Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Band of the Decade - Arctic Monkeys

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) Gobshout.com. It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...

I remember it as though it was yesterday. Sat on the sofa in a student flat in Cardiff, working hard on my Masters dissertation by turning half an ounce of nature's finest into thin grey smoke and splitting headaches. In the background, one of the two awful free music channels offered on Freeview to poverty-laden students plays terrible pop music. It barely impacts. Then a voice says: "We're Arctic Monkeys, don't believe the 'ype". It's impossible to convey it in writing, but it was more than sufficient to drag my attention from the laptop screen.

As statements of intent go, "Don't believe the hype" is up there with The Manics "You Love Us", or Morrissey's debut attestation that "we may be hidden by rags / but we've something they'll never have". What happened over the next four minutes was nothing less than revolutionary. Alex Turner, looking like a mixture of a young Paul Weller and a startled rabbit, tore through the bands debut mainstream release with an energy and force that had been, in my mind, almost entirely absent from British music for a few years. Instantly I was hooked. This band seemed so fresh, so completely new and Alex Turner seemed like an instant successor to the lyricist-of-the-people crown held previously by Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker. This was a week before the single release and I don’t really like the idea of illegal downloading, especially not for impoverished new bands, and so I remember queuing outside a record shop the following Monday. For “queuing”, you probably should read “waiting alone like a devoted sap in the Welsh cold”, but “queuing” sounds so much more romantic.

Fortunately, it was all worth it. Even the B-side (the truly immense Bigger Boys and Stolen Sweethearts) was an indication of how important this band were going to be. This of course turned out to be very prophetic as the band’s debut went on to become the fastest selling debut long-player in British history (recently replaced of course by Susan Boyle. Thanks, Britain). The record is easily the best document of what it’s like to be young in modern urban Britain: it made me feel old at age 22. But it was one of the greatest things I’d ever heard, up there with the classic albums I remember hearing for the first time (Definitely Maybe, Different Class et al).

If you’re reading this website, you already know what happens next. Arctic Monkeys went on to sell out large venues (with Turner occasionally less than sober), produce a string of brilliant A-sides, backed up with B-sides that Oasis would be proud of. The second album proved to be an evolution of their sound, but still with much the same structure. A bigger emphasis on ballads (The Only Ones Who Know and 505) gave the band more depth and proved to anyone still doubting that Alex Turner was the lyricist of his generation. A headline slot at Glastonbury, becoming one of the youngest headliners the festival had seen, seemed to be more than enough reward. Alex Turner seemed nervous in front of the biggest audience of their career by a long draw, but the music was nevertheless assured and accomplished.

Then for a while it all went quiet. But quiet was just what it was not. Recording in the middle of the Mojave desert with rock’s hard man Josh Homme, Arctic Monkeys returned with an album (and a look) completely at odds with what had gone before. A harder edge to the same lyrical staples, louder, much more psychedelic, all capped with a new look more befitting early Sabbath. It alienated some of the more fickle parts of their fanbase, but their decision to do this is one of the many things that marks the band apart.

So are they the greatest band of the decade? I think that’s entirely subjective, and if you don’t think so then this article isn’t likely to do anything to persuade you otherwise. But I will say this: as far as capturing a snapshot of British youth in the noughties goes, you’d have to walk a long way to do better. I submit this thought for your consideration.

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