Songs of Innocence and Experience: revisiting the Arctic Monkeys debut ten years later

My town is nowhere you have been, but you know its ilk. – Colin Barrett, Young Skins

To be honest, The Strokes were really a big deal for us. That was a gateway to a lot of other music for me. There is always that one band that comes along when you are 14 or 15 years old that manages to hit you in just the right way and changes your whole perception of things. – Alex Turner

Alex Turner should be commemorated for being such a humble dude in the above quote, when you consider that for many of a certain age, Arctic Monkeys were exactly that band. Something it seems unlikely, he would be completely oblivious to. Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not was an early example of a band translating Internet hype into commercial success, becoming the fastest selling British debut ever. But in a way, it was also one of the last albums to do so. Arctic Monkeys arrived in that very short-lived period of time where both forms of musical consumption existed simultaneously. A band's Internet exposure could almost be directly translated into real world sales. Ten years on, there’s a rather large dissonance between what’s being hyped online and the music topping the charts.

It wasn’t just the impact on the music industry that makes Whatever People Say I Am… a significant release. It was responsible for producing a voice that hadn’t really been heard before in British guitar music and in turn, went on to produce a whole wave of imitators. Much in the same way The Strokes re-ignited rock music in the USA in 2001, with Julian Casablanca channelling the boredom and restlessness a new millennium brought with it. Super-trendy Brooklyn however, had been replaced by the outer-reaches of Sheffield as the battleground where a new generation was trying to find its voice. At the tender age of 13, what was instantly appealing about Whatever People Say I Am… was its sardonic streak; Alex Turner kept the outside world at bay with a sharp tongue and an impeccable eye for observation. It was incredibly appealing and an empowering tool for navigating the obstacles of puberty. But returning to the album a decade later, there is more to it than just detached irony. There is an affection for the world it is describing and the characters that inhabit it.

Compare it to ‘I Predict A Riot’ by the Kaiser Chiefs that belongs to a similar era of indie bands. In many ways, they’re talking about the same things as Turner: the British penchant for binge drinking and altercations. But looking back, there’s the feeling of snobbery to it, too reminiscent of the term ‘Chav’ and an acceptable almost institutional class hatred that was rampant in so much of the media about a decade ago. ‘A friend of a friend he got beaten / he looked the wrong way to a policeman’ the future ‘The Voice’ judge Ricky Wilson tells us. There’s not an ounce of believability to this line because its narrator is nothing but an impersonal observer, and contains none of the nuance of real life. What elevated Turner as a singer was the limitations placed on his narrative voice and his storytelling techniques. Turner could never come across with total indifference because he was too embedded in the situation, try as he might to distance himself through dry cynicism. Now take a look at Turner’s encounter with an officer of the law in ‘Riot Van’: “I’m sorry officer is there a certain age you’re supposed to be / ‘cause nobody told me”. You can almost see his mates sniggering behind him, as he brings himself to make the quip straight to the policeman’s face, burning with the courage a litre bottle of Strongbow has provided him with. These characters felt real, which in turn made them endearing.

At face value Whatever People Say I Am… could be interpreted as enforcing the perception of the North as a generally grim place. While the Arctic Monkeys’ world may have had grit, it wasn’t bleak. Alex Turner has an instinctual knowledge that creativity and expression can be used to elevate your surroundings. The album closer ‘A Certain Romance’ initially appeared like an ironic title, in the ten years since the song first came out, it has developed its own particular brand of romance. The passing of time brings with it an idolisation of youth, and its role as transitioning from the naivety of childhood to the harsh reality of adulthood and the beginning of self-realisation. There’s a rough beauty to the album, full of the vitality of life and the intensity of feeling. Whether the clumsy initial encounters with the opposite gender, or swapping jumpers to make another attempt at sneaking past the bouncers. The world Turner was describing wasn’t the one I lived in yet, but I already recognised it as the one I would inherit, and it wasn’t long before I was in it.

Maybe the band becoming The Strokes for a whole generation of British teenagers wasn’t an entirely good thing. It wasn’t long before the major labels had an echo chamber installed and the acts that followed produced diminishing returns. The band as well moved away from the regionally specific feel of their music, broadening their sound and image to appease a more global audience. But forget everything that came after it. Forget The Pigeon Detectives and forget The Enemy. For a small amount of time this album was the most succinct account of what it felt like to come of age in Britain at the beginning of the century.
Louis Ormesher

 

 

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