“They were rubbish,” friend and fellow musician John McClure remembered when asked how the Arctic Monkeys were during their early years. “But you knew they had something… It was pretty shambolic, but at the same time there was an x-factor there. You could tell they had something going on.”
Incredibly, at the beginning of this year their debut Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not turned ten years old. It would be an album which arrived amongst almost rabid fever pitch, as fans and media alike all wanted a piece of British music’s next ‘big thing.’
The quartet had spent the previous few years firstly learning how to play their instruments, and then travelling around the country performing at any pubs or clubs that would have them. From there, they gradually stumbled upon a sound and identity which would go on to see them release a generation-defining and chart-topping debut. But just how did the four teenagers from Sheffield do it?
All four members; Alex Turner, Matt Helders, Jamie Cook and Andy Nicholson had agreed to commit a year, before they went off to university and full-time work, to try and make it as a band. Early on their set lists were littered with covers of The White Stripes and Jimi Hendrix, alongside a few of their originals. But it wasn’t until one chance night in Turner’s local pub where he found himself watching punk poet John Cooper Clarke that things really began to come together. A self-professed tipping point for the aspiring singer, it was from here where he began to emulate the poet’s unique literary style within his own burgeoning lyric writing.
“One night it was The Fall playing, and Johnny Clarke was opening. He came on with a plastic bag full of these scraps of paper. His hair was branching off, and he had these little blue glasses and drainpipe pants,” Turner told Spin. “It was like, ‘What is that?’ And it just blew my mind, I couldn’t stop watching. Guinness was overflowing all over my hand. It was just one of those moments.”
Around this time the band began to record their first demos, which they funded themselves as they all held down regular part-time jobs in the meantime. It was these which gained them the attention of manager, Geoff Barradale, who signed them after only their third gig together. And finally it was through him and his industry connections that they were able to make a string of other demos which then catapulted them into the public’s attention.
The band’s debut EP Five Minutes With Arctic Monkeys soon followed and, along with the previous demos, it only seemed to heighten the buzz around them. In the middle of 2005 a label bidding war subsequently began, which eventually ended when the band signed for independent label Domino. Focus then switched to making an album.
“It was one day per song, plus one day for setting up and one day for clean-up,” the producer of the record Jim Abbiss explained to Sound on Sound.
Abbiss, a noted producer for the likes of UNKLE and Placebo, had registered his interest in the band early on. However, James Ford; the man who’d have a hand in producing every single one of the band’s next four albums, was already working with them at that stage. It didn’t quite work out with him the first time around though. So decamping to Chapel Studios for just two weeks in the summer, Abbiss joined the band to record their eagerly anticipated album.
“All of them stood around the drums and had headphones on. For a few songs we baffled Alex, because he wanted to sing live. But for two thirds of the songs he just played guitar, and overdubbed his vocals afterwards.”
It was agreed by both band and producer that the record should emulate as best as possible their live sound. There was no real studio trickery, what you heard was simply what you got. A Certain Romance, the closing track, was a prime example of this as it was done live in one single take on the final day of recording.
Meanwhile, The View From The Afternoon, which was one of the last written, became the first track to be recorded for the album. Its opening line, “Anticipation has a habit to set you up for disappointment” acting as an accidental caution to all listeners about just how great the band were expected to be.
Turner’s lyrics were undoubtedly a major draw card for fans of the band. The mundanity of teenage life was reported on, almost to the point where it felt as if the frontman had been following you around equipped with a knowing grin and a notebook in his back pocket the whole time. The social commentary came with a withering delivery, but it was also packaged with heavy doses of humour too.
“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, because nobody told me,” he sang on Riot Van.
Elsewhere, his ability to reflect on the trials and tribulations that exist within the blur of Saturday night were endlessly on show. There was the exciting thoughts that occupy the mind just before a big night out (The View From The Afternoon), the fleeting moment beneath the club’s lights where flirtatious looks are exchanged between two people (Dancing Shoes), and the fallibility of even trying to get into exclusive spots in the first place (From The Ritz To The Rubble). Beyond that, the pavements were littered with drunken revellers all in the pursuit of their own perfect nights, while occasional boxing matches broke out at the taxi ranks.
The album made an instant connection as it was the sound of youth distilled into music. There was angst, enthusiasm, mistakes, obnoxiousness, excitement, trouble, arguments and naivety almost at every turn. It captured the zeitgeist of those adolescent moments so well in fact, that Turner has admitted at times throughout his career he and the band have struggled to perform the songs live.
“It certainly feels like we’re doing a cover version to some extent. But it’s the best cover version anyone’s going to get,” he told Billboard. “The thing that gave that first record its oomph was the fact that we were playing to the very limits of our abilities from the moment the album starts. All that enthusiasm and naivety cannot be replicated.”
After their first single I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor went straight to number one in the UK, it was clear that the band were about to live up to the hype. The NME championed them as “our generation’s most important band” and the mad scramble to find out anything and everything about them got underway. However, the one story that emerged out of the hype fully-formed was that they were the first band from the Internet to make it big. They were dubbed as a ‘Myspace band’ and their success was seen as either a novelty or a danger to the entire music industry, depending on who you believed.
The power of the Internet was still generally unknown then, but Arctic Monkeys became the face of the changing times in the mid-2000s. They cultivated their own fanbase from the start, and their DIY ethics payed dividends when their studio album was released. It was put out in January 2006 and became the fastest selling debut in British chart history. Yet the band members themselves had no real input into the use of technology for promotional or marketing reasons. They were simply at the right place at the right time to reap the benefits of a new Internet-driven culture.
“All we did was write songs and play shows and hand out a couple of discs,” Turner said about the misconceptions around the band’s intentions. “We never orchestrated any of it.”
Their debut catapulted the band to national stardom, the prestigious Mercury Prize, and was used as a springboard for a further four number one albums, a cabinet full of awards, and headline slots all around the world.
In the 1960s film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, in which the album takes its title from, Albert Finney’s character declares, “I’m me and nobody else. Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not because they don’t know a bloody thing about me.”
It was this steadfast defiance that perfectly aligned with the band’s ethos early on and earmarked their electric beginnings. Consistently placed near the top of lists for most important British albums in history now, it is still remarkable that out of nowhere a group of teenagers effectively helped changed the face of the music industry forever. It was accidental of course, but their youthful resistance and enthusiasm still sounds as brilliant and as vital as it did ten years ago.
Image: Arctic Monkeys