Alex Turner said it best himself—albeit about The Strokes—when he stated: “There is always that one band that comes along when you are 14 or 15-years-old that manages to hit you in just the right way and changes your whole perception on things.”
Such is the virulent ways of teenagers you scarcely become a fan of your first big band, rather you pledge some tribal allegiance. Like some Amazonian coming-of-age ceremony, you cut your hair in imitation and tattoo everything you own with hand-scribbled lyrics. For many of those who missed out on the raucous pomp of Is This It, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I Am Not came along and filled that void. It was the record that shook us from our peaceful glossy-eyed pre-teen slumbers, made us believe the hype and shaped our early views on an adult world that seemed there for the taking.
Now as the dust has well and truly settled on that sticky dancefloor of youth, we get to transpose our own take on one of Alex Turner’s most recent lyrical gems – ‘I only wanted to be one of the Arctic’s now look at the mess you made me make‘ – as the record terrifyingly enters its 15th year of being a cherished addition to our dismal daily lives.
At the time of their emergence, the Arctic Monkeys were tagged as the first internet band, but Myspace was merely an inevitable symptom of the period, and the truth was a lot more punk rock than that. Like many things that seemingly explode onto the mainstream, the fuse was already flared up by a cult of Christopher Columbus’. As the story goes after a pre-signed show at Escobar’s in Wakefield, there were footprints left on the ceiling. With billowing underground enthusiasm threatening to break through the roof, they were quickly snapped up by the independent label Domino, and this whipped-up storm of excitement crashed into a studio and was smashed down on record.
On the 23rd of January 2006 the LP was released and Alex Turner, Matt Helders, Jamie Cook and Andy Nicholson, the eponymous four-piece of indie rock, had unwittingly or otherwise collected the clamouring cacophony of a generation, given voice to it, nurtured it and unleashed it into the wild like some spotty knackered-converse-clad befringed beast. With the nerve-riddled auspicious utterance of “We’re Arctic Monkeys, this is ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’, don’t believe the hype”, the latest revolution was underway. Like all other ground-breaking debuts, it had absorbed everything that came before it, and then spun it out with sui generis stylings and total originality, giving youth the chance to champion something that was entirely their own. Proving a lesson long in the learning — from The Beatles to Bowie, Blondie and Byrne — to be a rock icon, you must first be an iconoclast. Unlike a lot of bands of the era that faded out, Arctic Monkeys were a prototype too rare to die and too talented to stagnate. It may have been a revolution only measurably different from the last, but nevertheless, Turner and Co. were the latest luminaries ushering in something ineffably new and organic.
The album, produced by Jim Abbiss and recorded at The Chapel Studios in Sheffield, went on to be the fastest-selling debut in British music history, shifting over 360,000 copies in its first week. Despite chart-topping, however, the record was not unanimously taken to, like all the best works it proved divisive. Whether it was the contrarian cool kids who said ‘it’s got nothing on The Smiths’, the unmoved mono-genre-philes, or the long-haired lads at the back of music class nailing Avenge Sevenfold drumbeats on the Hi-Hats and Tom-Toms of their inner thighs, the instant success of the Sheffield four-piece sent some into a tizzy.
For those who were gladly awoken and swept up in this new wave of indie rock, it suddenly not only made sense of the working-class adolescence that lay ahead but coloured it with the fluorescent palette of piled-up passions. The visceral imagery in Turner’s early trademark tirades of snarling slack-jawed tongue-lashings was not just the sort that you could easily absorb and cast into a movie-of-the-mind, it was more so the prose material for an auteur director to tell the very tale of the life you were living. It certainly wasn’t dull realism either; it held all the power of a punch-up and all the drama that the fateful crossroads a coming-of-age proves to be. Those burly bothersome bouncers and weekend rockstars were not just people you could imagine, but gals and guys you, unfortunately, knew by name. 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.
They were a band that only five years earlier had first picked up their instruments and in that short time curated the competency in musical craft to concoct thunderous crescendo’s like ‘A Certain Romance’ and race through the power chords and pentatonic that gives ‘Dancefloor’ its rhythm, yet still exudes the green-as-grass enthusiasm of lads very new to the field. From that very first drum blasting blitzkrieg of ‘A View From’ the romping energy never lets up, but beneath the blood guts and vitriol, there’s a reverie of melody that seems to capture the in-house nostalgia of memories not yet made, that sepia-toned sanguine feeling, that seemingly abides through youth until those wistful daydreams never matched, crystalise as the real thing in the lines around the eyes of adulthood. It is an album that smacks of adolescence, like an uppercut of post-pubescent exuberance to the jaw, ringing out a lyrical verse from the always wet but never rainy nights under the streetlight glow.
Not only was it relatable, but it was also this infectious feel that made it resonate with so many. It vibrates on the same frequency as those first furious fistfuls of goodtime snatched in the booze-fuelled bliss of weekends cathartically contrasting to all the unsalvageable memory-less days of unaccounted for deadtime in the Monday-to-Friday hours of moments passing but seemingly bereft of life. It’s not just the soundtrack inexorably woven into these weekends but in some mad way the very raucous echo of all that fuck-about fun. The album was far from a mournful forecast of the adult life the average working-class youth had to look forward to, but rather a more hopeful race to the next weekend. The songs smell of menthol cigarettes and taste of near-poisonous 2-for-1s, without ever being crass or cringe-inducing like the cheap imitations that would follow, stinking of too much antiperspirant and put-upon swagger.
