The Arctic Monkeys were in whiplash mode at the end of 2006. Their debut LP, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, came out at the start of the year and quickly turned the teenaged band into England’s own answer to the faltering garage rock revival. The first direct descendants of The Strokes and The Libertines, the former of which began to lose steam with their third album First Impressions of Earth, and the latter of which had been broken up for two years by the time the Monkeys themselves were ascending, the band were held up as proof that rock and roll was not dead yet, and in fact, was alive and in good hands.
With their first album becoming the fastest-selling debut in UK chart history, Arctic Monkeys bypassed the traditional slow road to success that most young bands face and instead were immediately commercially and critically successful. BRIT Awards, NME Awards, a Mercury Prize, Platinum certifications, number one chart stays, and Grammy nominations (the Grammys very rarely get anything right) all came flooding in, and the public was eager to hear what the band would do next.
Feeling the pressure of permeating the British mainstream music scene so quickly and thoroughly, the band decided to ride the wave of momentum and quickly began working on their follow up. Proceeded by the EP Who the Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys?, released just three months after their debut, and the single ‘Leave Before the Lights Come On’, the band intended to return to the studio immediately after their North American tour to begin production on their second album.
The whirlwind of fame would subsequently catch up with bassist Andy Nicholson, however, who decided to leave the band prior to their departure for the U.S leg of the tour. In order to avoid the same burnout, the band decided to take a few months off after their scheduled summer festival appearances and regroup at the end of the year.
Frontman Alex Turner decided to go on holiday with his new girlfriend Johanna Bennett, who would later front the short-lived band Totalizer and even later marry Kings of Leon guitarist Matthew Followill. As she describes it to The Observer in 2007, the two had “cut [them]selves off from everything. We were in a really quiet hotel and didn’t watch TV or listen to that much music. So as not to drive each other mad we started messing around with these words like a game, singing them to each other.”
“It started off as a joke,” Turner told NME in 2007. “Then it were like, ‘Here’s another verse.’ We were having a laugh. Some of the lines were hers. I couldn’t have not credited her. It’s just right, really.” What started off as a goofy attempt to rhyme words like ‘Tabasco’ and ‘rascal’ wound up taking shape as a story chronicling how age turns the excitement of youth into bitter nostalgia for the past.
The lyrics follow a woman who had previously been the life of the party: fishnets, Bloody Mary’s, and rough sex with electric boys (hence the title) are traded in for the boring reality of sameness, order, and maturity. The modern day is compared to a black hole, where sex tips are necessary for the spice that came so naturally in prior years. Thoughts turn to “the best you’ve ever had” as if to acknowledge that the best of life is squarely in the review mirror.
Although Turner and Bennett were only around 21-years-old when they wrote ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’, there’s a certain parallel to be found in the Arctic Monkeys’ incredible rise and uncertainty of their own future. It doesn’t seem too out of place to imagine Turner thinking about his own upcoming life, and whether the excitement and success that was only months old at the time was unable to be repeated. Bennett, too, could have been thinking with the same perspective: a recent university graduate who was now dating a rock star and was possibly poised to become one herself, when does one know when they’ve turned on to Last Laugh Lane, and when does one turn off it? Does it happen consciously? Has it possibly already happened?
‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ would be the band’s first single not solely credited to Turner, and it wouldn’t be until ‘R U Mine?’, the lead single to the band’s fifth LP AM co-written with Nicholson’s replacement Nick O’Malley, that Turner would again share songwriting credits on a single.
A verbose story song reminiscent of the tongue-twisting lyrical stylings of Elvis Costello and Damon Albarn, combined with the indie rock thump that the band still favoured in their own music at the time, ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ represented both the sound of the Arctic Monkeys’ past and their direction towards the future. More intellectual and conceptual than any of the songs on the band’s debut, ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ still retained the ragged and playful tone of a youthful band still largely in their early 20s. Pondering the fickle nature of nostalgia and sentimentality, the song was a turning point for Turner, who briefly relinquished complete artistic control, and for Arctic Monkeys, who forged a path ahead that would avoid the bitter reminiscing of days gone by with every subsequent release.