Luke Haines (the Auteurs, Black Box Recorder) Talks the Libertines’ “Gunga Din”

Luke Haines detests reunited bands as much as anybody, but "Gunga Din" is the Libertines' redemption song. All is forgiven, Pete ‘n’ Carl.

Every summer, there’s that song — the song that defines those sunny days and balmy nights, the one you’ll forever associate with a specific time and place. This week, Talkhouse writers talk their song of the summer of 2015.
— the editors of the Talkhouse


In the early 2000s, a senior NME writer, a friend of a friend (I keep higher company), told me that what the NME was looking for were ”Live fast, die young bands, like the New York Dolls.” By the time my eyeballs had stopped rolling, the Libertines had arrived fully formed, and fully captive as a pressed butterfly – representing the redundant wet dream of a generation of unimaginative hacks who could never get past rock & roll as an outlaw-drugs-death trip. Ho-hum.

Fortunately, the Libertines were smarter than many of their latent champions and had, in Pete Doherty and Carl Barat, songwriting chops to burn. First single ”What a Waster” was a beautiful hooligan poet lament, one of thee best songs of the early 21st century, a ramshackle herbert joyride in an old Ford Granada across East London with Pete ‘n’ Carl trading lines about ”divs,” ”divies,” ”morons” and, best of all, ”two-bob cunts.” Pete was a poet and Carl was a pouty rock star, and together they had walked straight out of a Joe Orton play and into every straight music writer’s homoerotic fantasy. Back in 2002 there was a suspicion that the Libs may just have been a Woolworths version of the Strokes. But it was clear to any righteous rock & roller that whilst the Strokes were all top hat and no rabbit, their spotty, snotty counterparts the Libertines had their crimson Victorian battle tunics stuffed with mythological bunnies. And so the debut arrived; Up the Bracket remains one of thee great statements in English rock & roll. Produced with no production at all by the holy and talismanic Mick Jones, the Libs create their own take on the myth of Albion out of bits of Hancock’s Half Hour, Kipling, the Krays, Steptoe and SonBilly Bones (although as a pirate fan I would have gone with Israel Hands) and even the voguish-at-the-time street-fighting anarchist gang the Wombles, who get a mention in the great ”Time for Heroes.” (Unless I have got this very wrong and Pete ‘n’ Carl were actually singing about Uncle Bulgaria mooching about Wimbledon Common with his litter-bothering pals.)

It was all so long ago. Up the Bracket was also an album full of drugs. As was Pete, who it appeared was already on the last page of volume 99 of the How to Fuck Yourself Up in Rock handbook. Chaos, massive fall-outs, prison, drugs and more drugs followed. With Alan McGee now managing, a disastrous second album followed, which included the hideous final single ”What Became of the Likely Lads,” featuring Pete ‘n’ Carl whining like sick dogs and wrongheadedly comparing themselves to Likely Lads co-stars Terry Collier and Bob Ferris, though who was meant to be who was not clear. Surely Harold and Albert Steptoe would have been closer to the mark?

Pete ‘n’ Carl always remind me of the two conjoined twins of the fictional ’70s rock band the Bang Bang in Brian Aldiss’ 1977 weird freakout novella Brothers of the Head, or even June and Jennifer Gibbons – the Silent Twins, whose lives became entirely “symbiotic.” Pete and Carl simply could not function on a musical level without each other. There followed a long decade of Pete the Tabloid Drug Gimp and Freelance Carl. At least Pete was adored in France. Carl got the shittier end of the shitty stick; it seemed that a month couldn’t pass by without the poor sod forming a new band of spiky-haired, cheek-sucking indie clots, each one slightly more pointless than the last. There was even a solo album: front cover Carl moodily staring down the camera whilst the model girlfriend poses in the background. Seductively. Not quite The Madcap Laughs — more The Nitwit Pouts.

Look, I hate reformed bands more than the next person, so my heart did nothing when it was announced that the Libertines were reforming a couple of years ago. My heart did even less than nothing when it was revealed that the Libertines would be playing at this year’s Glastonbury Rock Business Trade Fair. But fuck me chavvy, they were good. Really good. And now, a new single ”Gunga Din” blasts in from nowhere, lurching like the Clash when they tried to play reggae (yet somehow in a good way), a glorious, steamy hot, Kipling-citing song of redemption, and redemption for themselves. This is how the second album should have sounded. All the wasted years have been reclaimed, and we are back in the world of Pete ‘n’ Carl. As opposed to Pete and Carl.

For this song, and as the Pope of Righteousness, I forgive you, Pete, for the last decade, when you were a low-level pest (and for when you foolishly and unsuccessfully tried to nick my hat in a pub, you scamp). And more important, Carl, I forgive you. You have once again found your rightful place — of singing the second verse.

There’s a class war going on in the U.K. right now. It’s being waged by the superwealthy against everyone else. The superwealthy are winning. So, as we sit in a tropical English heat wave, numb and dumb like crumbling statues covered in Tory pigeon shit after one of the most depressing elections since the Thatcher years, we have two choices: to be shat on some more, or to flee into our own imaginations. Kipling knew this, and with ”Gunga Din” the Libertines know this too.

Luke Haines is an English musician and writer. He has recorded under the name of the Auteurs and Black Box Recorder. His books include the bestselling Bad Vibes – Britpop and My Part in Its Downfall. His latest solo album, Smash The System, is out on Cherry Red Records on October 7, 2016. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter and his website.