In 2002 the British music scene was in dire need of resuscitation. Britpop was dead, a bunch of Radiohead soundalikes were picking at it’s bones and Melody Maker were trying to make icons of JJ72 and King Adora with little to no public interest. Over in the States The Strokes, The White Stripes and Interpol were stirring up a leather jacket rock revival, NME were attempting an international New Rock Revolution and The Vines were resurrecting grunge in Australia, but Britain was still struggling to find some rock’n’roll to believe in.
Enter The Libertines in gaffer taped skinny jeans, coldstream guard tunics, beat up guitars and a 7” copy of debut Rough Trade single ‘What A Waster’ grasped in their grubby mitts, up and ready to give UK music a punch up the bracket. OK, there were already a few bands having a go, The Cooper Temple Clause and Hoggboy to name a couple, with varying degrees of success, but it was The Libertines who would end up with all eyes on them for the longest and arguably had the most vital, life-affirming, fandom inspiring tunes.
‘What A Waster’ was the spunky product of a band desperate to set the scene alight with a youthful fire in their belly and punk rock on their record player. With a title almost wholesale lifted from a 1978 Ian Drury and the Blockheads single, and Pete Doherty adopting a vocal style not unlike Drury’s as well, for their first trick the London foursome distilled the whole pantheon of vintage musical sparks from The Jam all the way down to The Kinks into a nifty three minutes, infusing an English sound with a speedy ramshackle energy, clanging, screeching, guitars, harmonious backing vocals and humour that had been missing from British music for too many years. Part The Clash, part The Smiths, part Chas’n’Dave, part victorian music hall.
The lyrics reference British icons – James Joyce, the Bible and the Beano, in a format that could have made for a comic book strip in and of itself, a tale ironically sketching an unglamorous image of drug abuse, the esoteric act of jotting down dreams to suss out the subconscious and, according to the band, a discarded topical mention of the Taliban just nine months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 (“save me from tomorrow man, save me from the Taliban). The lexicon purposefully pilfers a wash of working class insults – “what a divvy, what a fucking div/ talking like a moron, walking like a spiv”, shamelessly and gleefully containing enough expletives – “what a fucking waster”, “you pissed it all up the wall”, “mind yer bleeding own yer two bob cunt” to recklessly guarantee no radio station in the world would touch the song with a barge pole.
The single’s other tracks were easier to pigeonhole than the first – I Get Along more overly inspired by The Velvet Underground or The Strokes, seeing Carl Barat deliver one of the group’s most quoted lines: “I get along just singing my song, people tell me I’m wrong… Fuck ‘em!” and Mayday, a perfectly succinct punk furore about the May Day riots of 2001, that the Sex Pistols would have been jealous of.
Twenty years later, knowing what we know about the road The Libertines would find themselves careening down, we can see the single as a snapshot of the havoc they were destined to wreak but at the time, when reading about the Boys in the Band on the cover of the NME, picking the CD up off the Our Price shelves and sticking it into our CD players at home, all we knew was a bloody great knees up was about to be had.
To mark the 20th anniversary of What A Waster’s original release on 3rd June 2002, The Libertines have rereleased the single on 7″, currently available to buy on their official site.
They have also launched a digital ‘What A Waster/I Get Along Live at the ICA 03/06/2002 EP‘ recorded across the road from Buckingham Palace on the single’s original release date – The Queen’s Golden Jubilee, available to stream on all of the streaming sites. Both 7″ and streaming EP were released on 03/06/2022.
We’ve linked the Live At The ICA 03/06/2002 for you to hear on Spotify below: