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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I Am Not


1) The View From The Afternoon; 2) I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor; 3) Fake Tales Of San Francisco; 4) Dancing Shoes; 5) You Probably Couldn't See For The Lights But You Were Staring Straight At Me; 6) Still Take You Home; 7) Riot Van; 8) Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secure; 9) Mardy Bum; 10) When The Sun Goes Down; 11) From The Ritz To The Rubble; 12) A Certain Romance.

In January 2006, British audiences have once again demonstrated that their average tastes are still more «rock-based» and less eroded by the onslaught of crap marketing than the average Ameri­can tastes — by spinning all the way up to No. 1 the debut album of this, still relatively little known, Sheffield band. Critical and commercial response, over a one-year period, have pretty much transformed The Arctic Monkeys into The Jam of their generation, and now it was up to the Monkeys to prove that they had something to offer history that the Jam already had not — or, perhaps, not to prove anything, but simply to fill in the old pair of shoes that, for every new gene­ration, needs to be filled in by a pair of young stinkless feet.

But I am in a little trouble here. I have never liked The Jam all that much; I liked Blur and Oasis a lit­tle bit better, but not enough to worship at their altar; and as for the band's more immediate influ­ences including The Strokes and The Libertines — the obvious question is, what kind of space are these influences actually leaving this new band to stand out on its own?

No space at all, except for the kind of space that is inevitably provided by the passing of time. Alex Turner (lead vocals, guitar, lyrics), Jamie Cook (guitar), Nick O'Malley (bass), and Matt Helders (drums) are a bunch of kids who grew up in 1990s Britain, and are obviously reflecting 1990s Britain (they are also quite obviously influenced by older music, which they freely admit, but it is safe to assume they grew up on Blur rather than Beatles). They are young, moderately intelligent — the moderate way you'd expect from a bunch of middle-class Sheffield kids — and very, very relevant. So relevant, in fact, that even Gordon Brown had to admit to liking them (say­ing something along the lines of 'they really wake you up in the morning' and sending the whole nation up in hysteria at the thought of the Right Honourable MP hopping in the direction of the bathroom to the bright sounds of 'I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor').

If it is still possible, today, to make interesting music with bass, drums, and two electric guitars with no special effects, then The Arctic Monkeys make interesting music, or at least honestly try to. Their style is «punk pop», with an occasional outburst or two of outside influences like ska, and they are constantly looking for unusual riffs, time signature varieties even within two-minute long songs, and non-trivial decisions for the vocal hooks. Of course, there is never any guarantee that these riffs and hooks are completely fresh — any major connoisseur of punk and pop will be able to trace these elements back thirty years — but, just like The Jam thirty years back, they are seriously striving to create their own brand of songwriting. And (no question about it) they rock; this is not some sort of sanitized alternative bullshit, but a very live, angry, sharp sound.

Are the individual songs memorable? To their young audiences, I can imagine, they will be very much so, but against the background of fifty years of guitar-based rock records, they really look like, well, just another guitar-based rock band. Strange enough, the thing that lingered in my own brain longer than anything else was not their riffs, but rather Turner and Co.'s crazy vocal explo­sions — such as 'I don't want to hear you... KICK ME OUT, KICK ME OUT!' ('Fake Tales Of San Francisco'), or the immortal line 'Get on your dancing shoes, you sexy little swine' (sic!!), which I will treasure forever. These, at least, feel more 'immediate' than the melodies — the me­lodies place too much emphasis on smartness, and in the end I am not too sure if I am supposed to just bop and drop to those beats or to view them in a post-modern light, or both.

But the saddest thing is that I just cannot appreciate the atmosphere of it all. There is a big, ugly, smelly difference between the whole goddamn aura of Whatever People Say I Am and, let's say, Paul Weller's This Is The Modern World. In the late 1970's, British youth — not all of it, but the smartest part of it — was breathing discontent, and their spiritual leaders were singing and playing about getting out of this fucked-up place. The Arctic Monkeys, children of a (mostly) satisfied and content generation (in relative comparison, of course), are singing and playing about the drugged charms of this fucked-up place. Their attitude may be ironic — I hope it is ironic, at least in part; no, screw that, I know it is ironic, they have too many different words in their lyrics and too many notes in their melodies to be truly dumb — but if so, not many will see the irony, and those that will might think twice about headbanging to this music, which, controversially, is the most natural reaction to it.

Whatever People Say I Am is a loud, gruff record about the lives of loud, gruff people living loud, gruff club-lives that tempt them into using only one particular side of their brain, the one that is responsible for animal pleasures. All of the album's twelve songs are like one big concep­tual ensemble of a 12-hour period in the life of a jaded clubber. Typical subjects: [a] music, [b] dancing, [c] drinking, [d] necking / pulling / shagging, [e] talking trash, [f] various other human-level manners of animalizing. Sung in a brawny, disrespectful manner with a thick, almost inten­tionally amplified Yorkshire accent. Accompanied by music that is technically and theoretically «rock» but, once you start thinking about it, owes just as much to the hedonistic synth-pop of Duran Duran (for those who doubt it, Turner has dropped an extra lyrical cue in one of the lines on 'I Bet You Look Good') — and is a perfect match for the lyrical subjects.

A perfect symbol of the album's ambiguity is its cover, a photo of one of the band's friends (Chris McClure, frontman of The Violet May) taking a cigarette puff in Liverpool's famous Korova bar in the early morning hours. As a photo, it's an amazing piece of work — few images convey the idea of feeling absolutely terrific and like total shit at the exact same time. As food for thought, though, it's a serious downer. We need not feed ourselves illusions: the majority of the album's audience will simply use it for having a good party time, just like the majority of the Jam's audi­ence would use their music in 1977. However, the minority of the Jam's audience would be likely to sit down, listen, and be prompted into some kind of meaningful action. In the case of the Arc­tic Monkeys, though, I have no idea what the minority of their audience would be prompted into. Going out and simply hanging or shooting themselves is my best guess. 'Get on your dancing shoes, there's one thing on your mind'.

I like the Arctic Monkeys, really, I do. They are creative, intelligent, and when you see them playing onstage, they always look like the kind of smug, self-assured pricks that think of the rest of the world as undeserving crap — a very positive and healthy attitude. Even if I forget every single song of theirs tomorrow, today I still give this album a thumbs up for all the stimulating it does. I simply happen to hate the world that has produced the Arctic Monkeys. Clubbers, party animals, hipsters, Korova bars, 'banging tunes and DJ sets', 'lad at the side drinking a Smirnoff Ice came and paid for her Tro­pical Reef', 'classic Reeboks or knackered Converse' — could we have a hydrogen bomb for all that stuff and all the causes that cause that stuff and all the reasons underlying the causes that cause that stuff, too? Pretty please.


  1. Fake tales of San Francisco echo thru the room...

  2. This album's pretty much the Licensed To Ill, by Beastie Boys, of its day. Both albums focus on the shallow boozing, clubbing and fucking lifestyle through a wry sense of irony, and this is done through witty wordplay (more overtly done in Arctic Monkeys case). The music is similar too, once you look past the difference in choice of genre (rap or rock). Loud, gruff, clubbing music.

    Hell, this album even came about 20 years after Licensed To Ill did.