose love for one another gradually transforms into rage. A bit of hatred and heartache between band members is usually a sign of excellent music – songs forged by an unhealthy level of passion, commitment and feeling. And some creatively angry chord sequences.

Will Doherty and Barât be the last of this strain of tempestuous musical partnership? It’s hard to imagine any of our latest crop of pop groups putting that much love and pain into their efforts. And even if they did, it wouldn’t be the same. It would just be Zayn Malik stepping on Harry Styles’ hair straighteners or something. Although that might result in a few pleasing bars of falsetto.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times