“We’re Arctic Monkeys, and this is ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’. Don’t believe the hype.”
The year is 2006. In the past couple years, Alex Turner and his band of fellow scrawny white boys from Sheffield have already (unwittingly) changed the way the music industry works, building themselves on an entirely unprecedented foundation of CD demos, file-sharing and MySpace-induced buzz. The press hasn’t been this overwhelmingly excited since Is This It, and in 2005 it had all culminated in an astounding number one in the UK charts with ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ – the band’s first single signed to Domino Records.
It is the opening lines of the accompanying video that are quoted above, and they seem an important starting point. From nowhere, this four-piece of young lads had descended; no traditional marketing, no big advertising campaign – instead, the hype of the press and their growing fan base alone had propelled them into the bright lights. So it’s hard to know if, in saying the above, Turner was simply playing coy or if he was genuinely surprised; shy and trying to play down the startling reaction they were getting.
Either way, when the tellingly named Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not arrives, there are no more questions of whether everyone’s been getting overzealous. In 2006 – ten years ago this month – Arctic Monkeys released the debut album for a generation.
To this day, it remains the fastest-selling debut album from a band in British history – and this too, when it had already leaked. It was a cultural phenomenon, but what exactly was it about the record that struck a chord – that led to it going quintuple platinum in the UK alone?
In part, it goes down to the type of rock music that the boys were dishing out. British guitar music was starting to get a bit stadium – the Oasises and the Coldplays, with anthems for choruses. Arctic Monkeys were shaking things up, with a thrilling, fast-paced immediacy to their brand of rock. But then, it could be argued that guitar music had gained a new lease of life back in 2001 – the arrival of The Strokes’ first album had marked year zero for many rock bands.
There was something special about Arctic Monkeys, then; an almost clumsy, doe-eyed sweetness to their sound that would suddenly be undercut with a fluid, seductive strut of a riff that was related to – yet simultaneously far removed from – the laid-back nonchalance of the Strokes before them. “Yeah I’d love to tell you all my problem / You’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham” is the fantastically scathing line from ‘Fake Tales Of San Francisco’ that marks Alex Turner and co apart from their contemporaries; all those phoney bands who were busy trying to ape America’s flourishing rock scene, rather than build their own.
Arctic Monkeys heard and distilled those same influences, but they added their own local touch that was perfect. If The Strokes had ‘New York City Cops’ – glamorous, deadpan tales from the city that never sleeps – then this side of the world had ‘Riot Van’ – young boys riling up police officers for the laugh. They had guys in skinny ties and blazers drinking 40s, we had lads drinking Smirnoff Ice and cans, eating chips and belligerently trying to squeeze into taxis (“Ask if we can have six in / if not we’ll have to have 2 / You’re coming up our end aren’t you? So I’ll get one with you / Oh won’t he let us have six in? Especially not with the food“ on the hilariously spot on ‘Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured’).
It was dead right that Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not was a quote from Alan Sillitoe’s kitchen-sink novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. That 1958 book of working-class life – of sketchy romances on drunken nights out and daydreams to fill up mundane time spent at work – had made a profound impact on a number of Britons (Morrissey included). In channelling the novel almost 50 years later, Arctic Monkeys had captured those same, resonant themes for a new generation. This album was the simultaneously grim and charming experience of youthful weekends of regrettable nights in clubs.
It would be impossible to write this without taking some time to appreciate the masterful artistry of Alex Turner. Not only the vocalist but the main writer of all the songs on the album, the magnetic appeal of the album is largely down to Turner’s acerbic lyricism and his crackled, rapid, accented delivery.
This is an album that recalls adolescent rites of passage, the most overriding of these being going to a club to try and get with someone. The Smiths before them had a melancholy take on such experiences on ‘How Soon Is Now?’, but Arctic Monkeys took it to a somewhat uglier, honest reality. Morrissey sang of standing in a club, waiting for love; Turner sang lines like “Well it’s ever so funny, ‘cos I don’t think you’re special, I don’t think you’re cool / you’re just probably all right, but under these lights you like beautiful” on ‘Still Take You Home’. The explicit message of the album seems to attempt to lament the end of romance (“oh there ain’t no love, no Montagues or Capulets / just bangin’ tunes and DJ sets“) and yet it implicitly finds a certain fondness in this. It is literally like Turner took a little notebook to a club and jotted down the details of the lad paying for a girl’s Tropical Reef, watching people turned away by no-nonsense bouncers, seeing punters trying to work up the courage to talk to that person across the dance floor who they’ve gone out to see in the first place (“the only reason that you came / so what you scared for?”).
Indeed, there’s a grim honesty to a lot of the album – the jaded character accompanying the boys in Riot Van, the observation regarding what would have been the relatively new phenomenon of drunk texts on breathless opening track, ‘The View From The Afternoon’ – “there’s certain chapters sat in her inbox / and all that it said is that you’ve drank a lot“.
Even outside of the bars and nightclubs, Turner proves himself an outstanding lyricist, and on ‘When The Sun Goes Down’ he gets darker than anything else on the album. Describing the prostitution trade in the Neepsend, the song veers from a clean, wide-eyed introduction into a furious, scuzzy masterpiece of guitar and snarling lines like “bet she’s delighted when she sees him / pulling in and giving her the eye / because she must be fucking freezing / scantily clad beneath the clear night sky“.
There are real moments of intimacy too – the squabbling couple on gorgeously sweet ‘Mardy Bum’ (“remember cuddles in the kitchen just to get things off the ground?“), and the fantastic conclusion to the final track on the album, ‘A Certain Romance’. For all Turner rolls his eyes at the modern age – “there’s only music so that there’s new ringtones” – he is ultimately sort of affectionate about it all, explaining away his friends’ unromantic behaviour – “what can I say? I’ve known them for a long, long time“.
Alex Turner and co. had distilled the essence of what it meant to be young and foolish in the 2000s on this side of the world. It wasn’t glamorous, it certainly wasn’t always pretty or honourable; but maybe that was part of its appeal. Ten years later, taken away from all the insane hype, it still stands as a fantastic album: exciting guitars and outstanding observations.
Though musically they would continue to grow into a fuller sound, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not had placed Arctic Monkeys up in the social historical annals of British lyricism – a place where, wonderfully, they continue to grow.