Today’s the birthday of Pete Doherty, formerly of The Libertines, who then formed a band called BabyShambles. Today’s song I first heard as an acoustic demo my daughter, Kajsa, gave me on a tape, and then eventually the album Down in Albion (2005) came out and that included the officially released version.
It’s a perfect song for the kind of mood I feel in these warming days of early spring. Spring Break Fever, I guess. If one had one’s druthers, one would gladly “come away” on a tour of England via British Rails. Just hearing Doherty call out—or rather mutter—the names of any number of nondescript little burghs along the way gives one a certain kind of wanderlust. Not the kind we have in this country—“get yer motor runnin’ / head out on the highway”—but the kind where a couple kids can meet “at the photobooth in the underground station” and be on their way.
The song drips bittersweet melancholy because Doherty is well aware that there is no real escape. Though we go “anywhere in Albion,” we’re still stuck in the frigging 21st century. Remember when Ray Davies sang “I’m a 20th century man but I don’t want to die here”? Well, he got his wish. He made it to the 21st. But guess what, kids, you’ll never get out of this one. Bloody hell. And so there you go. The bookish type with “yellowing classics” and “canons at dawn,” in the Tube or on the rail, meeting, over “gin in teacups,” “a pale, thin girl with eyes forlorn,” and listen to how he wails “behind the checkout” with all the feel of the helplessly trapped. A “cheap sort / set in false anticipation.” Anything to avoid the “violence in dole queues.” The “canons at dawn” could be a play with “cannons at dawn”—water cannons are frequently used to wet down the streets at dawn, but also to put down violent riots, while “at dawn” signals the typical hour for a duel.
Doherty’s got this sad little tune with great lifts as when he bleats “anywhere in Albion” and when he cranks it up a notch to make it to that chorus, sometimes almost falling over his own words to get there—“Coffee wallahs and pith helmets / And an English song.” Nice little notations of the colonial Britain that contrasts with his dream of Albion—the ancient, Celtic name for the island. It’s as if we’re suddenly transported to multicultural Britain—very much the kind of world the tram is moving through—while all the time trying to get back to something more, shall we say, indigenous. But how far back do you need to go? “There’s a five mile queue outside the disused power station.” A detail that lets us know Britannia ain’t what it used to be. “But we don’t talk about that.”
Apart, though, from those lyrical and melodic hints that make the song feel elegiac, there’s still a lot of life in the song, as Doherty somehow manages to infuse it all with the restless optimism of youth who’ve got to go somewhere and don’t much care where. It’s a song in praise of wanderlust, ultimately, and the sense that anywhere’s better than here (as Westerberg might put it), and so, best keep moving—the action that is the very antithesis of the queue in its steadfast hold-its-place dullness.
Won’tcha come away?