From the Rubble to the Ritz
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The Reasons Why Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not Remains Unmatched
I am five days late for its twelfth birthday but…
IN THIS PHOTO: Arctic Monkeys/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
whilst the balloons and cake have been cleared away; I have brought a late gift in the form of a personal dedication. It might sound a bit cheap and lazy not bringing something kick-ass and cool to a party – I feel the human and less commercial approach is more original. When thinking about Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not turning twelve; my mind can’t help thinking what its birthday would actually be like. There would be cans of beer and spray cans; baseball bats and bags of weed – some bricks in a backpack and plans of late-night high-jinx. 2006, when Arctic Monkeys’ debut was launched; it was an odd time for music. There were some great Rock albums released that year – including Muse’s epic Black Holes and Revelations – but the best albums that year were defined by a sense of bombast and commercialism. The previous year, which I shall look at in greater depth next week, gave us quality records from The White Stripes, Bloc Party and Gorillaz. Aside from Lily Allen’s Alright, Still and Joanna Newsom’s Ys – there weren’t that many standout albums that went against the mainstream grain. Maybe The Flaming Lips’ At War with the Mystics provided something a bit special and dangerous, I guess. My point is, after the eclectic and busy 2005; there were few out there expecting a young and untested Yorkshire band to take on the elite.
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No other band in 2006 crafted such an immediate and instant classic. There are a couple of reasons – besides me being a bit late – why I wanted to commemorate Arctic Monkeys’ debut. For one, it is twelve and has, in all that time, only grown in stature and meaning. Some could argue the likes of Arctic Monkeys were creating their version of Up the Bracket (The Libertines’ 2002 debut) and Is This It (2001 debut from the New York band). Those groups crafted something that represented modern life for the young. It was not the fake and plastic utterings of a mainstream puppet; it was more sincere and naked than anything you’d hear (tamely) dribbling from the speakers. The reason I have transposed the title of a Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not song – From the Ritz to the Rubble – is the way the band were elevated from local heroes status to modern kings. We are at a point where people are crying out for a working-class set of anthems like the Arctic Monkeys’ debut. We have a few bands who might make a charge this year: Shame, IDLES and Cabbage are a triumvirate of bands I keep mentioning. They are all honest and hard-working groups who refute the lure and tack of the mainstream...
IN THIS PHOTO: IDLES/PHOTO CREDIT: Ania Shrimpton
I am sure they will craft year-defining records (in 2018) but I wonder, deep in my heart, whether any can match the grandeur of Arctic Monkeys?! To my mind; there has been nothing as essential, unexpected and needed as Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. Maybe that is because of the poverty of expectation: media eyes are not pinning their hopes on a northern band having too much to say this year. That austerity of compassion is troubling me. Against turbulent financial times – compared with the South – artists in the North are, in my view, more creative, original and intriguing. They are taking more chances and not watching what everyone else is doing. If we are to see a genuine working-class movement take shape soon – it is going to come from the North, that is for sure! The last properly-good album a debut British band made was Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. That may seem like a controversial viewpoint – but let us assess the evidence. Take all the bands and artists, since 2006, which have been compared with the Sheffield band - every guitar-based Alternative act who has an ounce of social common sense is compared to them. Many have tried to recapture the spark and genius of that album: none have matched those giddy heights!
The album, conceptually, concerns the lives of northern clubbers. It is a window into what many (in the North) might have seen on an average Friday night back then – it might still well be! Away from the banal bands talking about love and their loserdom lives: Arctic Monkeys arrived with a compelling set of songs that mixed awkward dancers and wannabe Romeo and Juliets (I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor) to coked-up anti-heroes in Fake Tales of San Francisco (“And all the weekend Rockstars are in the toilets/Practicing their lines”) – it is a rare insight into a world many of us do not know. It is not a shock to see so many bands try to provide their own interpretation of Arctic Monkeys’ debut album. This is one reason why Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not continues to resonate: it is evident in the work of all the best new bands. I can hear embers and snatches of Arctic Monkeys in Shame and IDLES. We need to start narrowing the gap between the North and South; ensure there is not the same ignorance towards northern music as there has been in previous years. In 2006, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not was a radical and much-needed cocktail of truth. Twelve years on, with the country more split and confused; the record holds a more significant place. Songs on the L.P. look at financial struggle and tenement fights; the young self-destructing and deluded people trying to achieve dreams they know are beyond that. It all sounds gloomy but, when you look at the lyrics (more on that soon); you realise what a work it is.
