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Music | Opinion

Hear Me Out: Arctic Monkeys are the most pivotal rock band of the century


“That rock ‘n’ roll ay, it just won’t go away,” Alex Turner said in his BRITs speech/TedTalk. It was an Arctic Monkeys moment so cringeworthy it could snap a weak jaw. “It might hibernate from time to time and sink back into the swamp,” he continued in his affected Sheffield Sheriff drawl, before concluding, “It seems like it’s fading away sometimes, but it will never die.” 

It might have been a moment that could leave a sea-faring trauma surgeon feeling queasy, but as ever, its heart was in the right place, and it is a measure of the Monkeys that it is just about the most iconic BRITs acceptance speech of the century. There are now craft pints named after his “invoice me for the microphone” closer while you’d do well to remember a single BRITs winner from recent times never mind what they said. 

Granted, awkward orations – no matter how platitude-defying – are not a measure of the magnitude of a band. However, Turner’s sentiment was true and, despite what other column inches might claim including a colleague who recently questioned their credibility, music is subjective with good reason and from where I’m standing the Arctic Monkeys have done more than most to charm the gnarled monster of rock ‘n’ roll up from the plashy depths of whatever swamp Turner seems to think it cyclically sinks into. With an open platform, these pages must show why they are the heroes in the tale of modern music in my book.  

Five years before they burst onto the scene like pockmarked bandits, The Strokes had stoked the swamp in style. A generation were perked up to the sounds of a distorted six-string once more, and fringes crept across faces to show it. But by 2006, The Strokes had fallen, their output had been thrilling, and the masterful Room on Fire remains underappreciated, but 2005 saw them acquiesce to the dower territory of a rock band hoisted by their own petard.

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The next generation needed their mainstream entry point. That come-hither moment that opens the door to the bohemian world of culture and lets the kids in without checking IDs or usual gatekeeping standards. Many bands might have been producing great music in 2006, but that wouldn’t suffice when it comes to coaxing the rock ‘n’ roll monster from the mire in a revolutionary sense, and the Monkeys have resisted the trappings of their petard – whatever one of those is – and continued that journey ever since.

At this point, it seems pertinent to break from the usual third person, and offer up my own tale, because it will no doubt be reflected by your own personal corroborations. Phase one of the Monkeys meander was the moment that your head was turned by something truly singular and yet something that seemed akin to the introduction that Bob Dylan once received and truly hated: “Take him, you know him, he’s yours.” 

Despite the odious implication of ownership in that infamous quote, the point remains that certain artists seem to have some pivotal connection—a sense of familiarity with a marginalised mass, a voice – no matter how individualistic – that seems to amplify what others were thinking. There was a vital sense that these working-class scallywags in Sheffield Wednesday shirts incongruously quoting Shakespeare and other such poets were cut from the same tracksuit cloth as thee.

Knackered converse and tracky bottoms tucked in socks was a pastiche pop-riveted into the developing consciousness of a legion of youngsters taking their first steps towards individualism. And whether you loved them or loathed them, the lasso of their booming introduction to pop culture was inescapable. If rock ‘n’ roll is about putting noses out of joint with music, then even if you thought they were a force for the worse, then at least they were a force at a time when seismic musical waves were fading into the ether of the internet. 

Their debut went on to be the fastest-selling 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 who only liked rap, 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. And that is a fantastic feat that sadly has never been matched by any band since. 

Then came their second record. An evolution was evident – Matt Helders blasted ‘Brianstorm’ off with a blitzkrieg of stunning musicianship which remains under-credited to this day – but a continuation of singalong tracks was the name of the game. The hype seemed to be real, a golden run was afoot and young fans were certain their futures were safely assured in sandshoes. 

Then it happened. The disaster of Humbug. What was this horrible druggy mess and how can I live with this disappointment? The Rome of your youths lay in ruin as the boys grew their hair and bloody experimented. Then slowly, partly through apathy, partly through a curious intrigue, you would revisit the record. And there it was…

Alex Turner once said, “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.” But there is a second moment too, when a diegesis on what you thought was a straight journey to adulthood, takes a turn and offers up a leftfield future, offering a wider view. The bewitching blast of their debut was a cold splash of water that awoke you from childhood, but the perturbing come-hither of the masterful Humbug was the moment you realised that there was more to art than dancefloor-filling bangers. 

(Credit: Far Out / Gonzales Photo – Alamy / Harrison Qi / Wikimedia)

This swampy sound had substance; it was designed for the front-to-back of a vinyl LP. The slew of brilliant B-sides from the early era made it clear that they could’ve offered up Whatever People Say I Am Part III, but laurels are not something Turner cares to rest upon and the band dragged you along for the ride. For many of us, this was the moment that record collections expanded. Who was this golden Josh Homme character? Is Ozzy Osbourne not simply some bumbling man from reality TV? 

Enter Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age, Nick Cave, Black Sabbath and beyond. Would I, like you, have found these artists anyway? Most likely, but the process was accelerated by a band who were willing to break the norm, to risk the token platitude put-down of pretentiousness to bring forth wider horizons in style. And they have forever used their platform to do so ever since. 

Following the mania of the hip-hop-inflected AM which helped them to assail the foreign heights of America, the band decided to set up a lunar lounge bar in another move that avoided the grubby mittens of commercialism, and yet somehow still succeeded in both a chart and art sense and bombastically turned a second influx of fans onto the likes of Neil Postman novels of all things. But above all, this move to the moon proved a paradigm of where the Monkeys have triumphed: They have always remained culturally relevant with their output. 

Tranquillity Base Hotel + Casino was another step in the musical development of the band, but it wasn’t evolution for the sake of it. The band, like their fans, were no longer gallivanting around nightclubs, thus, they decided to take a wry look at the technological age of information overload. They are not alone in taking cognizant steps towards philosophical rock, but they are alone in headlining festivals and flogging tickets to 14-year-olds and grandparents as they do so. 

In truth, the ‘most pivotal rock band of the century’ is a bit of a bromide broad-stroke, but for argument’s sake, as history has decreed, if you want to be a pivotal rock band, then you’ve got to be a bit of a cultural phenomenon on the visceral edge of things. Headlining Glastonbury twice in only 16 years as a professional entity is certainly testimony to that. The rest is open to conjecture, but for my money, any band who can afford to leave ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’ out of their setlist is certainly worth their salt. 

Turner once crooned, “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes, now look at the mess you made me make,” and since those New Yorkers drifted away on sabbatical, the Monkeys have been the ones getting kids to fashion Elvis quiffs in the mirror or searching out another bandwagon in contrarian disgust—either way, in an age where online culture has blurred movements into a macrocosm whereby no scenes exist, the pivotal bipartisan impact of the band is a boon to culture, and from a fan’s point of view, the brilliant and ever-evolving music along the way has been an illuminating beauty to behold.

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