Arctic Monkeys exploded onto the scene with their show-stopping debut album ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’. The record would become as generation-defining as any that came before it and solidify itself as the poster album of the period. British guitar music was already enjoying a renascence curtesy of bands such as Franz Ferdinand and The Libertines but it’s ‘Whatever People Say I Am…’ that is undoubtedly the period’s finest hour.
Back in 2006, the UK hadn’t known anything like the hysteria created around the band. The excitement that surrounded the album’s release was largely generated by fans of the band online, a medium that would later prove to be one of the most fool proof ways to generate a following, but Arctic Monkeys were the first band to do it.
Gigs went from empty to packed in a matter of weeks, their witty, northern dialect swept across the nation and lead to them selling out gigs as far south as Portsmouth before their debut album had even been released. This was some feat for four working class lads from Sheffield, who were the first band to have such an impact since five working class lads from Manchester had a similar impact almost 10 years before. The album well and truly lived up to hype surrounding it, and replaced Oasis as the quickest selling debut record in British history; selling a massive 360,000 units in its first week.
Musically, the album is incredibly fresh sounding and, even 15 years later, would fit right into the current landscape if it was released today. The sound itself is a tricky one to pin down; the band have said themselves that it’s The Strokes’ ‘Is This it’ that inspired them to pick up their instruments and there’s clear nods in the direction of the New York band. This can be heard in the distorted and raspy vocal sound on ‘Dancing Shoes’, a song in which the band’s lead singer, Alex Turner seems to bark at you rather than sing, just as the vocal on The Strokes’ ‘Last Nite’ does. The extended, drum driven intros on a number of tracks also nod in The Strokes’ direction and go a long way towards moulding the record’s overall sound. The guitar sound is a kind of groovy, funk-punk that drives as well as bites; ‘Still Take You Home’, for example, throws you about with a post punk inspired riff before pinning you down and settling into a more steady rhythm. It’s hard not to hear the influence of Franz Ferdinand here and theirs is an influence shown at various points in the album, but Arctic Monkeys still manage to retain a fresh sound.
The rhythm section often takes inspiration from the push-beat sound adopted by the Ska revival bands of the late 70s; ‘Fake takes of San Fransisco’ exemplifies this with its funky driven rhythm while also showing the band to be eagerly searching for their own unique sound. I don’t think the band took the time to figure out who their influencers were and who they wanted to ultimately emulate so much as just hunting for a fresh sound they hadn’t heard before. What they seem to yield is a culmination of different sounds that are derivative yet fresh in their nature.
I think the album’s mastery is showcased best in its lyrics. Alex Turner was writing about the same things most other bands were at the time, and yet he writes about them in such a way that they seem to resinate more with the listener. Many of the songs tell stories of late night antics, as seen through Turner’s observant eye, and they effortlessly capture the various atmospheres he creates. You can picture the nightclub bouncers, the fight on the taxi rank, and the girl in the green dress sat at the bar as if you were there. The lyrics also come with a confident, cocky wit that is driven home by Turner’s tendency to fill the lyrics with local pronunciations; his Yorkshire take on words like “summat”, “reyt” and “owt” are used in abundance and help to give the album an overall honest and youthful feel. Though youth and adolescence are at the core of the lyrical themes on the album, Turner shows himself to by wise beyond his years. When he sings about prostitutes in ‘When the Sun Goes Down’ or about teenagers fighting with pool cues in ‘A Certain Romance’ he sings with a certain honesty and openness that could come from someone twice his age and I feel that, even at this early stage in Turner’s career, he was already singling himself out as one of the great lyricists of his time. Figurative, witty lyrics are present in all of the albums Arctic Monkeys have released since ‘Whatever People Say I Am…’ and are, in my mind, a key element in what makes the band so good.
I don’t think the impact of the album can be overstated, I see it as the culmination of what was happening in music at the time. Audiences at the time were screaming out for something brand new and this album gave it to them. Musically, it’s not a wondrous masterpiece and often sounds derivative of bands that came before it. It doesn’t craft a new sound so much as offer a different take on the one already there. What the album does do, however, is show how lyrical style can drive any derivative sound straight through the glass ceiling. The lyrical wit and style on the album get under your skin far more than the head-banging instrumental solos do. The lyrics also allow the album to retain its relevance; the fact that it deals with issues faced by young people means it will continue to be inherited by its target audience for many years to come, even those born long after the album’s release. The 15 years since its release have proven this. The endless relevance of the album, along with its huge impact at the time of its release has made ‘Whatever People Say I Am…’ a modern classic in every way, it’s one of the albums of modern times.