The Streets of Northern England
The Arctic Monkeys knock spots off every band except themselves. I don’t think I’ve seen so much acne in one place since the entire 5th form invaded the stage when Apocalypse played Archbishop Tenison’s. Blame these zits on their youth, on their background, on their lifestyle – in other words, blame them on all the things they sing about. For of Arctic Monkeys’ many charms, their greatest is their readiness to follow the first rule of literature: Write about what you know.
“What do you know? You don’t know tnothing
But yet I still take you home”
(‘Still Take You Home’)
Arctic Monkeys sing about trouble-seeking nightclub bouncers, girlfriend-stealing teenage boys, robot-dancing checkout girls, coke-snorting fake pop stars, and of trying to have fun at night without getting your head kicked in – in other words, about life as a group of spotty indie kids in the north of England in the early 21st Century. They do so in a proud Yorkshire accent, with a maximum of confidence and yet a minimum of ego. Along with the groundbreaking decision to give away an album’s worth of MP3s with the successful intent of gaining a live following, these attributes have made them the biggest new band in Britain since… well, since any band you can name whose second single went straight in at number 1.
At the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan last Wednesday night, a show upgraded from the smaller Mercury Lounge (which they also played the previous night), Arctic Monkeys revealed their evident strengths and potential weaknesses. They are not, let’s establish first, the world’s best live band. Not by a long shot. Comparisons to The Jam go little further than front man Alex Turner’s feather cut and Vox amp. Sure, Turner has star presence, and yes, he’s writing some of the most poignant working class lyrics in a generation, but the show was surprisingly short on volume and tension. Standing almost at stage front, I expected to get my ears burned by youthful exuberance; instead I tapped my feet impatiently while Turner and fellow guitarist James Cook spent whole minutes between songs retuning their Fenders. The group’s collective humility in the face of instant fame may serve them well in the long run (their web site makes absolutely no reference to their UK number one single) but in the short term this audience member could have done with just a little more engagement and presentation.
The seemingly random disbursement of their known songs was somewhat endearing – mega hit single ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ came unannounced, three songs in, and debut ‘Fake Tales Of San Francisco’ followed with equal understatement a few numbers later – but the lack of an encore following such a short set was all the more frustrating for the fact that they didn’t even play their superlative B-side, ‘Bigger Boys and Stolen Sweethearts,’ a tale of teenage inadequacy relayed from a pair of old shoulders.
“I know you thought she was different and you thought she were nice
But she’s not nice, she’s pretty fuckin’ far from nice
She’s looking at you funny, rarely looking at you twice”
(‘Bigger Boys and Stolen Sweethearts’)
But that’s enough by way of criticisms. After all, Arctic Monkeys are so young that they were breaking the law by drinking beer on stage. They’re so new to this game that Alex Turner expressed genuine amazement that the Bowery Ballroom features “velvet ropes an’ all.” (Alex, mate: every venue in New York City has velvet ropes.) They’re so inexperienced that they made the mistake of asking the audience “where you lot from then?” only to be rejoindered by predictable cries of “Sheffield,” their home town. And they’re so self-effacing that when a guitar strap broke, Turner winced: “That were embarrassing,” he said afterwards.
Paddy Casino, iJamming! Pubber standing alongside me, likened Arctic Monkeys to “the Minutemen playing Britpop” and, but for the reduced volume, he had a point. Drummer Matt Helders plays with an acute combination of aggression and sycopation, around which weight-challenged bassist Andy Nicholson delivers perfunctory bass, lead guitarist Cook offers angular guitar lines, and Turner plays the hopelessly reluctant pop star. By that, I mean he’s reluctant to act like one but it’s a lost cause: between his lyrics, his larynx and his looks, the boy’s destined to stay famous. The fact that he’s achieved that fame partly due to a great song about wanna-be pop stars makes his position all the more poignant.
“You’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham.”
So get off the bandwagon.”
(‘Fake Tales of San Francisco’)
Turner has declared that his songs are not about his native Sheffield, they’re about “people.” That’s as may be. But they’re certainly of the north. Musically, Arctic Monkeys could easily hail from Liverpool – they share the inherently complex arrangements and crafted story-telling tendencies of bands like Space and The Zutons. Lyrically, Turner paints cinematic vignettes of working class existence in much the same manner as The Streets’ Mike Skinner, but not only is Turner the indie underdog to Skinner’s cocky wide boy, he’s also the northern lad to Skinner’s born cockney. In the end, the Monkeys’ only peers in recent years are Sheffield’s own Pulp. (What do they put in that city’s water?) Yet while it took Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker around 35 years to come up with ‘Common People,’ it’s taken Turner less than 20 to pen ‘From the Rubble To The Ritz,’ the opening words of which had the New York crowd chanting along as if they’d been spent their whole lives lined up outside dodgy northern English discos.
“Last night these two bouncers and one of ‘em’s alright the other one’s a scary ‘un
‘Is way or no way, totalitarian
He’s got no time for ya lookin’ or breathin’…”
‘From the Ritz to The Rubble’ is poetry from opening line to last, a B-side that wastes not a single word. But in its violent honesty it’s merely emblematic of a live set that includes, in different songs, references to a “scumbag,” a “sexy little swine” and to kids in “Nike converse” who “act like a dickhead.” Against all this, the singalong hit ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ – which could have done with as much balls on stage as it emits on MP3 – is almost a wedding vow.
“Stop making the eyes at me and I’ll stop making my eyes at you
What really surprises me is that I don’t really want you to.”
(‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’)
Those who wonder if Arctic Monkeys are merely this year’s model, shortly to be replaced by next year’s hype, miss the point. In the UK, if you’re working class and you’re not what’s currently called a “chav,” then being in a band is less a matter of choice than a rite of passage – and the resultingly messy mass of music is, quite arguably, Britain’s greatest contribution to international pop culture. Who cares if some bands last longer than others? It’s the very turnover of talent that makes British pop culture so remarkable.
Ultimately, though, my opinion is irrelevant. Arctic Monkeys aren’t aiming for me, a middle-aged, middle-class male who grew up in the south of England. (Even if he was born in Yorkshire.) So instead, I’ll let the last words go to this contributor to the BBC Collective site.
“These aren’t the prententious skinny tie wearing plonkers who feel it’s there duty do be seen at fashion shows to get record deals. The Arctic Monkeys are REAL. It’s similar to how the Sex Pistols went about making songs back in the late 70s, but without the cultural shift.
So while in the South deluded gliterati snort and smoke there way onto the front pages and into clinics, us Northerners are getting high on life.”
And then I’ll note that, in the words of that great British poet Shelley, and more so than any band in years, Arctic Monkeys make me wish I was 16 again.