Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Richard Kelly)

Music

Dissecting the narrative of Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’

@TomTaylorFO

16 years ago, Arctic Monkeys released their era-defining debut record. Now, in the right light, it could probably get served in one of the less scrupulous bars in Sheffield. Hidden within the record was a concept—well, not so much a concept and more so a story, a sort of auteur tale of the scallywag’s weekend of choice. Millions of folks around the world identified with this story, the hype was believed, and the rest, as they say, is ancient history. To celebrate the moment that the masses pushed it to number one, we’re delving deep into that tale and putting you as the protagonist. We present to you, the Friday night to Sunday afternoon of Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.

The context

You look up from the factory floor at the clock with the sort of scowl that the old primary school bully used to reserve for the moments when he was certain Mrs Backhouse wasn’t looking. The hour hand belligerently refuses to budge. You are reminded by the football crest on a co-worker’s tea-stained mug that you once had trials at Sheffield Wednesday and that same night, through MSN networking, you secured yourself two separate weekend snogs. Those old glossy-eyed days are now distant. Still, it’ll be alright in an hour or two when the piled-up passions of the week get a chance to explode in a storm of sticky carpets and barely drinkable special offer mixers.

‘The View From the Afternoon’

So, you turn away from the clock with a shit-eating grin on your face, because soon the weekend will be upon you, and you’ll bathe in its raucous glow. For now, you’ll bear the last hour of your shift at a half-arsed pace with an expectant smile. Sometimes anticipation has a habit to set you up for disappointment, but you seem to know, that tonight will be different, tonight there’ll be some love.

The Title

After all, in the words of that old Alan Sillitoe English assignment that once struck a chord: “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.” That book is befittingly called Saturday Night & Sunday Morning.

‘Mardy Bum’

A quick post-work pint with the first co-workers you’ll know and subsequently forget has waylaid your journey home. By the time you catch the bus, the rest of the weekend warriors have scurried out of their offices in souped-up Ford Ka’s and the traffic is a state. The trepidation in your paused hand that fails to tap on your girlfriend’s door for a pregnant second foretells the barrel of a gun that you will soon be looking doon. She opens the door, and it goes off in an instant. As you try to temper her tongue-lashing mardy, there is a hint in your calming hand gestures that although you say that you care, you clearly don’t, no, you clearly don’t. With the trip proving fruitless and a gig to fulfil that evening, like a fellow from a blues song a hundred years earlier, you hit the road jack. 

‘When the Sun Goes Down’

On the way back to your place, the scenes of a Friday night are shapeshifting into place. The city settles into its final dress and as you hurriedly bumble through it, the weekend rats begin their scurrying. Who’s that girl there, you wonder as you pass a half-familiar face from the estate rendered unrecognisable by enough make-up for the cast of an entire pantomime and the sort of look that couldn’t kill, but it could commit a genocide. Then her disposition becomes clear as a scummy man inconspicuously pulls around the corner in his Ford Mondeo despite the driving ban. She leaps into the open door and settles into his nasty plan like a pawn. This isn’t overly despairing to you because you’re young and there is a certain grimy frisson to the gritty vignette, but years down the line these scenes will be a scourge and you’ll extricate somewhere gentrified like Beverly Hills or The Tranquillity Base Hotel. 

‘A View from Part II’

Settling into the pub with your pals, your own weekend suddenly begins to take shape. Two for ones go down like toffees, very horrible tasting toffees at that. Somewhere over your shoulder, a man drops the bandit and puts it all back in like the world’s first perpetual motion machine. All the while your pre-gig drinks steadily flow and soon that Sony Erikson is out of your pocket. Your staggering finger presses the star after it’s pressed unlock and you will survey the devastation of your drunken Shakespeare ways in the morning—knowing full well that the only conclusion is that you’ve drank a lot. 

‘Fake Tales of San Francisco’

Following on from a super-cool band with their trilbies and their glasses of white wine, you open your set with a cover of ‘Harmonic Generator’ by The Datsuns. In the amplified hum of the nervous gap between Datsuns and a Strokes cover, you hear a girl rush towards the exit with her phone in hand. And with an ear that barely has to squint you hear her yell, “Oh, you’ve saved me,” she screams down the line, “the band were fucking wank and I’m not having a nice time.”

