Arctic Monkeys hinted at their literary depth right from the off. The title of their debut album was even plucked from the pages of a book. The 1951 Alan Sillitoe novel, Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, portrays perfectly the blueprint the Monkeys were working from – “All I’m out for is a good time – all the rest is propaganda. I’m me and nobody else; and whatever people think or say I am, that’s what I’m not because they don’t know a bloody thing about me. Ay, by God, It’s a hard life if you don’t weaken, if you don’t stop the bastard government from grinding your face in the muck, though there ain’t much you can do about it unless you start making dynamite to blow their four-eyed clocks to bits.”
The Monkeys procured that mantra for their record, took the ball and ran with it, and the frenetic sound achieved is like a tyrannical detonation against the clocks that chow down all the quicker on the time of youth. This encapsulation seems to saturate every angst strained sinew of the record; not just Turner’s prose, but Matt Helders’ excitable pounding drums, the vying euphonic guitars, Andy Nicholson’s rollicking bass, the crisp but carefree engineering and even the artwork – it all seems some perfect crystallising time capsule not only of an era but of a chapter of life, one that is echoed on the pages of Sillitoe’s novel.
This penchant for working-class British literary fiction stretches beyond that mere reference too. Keith Waterhouse’s novel There Is A Happy Land is another book that depicts life on a north country council estate and it offers up the same circumstance-free sense of exultation that Turner’s early lyrics did when turning the streets into a playground of frolics and fuck-about fun. He’s not the only musician to champion the novel either, David Bowie liked it so much that he not only named it in his 100 favourite books, but also wrote a song of the same name.
However, perhaps the biggest influence over Alex Turner and his work from the literary world is the punk poet John Cooper Clarke. Turner took up where his hero John Cooper Clarke had left off, who in turn had been inspired by the soot-covered sonnets of Baudelaire, making Al just the latest in a long line of loveable reprobate reveller’s from the demimonde to propagate the poetry of the street, his wordplay very much the ingrained language of youth culture. Turner even met Dr Clarke “about two weeks” before they went global according to the punk Doc.
Aside from these abiding influences the rest of his bookshelf remains a little more mysterious and requires some guest work, mainly because nobody has bothered to ask him. However, in an interview with Kevin Perry in Time Out, he writes: “We sit and chat about books, and as befits the sharpest lyric writer of his generation he’s the sort of reader who can quote his favourite novels. He’s a fan of [Joseph] Conrad and [Ernest] Hemingway, but above all [Vladimir] Nabokov. He recites a line about internalised anger from ‘Despair’: ‘I continued to stir my tea long after it had done all it could with the milk.’” Once again, these are writers that occupy many a musician’s bookshelves; Nick Cave and Patti Smith, to name but two, have also touted these names as among their favourites.
When it comes to Arctic Monkeys’ most recent album, the influences from literature once more came to the fore in a more direct sense. “The Information: Action ratio” is a line lifted directly from Neil Postman’s 1985 novel Amusing Ourselves to Death. The themes of technological obsolescence and “floating on an endless stream of great TV” depicted in Tranquillity Base Hotel and Casino have a lot in common with the points raised by Postman in his heavily studied book. The album was heavily influenced by David Foster Wallace’s often-bought, rarely read novel Infinite Jest.
Aside from these references and ones to Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft in the B-side ‘You’re So Dark’, and him expressing admiration for Joe Dunthorne’s Submarine while soundtracking the film version, the rest are just best guesses or passing culture references. While it seems to me that authors like Kurt Vonnegut couldn’t have been far from his thinking in the sci-fi of an allegorical moon-based hotel, only time will reveal. In short, there are undoubtedly literally hundreds of others, but if you fancy sharing a page with Turner for a while then these should keep you going, with Infinite Jest, in particular, you might never see the end.
Alex Turner’s favourite books:
- Saturday Night & Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe
- There is a Happy Land by Keith Waterhouse
- The works of John Cooper Clarke
- The works of Valdamir Nabokov
- The works of Joseph Conrad
- The works of Ernest Hemingway
- Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
- Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
- The works of H.P. Lovecraft
- The works of Edgar Alan Poe
- Submarine by Joe Dunthorne