Suck It and See: Arctic Monkeys by Jake Robinson

Posted on May 30, 2011

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The British music press, including NME, Melody Maker and Q, has a particular habit of raising a band as a bastion for British music. There is an idea that even though Britain may be the prime producer and consumer for manufactured novelty pop, they can also produce proper musical ‘artists’: artists who don’t make music just for money, girls or even fun; artists who create music as an encapsulated reflection of the world, and a source for British music-lovers’ pride. This is perhaps best personified by The Clash, who at the time were deigned “the only band that matters”. Traced through the years, bands such as The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Blur, Oasis and The Libertines were handed the banner. All of these groups displayed a particular ‘Britishness’, from Mick Jones and Joe Strummer’s political fire-branding for the Clash, or Morrisey’s sardonic wit behind the Smiths, to Pete Doherty and Carl Barat’s channelling of William Blake’s Albion with The Libertines. The latter of these groups was the last to clearly hold the baton before a spectacular implosion surrounding their eponymous 2004 release. It was little over a year later, on October 17, 2005, that the music press crowned their new kings: four teenagers from Sheffield. It was on this day that the Arctic Monkeys’ debut single ‘I Bet That You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ went straight to #1.

Arctic Monkeys L-R: Jamie Cook, Matt Helders, Alex Turner, Nick O'Malley

In 2002 this group of sixteen year-old school friends in the Northern town of Sheffield started practicing. The following year, they played their first gigs and recorded their first demo songs. Comprising drummer Matt Helders, bass player Andy Nicholson, guitarist Jamie Cook and singer/guitarist Alex Turner they rapidly developed a devoted ‘fanbass’. Sheffield has a rough working-town history, built around steel mills in the area. It is perhaps this that led George Orwell to say that “Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World.” This town, and the inhabitants that fill it, became the inspiration for Alex Turner’s lyrics. The songs written over this period are vignettes of Sheffield’s nightlife, and how it feels to be a teenager entering this mysterious world. Turner told how he would write down his lyrical ideas on his phone at nightclubs, pretending to be texting to avoid suspicion. The demos that the band produced were given away for free at their gigs, where enraptured fans spread them over peer-to-peer networks such as Limewire. They became the ultimate example of the way new technology aids word-of-mouth in the music industry. By the time they signed onto a record label and released their first single and album, the music press was in meltdown, hailing them as the saviour of British rock music.

Single art for 'I Bet You Look Good On the Dancefloor'

Upon its release, their album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not became the fastest-selling debut album of all-time. It is sometimes regarded as a concept album about going out, echoed in the title, which is taken from the movie Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Songs such as ‘View From the Afternoon’, ‘From the Ritz to the Rubble’ and ‘Dancing Shoes’ tell stories of young men on a night out, as well as the fallout the next morning. ‘Mardy Bum’ focuses on young romance, ‘Riot Van’ on run-ins with the law. However, behind this is an existential yearning for meaning, best displayed in ‘A Certain Romance’. They also had a very grounded and antagonistic view towards the hype that they had generated. To introduce the music video for ‘Bet You Look Good’ Turner states “Don’t believe the hype”, while their album contains the music industry-baiting song ‘Perhaps Vampires Is a Bit Strong But…’ The album went on to gain the coveted Mercury Prize.  Three months later, they followed Whatever People Say with an EP entitled Who the Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys?

EP art for Who The Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys?

Turner’s lyrics were likened to the beat poetry of the Streets’ Mike Skinner. Turner confessed to being influenced by fellow Northerners Morrissey and John Cooper Clarke. Their second album Favourite Worst Nightmare, released barely a year after the first, followed a long tradition of ‘character songs’. These are songs which deal with the character and actions of very specific individuals, a tradition passed on through the lineage of British pop songwriters such as Paul McCartney, Ray Davies (The Kinks), David Bowie, Elton John and Damon Albarn (Blur/Gorillaz) and continued by Turner with songs such as ‘Brainstorm’, ‘Teddy Picker’ and ‘Flourescent Adolescent’. They also drew upon balladic compositions and more intimate and personal moments, such as ‘Only Ones Who Know’, ‘Do Me A Favour’ and ‘505’, to emotionally flesh out the album. These factors, plus the remarkably short turnaround, helped them overcome the “second album” syndrome, while also being positively received both commercially and critically.

An Arctic Monkeys/Alex Turner Playlist
Lyrics by Alex Turner, Music by Arctic Monkeys, unless stated

I Bet That You Look Good on the Dancefloor, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
Brainstorm, Favourite Worst Nightmare
Bigger Boys and Stolen Sweethearts, Beneath the Boardwalk Demo/‘I Bet That You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ B-Side
Crying Lightning, Humbug
Only Ones Who Know, Favourite Worst Nightmare
Piledriver Waltz, Suck It and See
Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair, Suck It And See
Fluorescent Adolescent, Favourite Worst Nightmare
Hiding Tonight (Turner), Submarine
Cornerstone, Humbug
Hellcat Spangle Shalalalaa, Suck It And See
When the Sun Goes Down, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
Reckless Serenade, Suck It and See
From the Ritz to the Rubble, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
Mardy Bum, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
My Mistakes Were Made For You (Turner/Kane — Last Shadow Puppets), The Age of the Understatement
No Buses, Who The Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys?
Stuck on the Puzzle (Turner), Submarine
Baby I’m Yours (McCoy), Leave Before the Lights Come On
A Certain Romance, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

After the incredibly productive 16-month period in which they released two albums, an EP and a stand-alone single, the wait until the release of their third album Humbug seemed like a lifetime in Arctic Monkeys terms (although fans were placated by Alex Turner’s side project, The Last Shadow Puppets). However, in mid-2009 it dropped and immediately it was noted how the sound had shifted from the British isles to the wide expanses of America. In part produced by Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme in the Mojave Desert, it signified a change from the traditional roots of the band. Heralding a more esoteric lyrical bent and ’60s rock-influenced sound, the album is was solid effort yet contained little (perhaps deliberately) of the recipe that made Arctic Monkey’s the toast of the British music press. The album contains some brilliant songs such as ‘Crying Lightning’ and ‘Cornerstone’, showing that while the focus of Turner’s gaze has shifted, his lyrical brilliance remains central to the Arctic Monkeys’ power.

The band, bearded, talking a stroll during the Humbug era...

In the down-time, Alex Turner contributed a short EP for a friend’s movie called Submarine. Filled with beautiful sparse songs that evoke Scott Walker-era ballads, Submarine remains one of those beautiful hidden gems that will most likely be forgotten in time, due to its limited avenues of release. Digital distribution has helped broadcast releases such as Submarine, but without the promotional benefits of the music industry, they easily get buried.

Suck It And See is a rock album. Unlike its predecessors it has no ‘slow’ songs or ballads, but is a full band effort, a continuation of the ’60s-fuelled rock ideas that were exhibited in Humbug. The early teasers for the album, ‘Brick By Brick’ and ‘Don’t Look Now Because I’ve Moved Your Chair’, point to a greater focus on abstract, nonsensical lyrics and hard-rock riffs. However, these are not the bellwether acts of Suck it And See. The album’s highpoints are the more ’60s R’n’B and pop-influenced songs such as ‘The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala’, ‘Reckless Serenade’ and ‘Piledriver Waltz’ (which originally appeared on Submarine). It is perhaps their most complete and consistent album since Whatever People Say. However, it doesn’t contain an era-defining song such as Favourite Worst Nightmare’s ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ or Humbug’s ‘Cornerstone’. It is a great album for pre-existing fans of the band, yet unlikely to win too many new ones.

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Posted in: Music