If the criticism of this unabating energy is that it results in a one-paced record, then the counter would be that it never leaves the LP listless or anywhere approaching lost for words. Even the most ardent critic would have to concede that this is an album that simply oozes a colossal amount of vitality, regardless of whether it is in accordance with your taste. The ambition here is heady and sincere, a trait that too few albums live and die by these days.
This relentless pursuit of the utmost heartfelt creativity does not exclusively reap the rewards – take, for instance, David Bowie’s less than great ’90s period – this record is no different. Maybe ‘Riot Van’ ventures too close to juvenile and ‘Perhaps Vampires’ pushes them into a thrashier territory and results in the records most forgettable furore. But they’re undoubtedly some folks out there who would disagree, thus the old adage ‘you wouldn’t change a thing’ comes to mind. Every song is a patchworked part of a record that changed things. The evolution of music comes in fits and starts and 15 years ago today announced the arrival of a once in a generation British original.
A barnstorming debut breaking through, reaching lofty heights and changing the scene was nothing new, and neither was capturing youth. However, nothing seems to have woken up a generation whilst encapsulating perfectly the very abandon and adventure of young adulthood.
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. It is the joyous elucidation of scallywag days. Few have ever achieved this, and hardly any have done it with enough style, intelligence, and uncompromising intent to still stand up once the flowering of the era it stemmed from has withered away.
The perfect tableau for this being a tale regaled by the band themselves – they sat in a hushed local pub that erupted in euphoria when it was announced that their debut single had snatched number one. Little did they know that was probably a celebration never to be replicated by a band again.
The legacy of Whatever People Say I Am seems not only to be the arrival of a new generation but also the departure of the last of its kind. The scene now seems so devoid of a mainstream conquering voice that connects with youth or a coherent trend for the kids to cling to.
This may partly be owing to the industries reluctance to invest in self-fashioned scoundrels, in favour of more reliable engines of income, but this current lack of a culturally synonymous music scene has uniquely permeated the era as a whole. After all, it would seem since the advent of pop culture and history has ostensibly been defined much more so by music than politics or world events. You hear ‘the sixties’ and one of the first words brought to mind is ‘swinging’ – running alongside the apocalyptical tragedies of that decade is the great jaunt of peace and love, high on war surplus and psychedelics. And so on… all the way up to 15 years ago with the hair-bear-bunch of swept fringes, skinny jeans and fuzz-pedalled production. Following that, it seems to be a lot harder to identify prevailing music cultures, simply because there doesn’t seem to have been one.
There is an argument for SoundCloud rap or grime being the crowned genre of today’s’ crowd, but they haven’t achieved anywhere near the ubiquity of other trends in their heyday. Although some might affirm that these things become clear once time has rolled over and lifted the fog of noise, history seems to defy this assertion. By all accounts, there wasn’t a soul around in the ’60s unaware that they were in the zeal of a particularly powerful zeitgeist. And back in 2006, there wasn’t an old Auntie Jean in Britain that hadn’t heard ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’. Even Koko the signing simian was caught spelling out “over there there’s friends of mine.” The record was an unavoidable triumph, the likes of which you just don’t get from alternative culture today.
The requiem for consistent youth culture was ultimately served up when everything moved online. There was no longer any need to conform to that which surrounded you or to seek out a niche of your own. The internet came along and blurred the milieu of culture-defining microcosms and dispersed them into the insignificant macrocosm of the world wide web. And it’s not that little fads or pockets of sub-genres didn’t exist in the ’00s, it’s just back then if you were deep into Dutch Gabber or an early convert to krautrock then you wouldn’t find many people to talk to about it. Now you can log online, surf the lonely highways, and eventually find any number of keyboard chins to wag, which is all well and good on paper, discovering the ridiculous joys of music in its rich and varied guises is what it’s all about, but it has actually led to scenes becoming increasingly marginalised. Youth culture has broken up and moved online, resulting in once-treasured venues closing, longstanding publications going out of print, and musician’s pockets to feel the pinch.
Changing times aside, there also seems to be nobody really writing with that visceral daring attitude of adolescence. In the tradition of writers like Plath and Kerouac, Turner came along and seized the seething passions of youth, thrived on naïve recklessness, and made the sort of art that usurpers the status quo, and spawns a new generation of its own. Except for maybe Fontaines D.C. and a handful of others, nobody seems to be writing like this today and threatening the mainstream, which has created a disconnect with youth. That is not to say they’re no good songwriters coming through, there’s perhaps more talent struggling away in the murky depths of Spotify than ever before, but even with a lot of the very best modern acts, there is an undercurrent that seems to yearn for critical approval and a little nod from the ghost of Leonard Cohen, which would be all well and good if there was still someone vying for the youth vote like Arctic Monkeys did from the off.
There have many been albums released in the interim 15 years that rival Whatever People Say I Am’ for quality, but they’re very few amidst your record collection where you can say ‘I remember where I was when I first heard that’, and absolutely none where an entire generation can almost recite every word of every tune. Aside from banger after banger, it is this that singles it out from other indie albums, whether you loved it or loathed, continue to cherish it or have moved on, there is nobody who was left untouched by the record’s impact on youth culture.
And to those that say they have abandoned the bandwagon and moved on: of course, they have; their job is not to remain tethered to what once was and wheel out some aged abstraction of their former Promethean feat, but rather to plunder pastures new and take us along with them, while the task of capturing the riotous frolics of youth falls firmly on the shoulders of the pockmarked future. The stage seems perfectly set to be stormed by the next big thing to break through and deliver a message of hope in that old voice of ‘ink and rage’ that ‘manages to hit youth in just the right way and changes their whole perception on things’.