When Arctic Monkeys emerged in the mid-2000s, Alex Turner’s no-holds-barred brand of lyricism is what people instantly gravitated towards. His words were relatable and styled in the same mould as those of great northern voices he grew up religiously reading.
The late Nottingham novelist Alan Sillitoe flexed his creativity with literature rather than music, but the reasoning behind his work was comparable to the teenage Turner. Along with writers such as Kingsley Amis, he was one of the “angry young men” whose work kicked out of the traditional system and told stories from the voiceless.
Arctic Monkeys’ debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, painted a picture of living for weekend inebriation familiar to millions, but not the utopian British life you see portrayed in Richard Curtis films.
The record’s title derives from Sillitoe’s 1951 debut novel, Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, which focuses on the anti-hero philanderer Arthur Seaton. Like Turner, he chose to write about what he knows rather than some elaborate story that bared no correlation to his own life.
The fictional Seaton worked at the same Raleigh Bicycle factory as his father, and it was all set in the familiar surroundings to Sillitoe. Although Arctic Monkeys’ debut offering was penned over half a century later, the themes of the two works bear a potent resemblance.
One section of the book particularly spoke to Turner and represented the essence of their debut in a singular paragraph. It reads, “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.”
Additionally, the cover art depicts the band’s friend, Chris McClure, smoking a cigarette. This photo was also influenced by images of working-class life that feature in Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and is further proof of the book’s influence.
While Sillitoe helped set the blueprint for their debut, the novelist’s son, David, criticised the band for not helping fund a statue to commemorate his father in Nottingham. After failing to raise the £80,000 required, he hit out at the group and told the BBC in 2013, “The Arctic Monkeys haven’t been any help and of course they took, for the title of that album, one of Alan’s immortal lines, so we’d like to hear from them.”
Adding: “[Alan Sillitoe] was acknowledged as an influence and I’m not necessarily saying there’s a quid pro quo (this for that), but we contacted the management and in the great tradition of rock and roll their offer of help was to send us a CD, which never arrived.”
Unfortunately, the relationship between the Sillitoe family and Arctic Monkeys has soured, but that doesn’t take anything away from the critical importance of the writer on shaping Turner’s cultural compass, which forged, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.