The reasons why Arctic Monkeys’ debut should be reinvestigated this year is down to its success, reviews and themes. The Sheffield band is teasing suggestions of a sixth album this year – it would arrive five years after their last, AM. I am not sure how the band will adapt to their increased fame and changing lives. They are wealthier and more secure than they were back in 2006. Although their situations have improved; every album that followed Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not has connected with fans and critics. There are obvious explanations for this consistency. The band, despite their fame, is grounded and who they always were. They do not fully subscribe to the L.A. Rockstar lifestyle: all the drugs, drink and shallow wealth. When their debut arrived; people were blown away by the freshness and quality from a band virtually unknown. Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not sold 360,000 in its first week and is still the fastest-selling debut by a band. Of the thirteen tracks; there are some from their original E.P., Five Minutes with Arctic Monkeys – alongside their first two singles and U.K. number-ones. It went on to scoop the (2006) Mercury Music Prize and, years down the tracks, appear in the high-positions of journalists ‘Best Rock Albums Ever/of the Decade (the ’00s).
Songs like From the Ritz to the Rubble concern nightclub bouncers. Frontman/songwriter Alex Turner was writing about nightclub-goers and pissed-up drinkers. A Certain Romance scorns local townies; Fake Tales of San Francisco is about delusional types who think they are in California – even though they are in Rotherham! When the Sun Goes Down looks at prostitution whilst Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured is about the perils of hailing a taxi after pubs close. The songs are without ego but real; they are a transparent viewpoint of youth and life in the North. Artists are not really writing about this kind of lifestyle now – bar the bands I mentioned earlier! – and, even in 2006, Arctic Monkeys were a bolt out of the blue. It is no surprise the album made such an impact and scooped awards. It is even less of a surprise it has collected honours and acclaim years after its release. Not only did Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not lead to a demand for more albums - but it stands as a stunning work that has inspired countless modern artists. So many bands picked up guitars following that album. Its revelation was a relief and explosion the music world needed! Running alongside all the history and influence is the quality that runs right through Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not.
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With Turner on Lead and Rhythm Guitar; Jamie Cook offering similar guitar support (and Backing Vocals); Andy Nicholson on Backing Vocals and Bass (the only album he would feature on) and the always-stunning Matt Helders on percussion – the ultra-talented quartet were destined for acclaim and attention. The songs are compelling and unusual but so tight and focused. There are some ragged edges here and there but, for the for the most part; the band are completely engaged and in-step with one another. One gets all the smells, booze and fights in the music; you experience the physicality and sentient reality of the music through the performance. Lesser bands – and many since then – would pen songs whose knuckles dragged along the ground. In Alex Turner, the band had a Yorkshire Oscar Wilde: a wildly witty observer who could assess humans and deflate egos at the stroke of a pen. Turner’s modern-day Wildean commentaries came with plenty of swagger, quotable lines and narrative fascination. One can chart the album as a night out. You have the arrival and indication of what is to come in View from the Afternoon (“Anticipation has a habit to set you up…” – although, some claim the song refers to the band and their attempt to temper the hype they were getting from critics) and the beautifully rich and well-observed world in Fake Tales of San Francisco. That song, in itself, is a world all of its own.
One follows the Rockstars in the toilets and the girl getting the ‘escape call’ during the pub gig – she has been saved from a sh*t gig – and the general aura of chaos and seriously lowered inhibitions. From Dancing Shoes to Still Take You Home (tracks four and six) there are those looks at lashed-up women and poor judgement (they might be a bit rough and off their tits; still worth a go, mind…). Riot Van is the inevitable conclusion of a lary night: Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured is the fleeing and pissed club-goers trying to flag a taxi. Mardy Bum and Maybe Vampires Is a Bit Strong But... address love (or versions of) whilst When the Sun Goes Down is the local prostitutes looking for impressionable and willing punters – and the story of a seemingly domesticated woman turning into an anti-superhero when the working day is done. That is what you get with the album: stockings and cheating spouses; real conversations and the humour one finds in northern neighbourhoods. A Certain Romance ends things, and with it, inculpation and exoneration. Turner judges the townies and locals but, strangely, lets them off the hook by the end. That contrast and capriciousness sum the album up. You see the wreckage and waste of drunkenness and wonder whether it is condemnation or acceptance of modern youth. There are figures given a dressing-down but, above all, the band is part of the action. Turner and his cohorts might be the intellectually superior and wiser contemporaries – they are still there and willing to indulge the losers and view from afar. Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not neither eviscerates nor glamorises: it projects a single night (or series of...) in Yorkshire. The songs are indelible and, every time they are played on the radio (not as often as they should be) one gets heady recollections of 2006. I hope Arctic Monkeys come back with something stunning and fulfilling this year. We need an album that talks about modern Britain. It will not be the same youth-obsessed and drunken L.P. as Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, that's for sure!.Whatever the band come up with; I know it will be extraordinary and unbeatable. The fact they have come this far, and are still talked about as one of the world’s best bands is because of…
PHOTO CREDIT: Press
THEIR peerless debut album.