‘Dancing Shoes’

With the post-gig buzz rattling through your system like you’re some sort of human wah-wah bar, you head off into the night like a weekend rock star. This brimming confidence is quickly fizzled out by a sight that proves as buzz absorbing as the earth on a wire. You’ve seen your future bride and anchors plummet from your feet. This is what you’ve been waiting for but it is as though you’ve been trying to get to heaven in a hurry and now that queue was shorter than you thought it would be. It’s the only reason that you came, but the thought you would say the first word seems so, so absurd that you let the moment somehow gladly but reluctantly slip right by. 

‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’

The night is reaching a fever pitch as you move on to the next bar. To your amazement, this one could basically be classed as a nightclub and the bouncer looked the other way. The DJ is playing ‘Rio’ by Duran Duran and alcohol has caused your toes to tap towards something resembling a dance, despite the fact your feet stick to the floor like the wrapper on a warm Chewitt. You will a girl onto the dancefloor with your drunken totemic gaze. But there ain’t no Romeos or Capulets in this lair and all you can do is imagine her twists as your swollen eyes fail to make her budge from the drinking booths and you drift into a drunken stupor of cold hard joy and regret. At least your mind has swirled a hit song into focus, there is certainly solace in that.

‘Red Light Indicates Doors are Secured’

A thousand boxers ring walks spill out onto the streets with the background sound of indie growing loud and quiet depending on the swing of the exit door. You unpack the incidents of the night in a takeaway, barely able to read the board. The next thing you know, like some Abra-Kebabra magic trick, you’re in the back of a taxi and suddenly sober. Thoughts drift towards the frozen girl in the nightclub and you wonder whether she’s twisting yet. You want to get out, but sadly the handle won’t budge and the red light on the door proves just as damning.

Saturday – ‘From The Ritz to The Rubble’ & ‘Perhaps Vampires…’

Magically, you have woken up without a hangover just a slew of sorry texts. By all accounts, your gig went well and all the leaching vampires with stolen stories who weren’t even there have been quick to tell you just that. In ten years’ time, these folks will also tell you that you have changed when you decide to leave Sheffield and record Humbug, they’d hoped you’d be as immovably tethered to fading nostalgia as them. 

The night has shaped up the same as the one before, and, in fact, every Saturday since you were 16. However, the gaudy glow of a glittering nightclub that attracts Topshop instead of Primark gleams like a beacon afore your drunken eyes. A few ‘great gig last night, pal’ pats on your polo-shirted shoulder has brimmed your ego and added a year onto your ID. Only the totalitarian bouncer sees it differently and no amount of jumpers in the world could fool his piercing stare. When the ruckus kicks off you’re out on your arse with a red flag of scarlet all down your front.

‘Riot Van’

The police have no problem identifying you as miscreant amid all the Saturday revellers. Your wisecracks about the drinking age only worsen your plight. The phosphorescent glow of the rear of a ‘Riot Van’ almost detaches your drunken retinas and its sobering effect is almost confusing. A night in a cell will soon follow, it is an anecdote no doubt, but bludgeoning anger builds within as you cogitate over the fact that your friends failed to be there the moment you believed you saw the coppers kick someone in. The drunk tank is suddenly less romantic than you thought it would be but you’ll have to take it on the chin. 

‘A Certain Romance’

Released from the station and staggering home as though you’re a thousand years older. The dawning sky is like a week-old bruise and a council road sweeper hums by. The city is strewn with remnants of the night before in blemishes of sick, smashed bottles, a feast for seagulls and the occasional mystery stiletto, whose former owner you briefly wonder about before your mind drifts elsewhere. Before you know it, a text bleeps onto your Sony, which remarkably still has 93% charge. It reads: “We in da Parrot’s Beak if u fcny it?” You stagger your way there. When you arrive you are greeted by a cacophony of faces all plastered with a ‘you wouldn’t believe the story I have to tell’ smile and you quietly conclude, “What can I say? I’ve known ’em for a long long time And, yeah, they might overstep the line But you just cannot get angry in the same way.”