Who the Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys: The Early Years
By Alex Rice
Everything played out exactly like a British Christmas movie; you could call this one Love Arcticly. Except, instead of Hugh Grant’s exceptionally wholesome onscreen persona, you get the real-life version of him that got caught with a sex worker in his car on Sunset Boulevard. Prostitution, Los Angeles; we’ll revisit those topics in due time, but first get your brain our of the gutter, because this story begins with two 16-year-old hip-hop heads from England finding their first guitars underneath the tree.
Neither Alex Turner nor Jamie Cook had an inkling of how to play their new electric instruments in late December 2002, but that was okay because their schoolmate and future timekeeper, Matt Helders, didn’t know the first thing about the drums himself. Why let inexperience stop them? Rounded out by bassist Andy Nicholson, Arctic Monkeys made their live debut less than six months later, at a pub called The Grapes in their northern hometown of Sheffield.
There may have been a learning curve for Turner on the guitar, but the precocious teen was already light years past his age as a songwriter and lyricist. Taking his cues from urban poet countrymen like The Streets’ Mike Skinner and The Libertines’ Pete Doherty, Turner was spewing out stream-of-consciousness yarns like “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” and “Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secure” while most of his peers were still trying to master the A-B-A-B rhyme scheme. The band recorded demos of these songs and others to hand out on CD-Rs at local gigs, but when a friend started sharing them online in 2004, Monkey Mania quickly became a global epidemic.
In keeping with the ascendant Arctics’ unstoppable trajectory, the hotly-anticipated Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not enjoyed unprecedented success from the outset. Upon its January 2006 release, the mouthful of an album shifted 120,000 copies in its first 24 hours on the shelves (tallying 363,000 in the first week), outselling what Oasis’s Definitely Maybe moved in week one in summer 1994 and replacing that seminal record as the fastest-selling debut LP in U.K. history.
Taking its title from a monologue in the critically-adored 1960 British film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Arctic Monkeys’ first record also simulates the weekend experience through its own version of kitchen sink realism. Opener “The View from the Afternoon” introduces this theme with a racket, as Turner nearly breaks the fourth wall to address the impossible standards of his own hype on the very first line: “Anticipation has a habit to set you up for disappointment in evening entertainment.” Next, he squeezes in references to Duran Duran, Shakespeare and Orwell in “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor, whose music video he introduced with a similarly matter-of-fact message: “We’re Arctic Monkeys. Don’t believe the hype.”
The band needn’t have hedged their bets, because Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not is just as classic as the most optimistic of prognostications had predicted (and there’s no shortage of those in the British press). Turner’s cutting wit and beyond-his-years observations of life in a mid-sized English city are on full display, from poser takedown “Fake Tales of San Francisco” to the hooligan-sympathizing “A Certain Romance” (whose guitar heroics are just as impressive). Known commodities such as “Dancefloor” were joined by future festival anthems like the hooky “Mardy Bum,” a colloquial plea for forgiveness from a stubborn lover, and the spiky “When the Sun Goes Down,” a loud-quiet-loud screed against the street urchins running prostitution rings in the scummier parts of Sheffield. Its title phrase (“They said it changes when the sun goes down”) came from a warning heeded to the band about their practice space, outside of which Nicholson was propositioned thusly: “That guitar bag looks heavy…”
The defensive Monkeys did their best to poke, prod and spur a backlash from the fickle U.K. music press, taking the journos to task on indie-rock diss tracks (a rare breed, sure) like “Perhaps Vampires is a Bit Strong But…” and refusing to appear on BBC’s Top of the Pops. The five-track EP Who the Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys? (released in May) foretold of a fallout that never came, while August’s ace non-album single “Leave Before the Lights Come On” felt like the group wondering aloud if they should quit while they were ahead.
Whatever People Say I Am was named album of the year by both Time and NME and awarded the British Phonographic Industry’s prestigious Mercury Prize. By the end of its campaign, Arctic Monkeys were billed second on their day of Reading and Leeds, a year removed from the sidest of side stages. All for good reason, because Whatever was an unthinkably great record for four unknown teens to create. Just think if Turner and Cook had gotten Xboxes for Christmas.
Alex Rice is the founder of Bandbox. His writing has appeared in the Denver Post, Guitar World and Minneapolis's City Pages.