The Libertines, Forum, London

They're a shambles. But what a shambles!
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Pantomime season is upon us, and rock'n'roll's most compelling Punch and Judy show is in town. If the crowd packed into the Forum tonight aren't screaming "He's behind you! (And in front of you! And crashing into you sideways!)" at Carl Barat, they ought to be.

It's been one long soap opera of a year for The Libertines, and the villain of the piece - albeit a vulnerable, damaged, sympathetic villain - is Pete Doherty. A self-confessed smack and crack addict, he was thrown out of the band in May after failing to show up for a European tour. In July he broke into Barat's flat while the band were away in Japan, stealing various items of musical equipment. Meanwhile, Doherty appeared to have formed his own band, Babyshambles, played a solo show in his own living room, and even threatened to form his own rival Libertines. In August, the band played the Reading Festival without him (and it felt wrong, so wrong). In September, Doherty was convicted of burgling Barat, and jailed for a month. (Barat himself didn't have the best of years, smashing his face into a bathroom sink in a drunken accident, almost losing his sight and necessitating reconstructive surgery.) All the while, accusations and mudslinging flew in both directions, making a reunion seem even less likely than if one of the two had actually died. But on 8 October, the day Doherty was released from prison, the pair shocked everyone by reuniting for a secret gig. Four more low-key shows followed, leading up to this three-night residency in Kentish Town, their full return to the public eye.

And if we're honest, it's precisely this kind of volatile love-hate frisson that everyone's here for, voyeurs that we are.

Doherty and Barat are a latterday Mick'n'Keef, Thunders'n'Johansen, or Sid'n'Johnny, and tonight, from the off, they're sharing a microphone, screaming into each other's faces, bumping noses, so close they're almost snogging. Between verses, one minute they're hugging, the next they're running at each other like rutting stags. To what extent this is exaggerated for our benefit remains moot, but it's an incredibly watchable spectacle.

Last time I saw Pete, only a few days ago at the last-ever Suede gig, he was wearing a plaid scarf and half-mast trousers, and carrying a miniature Christmas tree (my girlfriend thought he looked like a Dickensian urchin, having to flog trees to the rich folks to keep himself out of the poorhouse in the bleak midwinter). He appeared a little bewildered, so I never asked him why he was carrying it.

Tonight he looks similarly fragile. He never stops moving, but never looks in control, as unsteady as Bambi on ice. When someone gives him a pink tennis ball, he Jonny Wilkinsons it onto the balcony, but almost lands on his arse in the process. His movements are so erratic that he accidentally smacks a guitar tech in the teeth. His moods are so erratic that when his strap breaks, he hurls his guitar into the crowd rather than attach a new one, and when someone tosses him an apple, he takes a bite then slams it into the floor. As Carl leads a small child on stage mid-show (introduced as "Young George"), it occurs to me that there's already one there.

Young George isn't the only unusual guest. To add to the pantomime feel, the support act were, somewhat incongruously, Chas'n'Dave (Doherty joined them on stage for a song), and four songs into the Libs' own set, they're joined by a short, elderly, bearded man who looks like Saddam when he emerged from the trap door. He begins singing "Sally Brown", an Irish drinking song, in a manner not dissimilar to the tramp in A Clockwork Orange who gets his head kicked in (ominously, the Libertines' first song tonight was called "Horrorshow"). This man is The Rabbi, a friend of The Libertines depicted on one of their CD sleeves, who works at The Duke Of Clarence (and, rumour has it, played drums on all the Joe Meek productions back in the Sixties).

Amid all this lunacy, it's easy to overlook the actual music. This is a band who are adored, by those who adore them, in a way which bewilders outsiders. The Libertines make an unreconstructed new wave noise which is enjoyable enough, a blend of early Jam, Smiths and Clash (Mick Jones produced their first album, and is present tonight). It's managed chaos (bassist John and drummer Gary keep it as tight as a gnat's chuff so that the two mentalists up front can go off the rails), and it relies on velocity for impact: when they play a slow song, everyone goes to the bog.

They're defiantly British (they invoke the spirit of Queen Bodicea, and begin songs with couplets like "There are fewer more distressing sights than that/ Of an Englishman in a baseball cap"), and evoke a specifically English form of gritty urban romanticism (the influences listed above, plus The Kinks).

But it's the interplay between Laurel and Hardy up there which carries them through. At the show's climax - the comeback single "Don't Look Back Into The Sun" ("Oh my friend you haven't changed/ Looking rough and living strange") - they're doing that screaming/snogging thing again, howling the line, "I shall never forgive you!", before leaping headlong into the throng.

The Libertines are a shambles. But they're a fast, exciting shambles. This one will run and run.

s.price@independent.co.uk

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