Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

Arctic Monkeys
Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not

And over there: they’ve broken bones

There’s only music so that there’s new ringtones

It doesn’t take no Sherlock Holmes

To see it’s a little different, around here…

Don’t get me wrong, well there’s boys in bands

And kids who like to scrap with pool cues in their hands

And just cos ‘e’s ‘ad a couple of cans, he thinks

It’s alright to act like a dickhead…

— “A Certain Romance”

There ain’t no love though,

Montagues or Capulets

Just bangin’ tunes in DJ sets

And dirty dancefloors,

And dreams of naughtiness

— “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”

Here’s a list of what Arctic Monkeys are not:

  • Punk like The Sex Pistols. They’re pop like The Clash.
  • Morrissey. Despite the penetrating archness of Alex Turner’s lyrics and the generally wry, self-knowing cut of his jib, the latter’s songs aim their scorn at blemishes in a Nothern cultural landscape that he adores and knowingly embodies, rather than cruelly mutilating a world alienating in its mundanity for inevitably failing to placate the former’s need for hyperbolic ego fellation. Or to put it another way, Morrissey forgives Jesus for being so small-minded and Turner thanks Sheffield for letting him be part of its greatness.
  • The Streets. Turner’s musical persona has more in common with Roots Manuva and Braintax, both of whom he acknowledge as influences. Another MC they’re fans of is Pharaoh Monche, whose music also wants you to get the f*ck up and dance…
  • The Libertines. Yes, this is music that will be forever England, where bangers are big brown sausages and buying wife beater nets you some cheap cider rather than cheap apparel. Yes, they are proud of this fact, and yes, Turner is inarguably the heart of the group, as he writes all the riffs and taps out all the tunes as well as lacing the lyrics and applying verve to the vocals. On the other hand, no they do not do drugs or date supermodels (they’re 19 on average, and bright), no, they are not Southern nancyboys, and no their songs are not ramshackle fantasies of Albion barely held together by hype and bohemian charm.
  • The Strokes. Even though Turner has admitted that they were originally not much more than a Strokes covers band — like the Libertines before them — and much time was spent rewriting attempts at early songs due to their being blatant rip offs.
  • The result of major label hype, even if they are now signed to the home of Franz Ferdinand. The momentum which resulted in second general release single “When The Sun Goes Down” beating the Sugababes and Pharrell Williams to No. 1 in the British charts was built up solely by word of mouth from those at shows and the exchange of demos between fans on the Internet, largely in the form of the completely unofficial, and indeed illegal, Beneath the Boardwalk mp3 collection, named after a frequently played local venue. This is a genuine case of people claiming a band as their own and putting their money where their hearts are. Scoff if you want, but remember that Domino Records only have about 15 employees at present, and contrast if you will with Bloc Party on Wichita, whose Silent Alarm was hyped to death and beyond despite mediocre sales and singles that swanned around the bottom of the top 20. ‘Monkeys buzz has been going strong for over a year and the debut album isn’t even out yet.
  • The Liars. That elongated title is in fact an Albert Finney quote from an old English TV series. It’s probably not a dig at Eminem, but you can be bet they’ll have grinned about that anyway. And their only video is an Old Grey Whistle Test homage (ask your… er, actually, ask any surviving British relatives) on zero budget.
  • The reinvention (or saviours of) music. There are four of them: you’ve got two guitarists, one of whom’s the singer, you’ve got a bass player, you’ve got a drummer. This has been done before, it will be done again, and by people with more innate instrumental talent. No arguments there. On the other hand, if you consider that almost everyone from The Verve to Radiohead have had huge hits with the same chord sequences arranged slightly differently, that any and all music can basically be broken down into either “catchy” or “boring”, and that innovation in Western music these days is based either on doing what Asian music did naturally a thousand of years ago, or arranging the same notes for slightly different durations (shout out to Paul Beatty for The White Boy Shuffle, although I love Tuff more)… Well if you throw all those ideas away, lack of imagination is still a much more pointed criticism than lack of originality, a point proven by Shakespeare and roundly ignored by lazy hacks such as myself when we’re trying to say “it’s boring” in a swish way. The Arctic Monkeys may not be mature virtuosos, but they’re not boring or inept, and their songs are neither flabby nor unimaginative.
  • Wankers.

Here, quickly, are some things I personally like about The Arctic Monkeys:

Their unfeigned enjoyment in what they’re doing, which bestows their live shows with a coolness and an energy that’s as welcoming as it is effective. The fact that Jon Abyss, producer for the likes of DJ Shadow and UNKLE, helped with the album sessions, even though I prefer the looser feel of most of the demos. Chris Martin being such a fan that one of the current Coldplay tour passwords has been changed to “Arctic”; back in Sheffield, ‘Monkeys fans relate to a band with lyrics that aren’t about “birds flying underground at the speed of sound, or some rubbish”, and rejoice.

Mothers being caught dancing round the kitchen to “Bigger Boys With Stolen Sweethearts”; alternately, the way the imitiation brass bassline of Specials-meet-Razorlight personal fav “Waving ‘Bye to the Train or the Bus” makes me do the ska shimmy in full winter gear as Alex breaks my heart in friendly, hopeful tones (neither track made it onto the album). Being shown that no matter how much I detest nationalist feeling, there is a certain point at which the difference between who you are and what you love simply ceases.

The tribal drumming on the intro to the demo of “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” (all music is African music, listen to Tinariwen), the joyous aside “…you sexy little swiiiii-iiiiine” on “Dancing Shoes”, the way Turner flips “You’re not from New York city, you’re from Rotheram/so put down the handbook/and get off the bandwagon” off the back of a verse and onto the surging upswing of an anthemic chant/riff as “Fake Tales of San Francisco” goes into overdrive, and the fact that the two “ballads” on the album are called “Riot Van” and “Mardy Bum”, both regretful rather than romantic. Turner’s accent and ability to perfectly nail the frolics and mishaps of a night out in England, pausing to rhyme “scary’un” with “totalitarian” as another tyrannical bouncer pours cold water on proceedings. The feeling of liking a band simply because they make me happy and make me want to dance, despite the fact that I usually only do so “like a robot from 1984”, the year most of ’em were born, bless.

The fact that some people are still determined enough to take a band name they chose at 15 and stick with it to the end, bold as brass in the Northern cold (do Americans even have the expression “cold as brass monkeys”?). Barring fatal accidents, I reckon that end is a long way off indeed, and this is a humble band eager to learn and change. Yes, theirs is a sound similar to a lot of the names jaded hipsters and criterati will spew on auto-fire disdain, but no-one else really sounds like them, and very few people indeed are writing taut rockin’ pop songs under three minutes long that are simultaneously as smart and as unpretentious as those proffered here.

The band’s motto has become Don’t Believe The Hype, and I’m not too sure how well their loves, laughs and lives will translate to non-British audiences — but at home they’re already heroes, and they’re starting with an eager smile on their faces.

RATING 8 / 10