For as long as there have been televisions to hurl out of windows and cars to drive into swimming pools, touring rock bands have been the bane of hoteliers.
The Libertines must have sent a particular chill down the spine of the hospitality trade. In their early-2000s heyday, the British foursome were infamous for their riotous escapades, often revolving around the dissipated figure of their co-frontman Peter Doherty, or “Junkie Pete” as the UK tabloids dubbed him. Woe betide the unfortunate cleaner back then who had to tidy up after a visit from Doherty and his motley entourage.
“We got banned from Ibis and things like that,” admits The Libertines’ other frontman, Carl Barât.
“But places like the George V [in Paris], they like bands to come in and bash it up, as long as they pay for it,” he adds, taking a ruminative puff on his e-cigarette. “Break what you like as long as you pay the tariff.”
Barât, 42, is sitting with a black coffee and his vape in the café and dining room of The Albion Rooms, a boutique hotel that opened this month in the seaside town of Margate. He wears an old-fashioned flat cap, the look of a poacher turned gamekeeper. Having once tested the limits of what guests can get up to in budget chains and luxury hotels alike, Barât and his bandmates have now made a quixotic career swerve by entering the trade themselves. The Libertines have become hoteliers.
The Albion Rooms is based in a large Victorian terraced house overlooking a grassy square leading down to the sea. Painted black, it stands out from the neighbouring houses like a pirate’s flag. There are seven bedrooms for guests. A restaurant-café and a bar are both open to the public, the latter also functioning as a performance space with a small stage. The rear extension has been turned into a professionally equipped recording studio for musicians to hire.
Its name loops back to The Libertines’ beginnings. In the early days of the band, which was formed in 1997, Barât and Doherty shared a flat in Camden, London’s grungy indie-rock mecca. They called it the Albion Rooms, a name they took with them when they moved east to a flat in Bethnal Green after signing their first record deal. Dreams blossomed amid the squalor. The Libertines led lifestyles as ill-disciplined as their messily performed rock songs, but they also crafted an intriguing fantasy world of a lost England, an arcadia of visionary poets and footloose decadents.
“This is the code by which we live our lives,” Doherty declared in a 2002 interview. “This is the pact we’ve sworn all those years ago that turned us all from enemies into companions and wayfarers and travellers on the seas of Albion.” After considerable turbulence — including two platinum-selling albums, Doherty’s drug addictions and imprisonment for burglary, a 2004 break-up and then reunion a decade later — those seas have now washed them up on the shores of Margate.
It is a fitting destination. Situated on the Kent coast in south-east England, Margate was one of the earliest seaside resorts, a summer haven for wealthy Londoners in the early 19th century. Artists such as JMW Turner painted there, but a steep decline came in the years after the second world war.
In the 2000s, some regeneration has taken place, with an influx of artists seeking cheap studios and Londoners priced out of the capital. An atmosphere of seediness, faded grandeur, deprivation, hopefulness and hedonism prevails. “This town suits the band,” Barât says.
The idea arose after Barât and Doherty reunited with bassist John Hassall and drummer Gary Powell in 2014 to make a comeback album, Anthems for Doomed Youth. “Rather than waste the record deal and split it up and let it fritter away, the idea was to invest in something and use some of the bank’s money too,” Barât says.
He found the building for sale on a popular property website. It was already a hotel, one that had seen better days. At the back, in the extension that is now the recording studio, there was a dubious-looking sauna. “Perhaps it used to be some kind of knocking shop — I don’t know,” Barât speculates, with a look of mischief.
The basement bar opened last year, and is called The Waste Land, after TS Eliot’s poem. (The poet came to Margate to recuperate from a breakdown in 1921, staying a few doors down the street.) The hotel part has taken longer to set up. “Being rank amateurs, we spent a lot more than we ought to have done and learnt a lot of lessons,” Barât says.
Somehow, they conspired to miss this summer’s post-lockdown bonanza for British seaside towns and are instead opening The Albion Rooms to guests just in time for the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. “Yes,” Barât says with an ironic laugh. “That’s a shame.”
The decor is dominated by shades of black and gold, a gothic bohemianism. The red carpet with gold fringes on the stairs is a reference to the Coldstream Guards tunics that The Libertines used to wear. Rock-and-roll artworks — a neon crucifix, a Sex Pistols collage, portraits of The Libertines — hang on the walls. I spend the night in a room named after Emily Dickinson, one of Doherty’s favourite poets. It’s where Doherty sleeps when he’s in town. “It’s seen a lot of history, that room,” Barât says.
I enter gingerly — but blood spatters and cigarette scorch marks turn out to be absent. Instead, there is an old-fashioned double bed with a very comfortable mattress, a bathroom, a table with two old-fashioned chairs, a wallpaper print showing a pre-Raphaelite nude, a typewriter and a hardcover book about venerable London music venue The 100 Club. There is no television set to hurl out of the window. It is an attractive space, with an impressive sea view: grey and bleak on the day I arrive, blue and inviting the next morning.
Dinner is accompanied by a stale soundtrack of Britpop hits by Oasis and Blur. But the food is high quality: artichoke velouté as a starter, roast hake with potato and samphire salad for the main course and local cheese and sourdough bread for dessert, washed down by an IPA beer, specially brewed for the Albion Rooms by the craft beer company BrewDog. I do not make use of the 24-hour room service, but it is there if I need it. “They’ll do you a cocktail, a good one too, at 5am,” Barât promises. “The night porter is fully trained on cocktail-making duties.”
Buster Bloodvessel, the outsized singer of the ska band Bad Manners, once opened a hotel in Margate called Fatty Towers. “You had to be fat to go there. It was a bit silly, really,” Barât says. He observes the prospect of libertines flocking to The Libertines’ hotel with a note of trepidation.
“Yes, it’s quite testing, that one,” Barât says. “We don’t want bad people in here. But if people are over-exuberant, in such a way that they’re not hurting other people, we’re all for it. And if they can afford to destroy the room, then they’re welcome to destroy the room.”
He pauses, looks around at the smart paintwork and reconsiders. “Actually, sorry, can I rephrase that? I don’t want them to destroy their room, I think it’s something rather beautiful. But if through their over-exuberance and their pursuit of libertinage they do destroy the room, then that’s something we’ll be forgiving of. Provided that they remunerate us accordingly.”
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop music critic. He was a guest of The Albion Rooms; starting prices for double rooms range from £114 to £230
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