Hype is an interesting phenomenon. Advertisers try to create it. Any product, ranging from an eight-dollar movie ticket to the five-bladed razor, hopes to have it. And, in the artistic world, there is the constant fear of backlash, that this album or this film will not live up to the towers of press releases and hours of advertising, resulting in a gigantic consumer backlash and the inevitable ruination of said director or group’s good name and a long, slow climb back towards success (cf. George Lucas).
Thus we come to the Arctic Monkeys. And in so doing, we come to one of the most interesting aspects of hype and publicity: its selective presence. For while it is completely reasonable that as a temporary resident of Princeton, N.J. you are unaware of this band’s existence, such a state would be impossible to maintain if you were anywhere in England. In their native country, the Monkeys have been a phenomenon for over a year despite lacking a proper debut album – their success has been fueled by bootlegs, performances, and a frenzied press. Now that one has finally been released, it has broken all records for the fastest selling album in U.K. history.
The group was formed in 2003 by Alex Turner (vocals/guitar), Jamie Cook (guitar), Andy Nicholson (bass), and Matt Helders (drums). Their story involves people meeting in college, two of them receiving their instruments as Christmas presents, ferocious practicing of Strokes covers, and – of course – writing their own music. In late 2004, the band demos leaked onto the web – not a surprise since the band gave away the recordings at their shows, and this, combined with word of mouth and favorable press for a new rock band with danceable music and clever lyrics, began to get things moving. In May 2005, the band released an EP, Five Minutes with the Arctic Monkeys, and in June, despite studious avoidance of major label courtship, they signed with Domino. In August they played on one of the stages at the Reading and Leeds Festivals (the rough U.K. equivalent of the American indie-rockfest SXSW). Their grass roots campaign drew an audience of unexpected size to the show, and the U.K. media frenzy began. All of this, of course, long after the establishment of the band’s fan base via that boon to modern music: the mp3.
With this onset of serious press coverage came the expansion of the band’s popularity within the mainstream. The single “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” dropped in October and was followed in January with “When The Sun Goes Down” in preparation for the album’s release. Both songs reached No. 1. NME, which epitomizes the tendency of the U.K. press to blow things out of proportion, declared Turner “The Coolest Man On The Planet” in their annual “Cool List.” In January the album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, finally arrived, albeit only for English ears. To continue its tendency towards overblown characterization, NME has already called the album the fifth best record of all time. Which brings us to February 21, and the Monkeys’ very understated stateside arrival.
So what does one need to actually know about the Monkeys, and why and how have they managed this level of success? And why so little American press? Why no big MTV interviews or videos on TRL? Two reasons: one, the Monkeys have always done it themselves; and two, they are quintessentially British.
While The Monkeys have been hyped to death in their homeland, the fact remains that they made it on their own. Almost, if not all, of this album was available prior to its release through the Internet. As of this writing, if you go to the Monkeys’ Myspace account, you can hear the entire album without purchase. If you go to arctic-monkeys.com, you can download every demo track that isn’t yet available for sale. This is a band with immense faith in its fan base, and in the ability of the spoken word.
In many ways, then, The Monkeys are the counterweight to Coldplay, U2, and any other band that gets caught up in high-voiced wailing about abstract things. They fill a glorious little hole in the British pantheon, commenting on working class nightlife and bands in bars and underage drinking in straightforward terms, and do it so well and with such wit and charm that they have pulled a generation of U.K. teens behind them.
The Arctic Monkeys, you see, have a good kind of rock. They play brit-poppish post-punk rock that draws water from a reasonable selection of modern sources, such as The Strokes, Blur, Franz Ferdinand, and the Libertines. This is a nice, if not especially unique, description of the band. They come from a grand tradition. But they bypass it by being intelligent: it’s the difference between “derivative” and “inspired by.”
The Monkeys are not remaking “Kid A,” but they are not trying to. Instead they are clever. They make you want to dance, and make you want to sing along. If Helders is not the greatest drummer in the world, he certainly makes me want get out of my seat in a club or drive that much faster down the highway. The Bass lines either swagger or sprint, but never plod. Guitars jam on “Vampires May Be A Bit Strong But…” and float in a light strumming haze on “Riot Van.” They speed through chains of riffs on each track and often solo. There are no strange time signatures here, just good music. They like to use verse-chorus-verse and get away with it because of their most famous feature: their lyrics. Turner is a very clever writer, and rhymes like “Your name isn’t Rio, but I don’t care for sand / Lighting the fuse might result in a bang” make my world the smallest bit better. He sings in a fashion reminiscent of heightened speech or slow rapping, and in an accent thick enough to float rocks.
Whatever People Say I Am isn’t a concept album, but it could pass as one. The first track takes place the afternoon before going out, while the rest cover the full panoply of things one might see on a night out in Britain: the prostitute and her pimp on “When The Sun Goes Down;” the taxi stand fight of “Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured;” the tarted-up girl of “Still Take You Home.”
Yet as Turner cuts through the Sheffield nightlife, he is no detached narrator who despises the scene he prods. Punning about bands that can’t play (“All the weekend rock stars in the toilets / practicing their lines”) and jabbing at his own fumbling approaches to beautiful women (“I’m talking gibberish, tip of the tongue but I can’t deliver it”), he comes across as sympathetic to this entire social scene. This is best epitomized in the saunter of “A Certain Romance,” the album closer, which begins as a diatribe about youth subculture in which “there’s only music, so that there’s new ring tones” but closes as he confesses his own inability to escape from or really object to his own roots.
Their music is undeniably for the young: few people over thirty are concerned about angry bouncers persecuting them, or are going to empathize with tongue-tied romantics in nightclubs. But it’s because The Monkeys are young; Turner is twenty. At forty, they will be writing epigrams about accounting.
The Anglo-centric nature of the album makes it a hard sell over here, and it’s a shame, because it should not be. If we cannot pick up on the specifics, like the precise locations of Rotherham or Hunter’s Bar, the gist is more than clear. Any song that reaches its emotional climax as the singer screams how your girlfriend won’t be surprised to find that you drunk dialed her multiple times and left long, rambling phone messages is going to be amusing (and strangely poignant) to anyone who has actually been to a party and seen it happen.
Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I Am Not is not now and will never be the fifth best album of all time, but it is certainly a promising start for a young band. This only makes the absence of American hype a positive thing, because the album just has to be itself and be heard. Too much press has a nasty tendency to result in a backlash, and next year that will surely happen to some other darling that masses of critic fall for. But for now we have these fellows, their quirky, undeniably British album that also happens to rock, and their relentless attempts to make it available to everyone. That should be plenty for any American with an Internet connection.