Bring on the Backlash
"Hype" is probably the nastiest of all four-letter words these days, and no band on earth right now has more of it than the Arctic Monkeys. Over the last seven months, the Sheffield quartetnone of whom are of American drinking agehas been lauded as 2005's Best Breakthrough Act at the Brit Awards. Their sound and/or lyrics have drawn comparisons to such monsters of Brit rock as the Clash, early Elvis Costello, the Jam, Blur, Pulp, and the Smiths. Furthermore, they've been declared the most "important" British band since (pick one) Oasis, the Sex Pistols, or, it has even been dared, the Beatles. The fuckin' Beatles, man!
And unlike so many other NME-anointed savior-of-rock flops (Sigue Sigue Sputnik, anyone? Gay Dad? Libertines? Hello, is this thing on?), the Monkeys have backed their hype with feats, at least in Blighty. On the week of its release, the band's debut LP, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, outsold the other 19 records in the top 20 combined. Even before they signed with Domino, their U.K. shows sold out quicker than one-dollar Pabst Blue Ribbon at a Pixies reunion gig. For once, the hype took.
And inevitably, the backlash has begun. On the title track of Who the F*ck Are the Arctic Monkeys?, the band's spanking-new EP, the band acknowledged as much in grand fashion, with a defiant taunt from raspy-voiced singer Alex Turner: "Bring on the backlash!"
Bold, kids. "Very bold indeed," laughingly agrees Monkeys drummer Matt Helders over the phone from a tour stop in Munich. "It does 'appen to everybody, dunnit, in England especially. And I think it kinda has started in a waypeople not likin' us because it's not cool anymore or whatever. There's no denying things like that do 'appen, and I guess we anticipated it and we're letting everybody know it's gonna 'appen. It won't be a surprise. One step ahead. Reverse psychology to stop 'em from doin' it."
Yep, he's right about it having happenedalready reviewers are lining up to claim that the Monkeys are so January, or that they aren't as good as any number of similar bands, or they whip themselves up into a frenzy of left-wing indignation decrying the white-male paternalist media power structure that anoints pasty guitar rock bands as saviors at the expense of East London dubstep grimecore acts or whatever. Bollocks to all of that. The Arctic Monkeys are a fucking great band. No, they don't have some earthshakingly original soundin the broadest terms, it's much the same funk-tinged postpunk we heard from bands like Franz Ferdinand, the Strokes, and Kaiser Chiefs, albeit with occasional fuzz-rock passages that recall the White Stripes.
So no, it's not the Arctic Monkeys' form that sets them apart; it is, rather, their content. There's a furious drive to all of their songs (as opposed to just the singles), a righteous energy that can come only from utter self-confidence. Band lore has it that both singer-guitarist Alex Turner and Jamie Cook received guitars for Christmas in 2001, and it's readily apparent that the two of them learned to play guitar with one another, as it's rare to hear such precise and intricate interplay between a band's two guitarists even in acts 15 years older than these guys. The rhythm sectionespecially Heldersmore than maintains the often ferocious pace right behind them. The drummer cites a somewhat surprising source as a band-wide influence: "We were rap fans more at school more than now, but yeah, it's still there," he says. "It still influences in some ways, like for me, it's the drummin'. The groove element, like foon-keh music."
And it is perhaps from American hip-hop and British slang/accent-driven grim that the band nicked the concepts of taking on the haters (see "Who the Fuck . . . " above) and reppin' their 'hood. They sing in the broadest of Yorkshire accents, where words like "tough" and "fuck" rhyme, respectively, with "hoof" and "book." In the band's single "Fake Tales of San Francisco," Turner sideswipes Brit bands with put-on Yank accents and attitudes: "Yeah I'd like to tell you all my problem /You're not from New York City, you're from Rotherham / So get off the bandwagon, and put down the handbook."
"At first it weren't like that it were a bit like an American accent; I think that 's what everybody does when they start a band because that's what they've 'eard and that's what were popular," Helders says. "But then, like, it doesn't really make any sense when you talk between the songs at a gig and you're speakin' English in our normal accent, it seems a bit strange when you burst into song like you're from California or summat. We saw that 'appen to other bands and we thought we would avoid that. They looked a bit daft they were probably saying words that they wouldn't even say just because they were speakin' in a different accent. And it's easier, if anything, just to sing in your own accent."
That aspect of the band, and even more their letter-perfect descriptions of hedonistic pursuits in decaying red-brick British steel towns, would appear to dim the band's prospects for making it big Stateside. From the days of the Kinks through the Jam and the Specials and on down to Pulp and eventually the Streets, the better an act has been at describing British life, and the more defiant their English accent, the worse they have translated here. In the beginning, the Beatles cracked America by emulating Carl Perkins, the Everly Brothers and Little Richard; Mick Jagger channeled Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. And while Noel Gallagher did often sing in the clipped, guttural voice of his native Manchester, the songs that made Oasis famous here were Bic-waving, bong-scented anthems about champagne supernovas and wonderwalls and such.
The Monkeys don't trade in such sweeping musical statements or lyrical generalities. They wax beerily poetic about the mundane details of provincial ennui, the lack of romance to life in a second- or third-tier English city in the British Rust Belt, a town equivalent to Cleveland, Pittsburgh or Buffalo here.
"Red Lights Indicate Doors Are Secure" is full on-poignant to those accustomed to riding big black cabs to and fro their nights on the town, but downright mystifying to Yanks who drive themselves or ride trains or subways. And then there's "When the Sun Goes Down," a touching, near-documentary sketch of prostitution in Northern England. There, almost everybody from the middle class on down and certainly most British Monkeys fans -- personally knows somebody who is or has been "on the game," as they say. In places like Sheffield, there are scant few jobs for poor and uneducated women, and not many massage parlors, tanning salons and/or strip clubs, so many more women are forced into full-on streetwalking, and thus subject to the curb-crawling "scummy man" with the "driving ban, amongst some other offenses" of the song.
My wife is from Preston, a northern English city much like Sheffield. I lived over there for a couple of years, so I saw these things first-hand. But what of the general American public? Sure, prostitution's prostitution, so we can relate on that level, but most Americans view streetwalkers as some horrific, crack-addled other viewed mainly on Cops, not the mousy girl from their algebra class gone astray.
These days, most British children's TV shows are dubbed with American accents and shorn of all British slang, and the Harry Potter series is likewise edited for Yanks. "That is a bit of a risk," Helders says. "We're not trying to isolate anybody, but we're not gonna adjust what we do so other people can understand it easier. And it doesn't really take that much, you can kinda relate wherever you're from I think. Even if whatever you think about it might be a completely different perception to us, as long as you're getting something from it, I don't mind.
"It's not like we're singing and we want people to know exactly what we live through," he continues. "We want people to listen to it and take summat from it to where they live whether they've done it, or something similar to it, or are just interested in it. We always say we listen to rap, but I have no idea what it's like, really, to live in Compton. I just find it interesting to listen to rap music. 'Cause we're tellin' people about our lives, like the rappers are, but we're not tellin' people that they should live their lives like us. We're not preachy."
The Arctic Monkeys play Roseland Ballroom Wednesday night with We Are Scientists. $25, 6:30. roselandballroom.com
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.