Debunking the myth behind the Arctic Monkeys

by Caroline McKenzie | 2/27/06 6:00am

Anyone who follows news in the world of independent music has surely by now heard of the little band with the tragically bad name, Arctic Monkeys. Since the band's demos became available over the internet in late 2004, British youths have gone mad (perhaps "ape-sh*t" would be a more appropriate colloquialism) over the new thing from Sheffield, the city whose last great contribution to music came in the form of Jarvis Cocker and Pulp. Monkeys concerts began selling out before the band even had a contract; the boys, led by 19-year-old singer Alex Turner, began appearing in music rags nearly every month, and the country was generally enraptured with a band that made a name for itself purely from huge fan support.

Now, Arctic Monkeys have a contract and an album that not only became the fastest-selling debut in British history (even though most fans already had about half the album downloaded for free), but that was also named by NME as the fifth best rock album of all time. As the album dropped for its state-side release last Tuesday, Americans have their first (legal) chance to understand all the hype.

But perhaps the hype is the most interesting part of Arctic Monkeys. Pretty much, they seem like four average Adidas-clad English boys, complete with thick accents and the occasional misuse of subject-verb agreement. But the hype of these four lads can perhaps be understood as an end to two needs: firstly, the never-ending need to replace Pete and Carl, and, secondly, the recently resurfaced need to examine the British youth.

The first is easy enough to explain: Until what was once-termed "The New Rock Revolution" comes to an end, Britain will need something to fill the void left dishearteningly standing since the end of The Libertines. Pete and Carl deservedly won the hearts and minds of the British music scene. The quick breakup of the group created such a rupture as to leave the most rabid fans in search of something to fill the emptiness left behind. Arctic Monkeys excite their fans in a similar way, though, and thus of course there are comparisons to be drawn.

The second need can be understood partially through the album's title, "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not." Although the title seems merely cumbersome from a cursory look, it is, in actuality, a quotation from the classic British film "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" (which is, as an interesting sidenote, a personal favorite of Morrissey's). The film is an important addition to the "kitchen-sink" dramas and the "angry young men" generation of English writers in cinema and literature in the 1950s and '60s. The kitchen-sink dramas -- in some ways the British answer to neorealism -- embodied issues of the English working-class, and expressed feelings of social alienation and dissatisfaction with English society through often embittered young male characters.

While there's not quite the bitterness of the angry young men in today's British music scene, there is a preoccupation with expressing the everyday actions of the young members of blue-collar Britain that echoes the aims of those angry young men. This could easily be seen as having started with The Streets' dryly humorous raps that so perfectly embody the repetitious schedule of "pub, club and 9-to-5" life in England.

Perhaps it is not surprising then that Turner has stated, "I'd like to think I toe the line between Mike Skinner and Jarvis Cocker." The songs on "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not," are all about Saturday night in middle England: the pubs, the clubs, the terrible bands (such as in "Fake Tales of San Francisco"), the pushy bouncers ("From the Ritz to the Rubble"), the harassing cops ("Riot Van"), the pointless one-night stands ("Still Take You Home") and "kids who like to scrap with pool cues in their hands" ("A Certain Romance"). The album is like being taken for a night out in Sheffield, filled with brilliant quips ("There's only music so that there's new ring tones") and catchy melodies. The Monkeys seem to be questioning if there's more to working-class life than lager, cheap clubs and picking up girls. They're just out for a good time -- all the rest is propaganda.

The need and hype for Arctic Monkeys being understood, the next question that arises is, "Does the music live up to the hype?" In some ways, yes. Luckily, proper production hasn't made songs that were better-known in their demo incarnations super glossy -- all the songs have a rowdiness that conveys the rough-and-tumble aesthetic of the band. The album has a fast, energetic pace that is conveyed well by the way Turner nearly spits out words instead of singing them. Furthermore, the album smartly breaks mid-way to go down-tempo and semi-sober for "Riot Van." The song is a sort of lament, and it is a brilliant choice to slow down the album (the pace of which becomes slightly overbearing and repetitive in the two tracks immediately proceeding "Riot Van"). The song is in some ways witty ("Have you been drinking son? You don't look old enough to me. / I'm sorry officer is there a certain age you're supposed to be? / 'Cause nobody told me" ) but in other ways seems to express real pain and disillusionment ("Up rolled the riot van and these lads just wind the coppers up / They ask why they don't catch proper crooks") that most of the other songs merely numb with humor.

Another standout track, "When the Sun Goes Down," has a similar mix of humor and pathos. It starts with a simple guitar pluck and then questions, "So who's that girl there? / I wonder what went wrong so that she had to roam the streets / She doesn't do major credit cards; I doubt she does receipts / It's all not quite legitimate." From there the song morphs into a rollicking monster of a rock song that is, quite honestly -- albeit grimly -- fantastic, complete with a shout-out-loud chorus and an exhausting break-neck pace, until the last 30 seconds when it drags itself to completion in a similar way to which it began.

A personal favorite would have to be "Fake Tales of San Francisco," though. Like The Cribs before them who yelled out at "scensceters," Arctic Monkeys shout about being bored watching crappy bands perform at dull clubs. Filled with Briticisms ("You're not from New York City, you're from Rotherham"), amusing observations ("Yeah his bird thinks it's amazing, though, so all that's left / Is the proof that love's not only blind but deaf") and cheering of the mantra, "Get off the bandwagon and put down the handbook," it's brilliant fun.

But, unfortunately, and just like the lesser-known The Cribs again, the problem with Arctic Monkeys is that, no matter how good the words are, often the sound is not anything new. It's real, it's honest, it's funny, and it's energetic -- but the form is sometimes rather stale. It inspires a desire in the listener to love it, and to chant along with Turner as he pummels his way through the 40 or so minutes of the album, but not to have any reason to remember it when it's over. If the album is the Saturday night, perhaps the Sunday morning is when you wake up from the fuzziness and realize that the album seemed pretty good when you were intoxicated by its mood, but, rubbing your eyes, turning over and taking a second good look at it, you wonder if your love affair with the Arctic Monkeys will last.

Garage rock is in a rut, proliferated still with copy-cat bands and "hipster" sensibilities -- and while the Monkeys are a fantastic quick fix, they're not a lasting cure. Turner wishes to toe the line between Skinner and Cocker, but while he can claim to have a grasp on The Streets' insightfulness and some of Pulp's wit, Arctic Monkeys lacks both Skinner's and Cocker's innovation. Even The Libertines, with their Dickensian poetry, lyrical romanticization of Olde England and substance-addled love-hate-whatnot had a niche carved out in the now generic garage rock scene -- but the Arctic Monkeys seem not to have yet found how exactly to differentiate not only their words, but their sounds. "Whatever People Say" is surely a good and noble start, but as Skinner would say, "Let's push things forward," before we proclaim the Monkeys the new kings of rock.