The Libertines on empathy, immigration and Merry Old England - Rough Trade East inc setlist

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The Libertines are back with new record All Quiet On the Eastern Esplanade, and at its heart is a very ‘now’ song titled Merry Old England.

“I think the media and the government have worked really, really hard at dividing our opinion as to what is acceptable immigration into this country - and then left out all of the education regarding what immigration actually is in this country.”

A Q&A with the Libertines on Monday - one of two at Rough Trade East - was a less raucous affair than those famous early-2000s gigs, celebrating with fans the release of new album All Quiet On the Eastern Esplanade. Instead it was a jovial but thoughtful occasion and all the better for it.

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The centrepiece of the band’s fourth studio album is the song Merry Old England, whose title may almost feel a parody of the band, but whose lyrics are representative of the witty and socially conscious artists Carl Barât, Peter Doherty, John Hassall and Gary Powell have always been.

In 2020, in an unusual move for a band, The Libertines opened their hotel The Albion Rooms in Margate. It has put them face to face with people from the continent - or what has come to be known inpolitics as ‘small boats’.

The opening fan question at Rough Trade addressed the choices made in the lyrics, whether they wanted the song to be in some way “objective” and whether the band fear it could be appropriated by the right.

One verse goes: “The illegals have landed in Dalby Square. Did they give you everything that you dreamed of? A B&B and vouchers for three square - is it еverything that you dreamed of?”

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Although Doherty jokes that ‘unauthorised immigrants’ would not scan as well, he says the lyrics 'the illegals have landed' were based on a famous tabloid headline (The Sun, October 22 2015).

While a disagreement breaks out about how overt the lyrics are, there can be no doubting the band’s belief that immigration has always been an important part of the country’s history.

Carl said: "I think specifically that part of the world has been the entry point for the United Kingdom ever since it was separated from the landmass of Europe. I think everyone from Julius Caesar almost - apart from the Vikings, they took a different route - but everyone who's populated our country has come through there.”

Peter said: "If you really were, as a politician, concerned about levels of immigration or dilution of national identity, then legal migration would be the obvious target, where you've got three quarters of a million people coming over every year. The 30,000 or so, maximum, that make it over on boats is a drop in the ocean, no pun intended."

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The Libertines at Rough Trade East on April 8 2024.The Libertines at Rough Trade East on April 8 2024.
The Libertines at Rough Trade East on April 8 2024.

While the Barât/Doherty chemistry has always been central to the band’s appeal, the rhythm section are no stooges, and it is drummer Gary Powell who returns to the subject later in the Q&A.

"My favourite lyric from the album would be the chorus from Merry Old England. I think it's really descriptive. It's beautifully describing the journey of somebody actually coming to the fair isles of what is Britain,” he says. 

"Going back to the original question that was asked beforehand, regarding immigration and so forth, I think the media and the government have worked really, really hard at dividing our opinion as to what is acceptable immigration into this country, and then left out all of the education regarding what immigration actually is in this country.

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"The first person of colour to be registered in this country was a guy called [Cornelius] in 1593. There's been immigration in this country forever. The Roman soldiers that built Hadrian's Wall, separating us from the 'northern hordes', separating Britain, were African. 40% of all archeological digs in this country have people of colour in.

"So there have always been people of colour in this country. It's what has made the fabric of what this society is. It's not 1948. It's not the Second World War with the Indian, Italian and Polish fighters joining in. Or the First World War with the African soldiers assisting. It has been part and parcel of the fabric of British society since the dawn of time and I think that part of the education is actually missed.

"The song Merry Old England actually shows a great deal of empathy, and I think that is the one thing that the powers that be, and the media in general, are trying to deride from society in general - the ideology of having empathy for humanity. And I think the song really does exemplify that to the best of its ability."

Libertines at Rough Trade East setlist

The Rough Trade event ended with a short acoustic set:

  • Merry Old England
  • Man With The Melody
  • Run Run Run

All Quiet On The Eastern Esplanade

All Quiet On The Eastern Esplanade, recorded by The Libertines at The Albion Rooms, was produced by Dimitri Tikovoï.

The record is out now on EMI.

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