- 05 Sep 22
16 years ago today, last night's Electric Picnic headliners Arctic Monkeys won the Mercury Prize for their classic debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting Peter Murphy's interview with Alex Turner – originally published in Hot Press in 2006...
Arctic Monkeys’ first proper grown-up single ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’, released at the end of 2005, took the form of a loud and rowdy public service announcement...with guitars.
And what guitars. Guitars that clang and grate with the kinetic dissonance of The Fall or (yes, of course) Gang Of Four, offset by complex but well-greased bass and drum patterns that owe as much to funk syncopation as drainpipe rock.
If nothing else, the song’s remarkable chart performance (number one in the UK chart in the dead of winter) belies major label panic over Internet piracy: much of the headwind behind the band was due to an online community of diehards trading bootlegs, with the result that the Monkeys’ shows were rammed with fans singing along to songs that hadn’t been released yet. Adequate proof, if it were needed, that the web generates as much revenue as it dissipates.
“All we can do is write good songs, we really don’t know much about Internet stuff, it just happened,” admits the band’s singer/guitarist Alex Turner. “The fans just sort of swapped amongst themselves. They found something that they had a certain affection for and perhaps wanted to share with other people. Which is great, really. It made us have some very fuckin’ exciting evenings last year.
“Mind you,” he continues, “we earned us stripes. This time last year, we were still playing little gigs to nobody. We’ve played as many dives as anybody really, we just kind of did it quietly and went about it on us own, pretty much drove about the north, didn’t go much further down than Leicester at first. So we haven’t bypassed that stage as much as people think, it’s just it leapt up so quickly at the end of last year, people assume we came out of nowhere. But at the end of 2004 we were playing to no fucker.”
And now, one year on, pop’s meat-eating machine is ogling fresh morsels, smelling another Franz in the Domino roster. The good news is the forthcoming debut, rejoicing in the characteristically contrary title of Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, is just as much of a blast as the single. And as well as being tighter than a duck’s bunghole, the band have plenty to say for themselves. Here are songs about getting caught by the fuzz (‘Riot Van’), negotiating with simian bouncers (‘From The Ritz To The Rubble’), hapless brassers (‘When The Sun Goes Down’) and sundry discotheque psychodramas.
“There came a point where we just started writing about what we knew about,” says Alex, “and all them songs ultimately became people’s favourites and ultimately became the record. The subjects were just from when we were going out a lot.”
A lot of rock n’ roll and dance music is about seeking the glamour of the dancefloor as deliverance from working class life, but the Monkeys’ take on things is by contrast quite grimy and gritty.
“Yeah, there’s a bit of a sneer sometimes, but it’s celebrating it as well. I’d hate people to think that I think I’m better than it, ’cos I still try and go out like I used to… a bit. It’s more difficult nowadays, but yeah, it’s not always a sneering sort of thing.”
If Turner’s having a go at anyone, it’s faux bohemians chopping lines of charlie in a toilet in Bognor Regis while pretending they’re West Coast cool. See ‘Fake Tales Of San Francisco’.
“Absolutely, yeah. The thing about that is, there’s no point in a band from Sheffield pretending they’re from New York or wherever. If you’re in Sheffield then you’re in Sheffield. Why not be proud of it and let people know about it rather than pretending you’re somewhere else? If you do that it kinda weakens the city almost, weakens the music. I can’t imagine people in New York playing in their bands pretending they’re from Sheffield.”
Nor, like some of their Mancunian or Mockney predecessors, are they playing dumb for the sake of it. The first thing that greets the casual browser entering the band’s website is a beat manifesto attributed to one Rev John Rarsclart that reads like a co-write between Kelman and Kerouac. Smart without being overtly arty, it’s not the surprise it should be when the band’s frontman namechecks punk-poet John Cooper Clarke.
“Again, I got into him after the band,” Turner says. “I was on the bar one night at this place I used to work in, The Fall were playing and John Cooper Clarke were supporting them, I thought he was fantastic. My mum got me a CD of his for my birthday. That gig I saw were great. I met him once, top guy.”
Listening to Whatever People Say…, one might be forgiven for thinking Arctic Monkeys grew up on sharp-edged but lyrically sussed bands like The Jam, The Smiths or The Specials. Not so, says Alex.
“It’s weird, I don’t really understand when people our age say they grew up on The Jam and stuff, ’cos they were like fuckin’ ages ago, ain’t it? I got into them after we started a band. At first none of us could play owt and we just used to like getting together, learning our instruments at the same time, and we found it easiest to express feelings towards things we’d seen. I mean, I really like The Smiths, but I got into them a good year after the band had started, probably. Me auntie bought us a compilation but I never really liked it, but then me driving instructor lent us Hatful Of Hollow and The Smiths on vinyl. I dunno, everyone liked Oasis and that when we were at school, but even they were a bit before my time. When Oasis came out with the first two albums I was still at primary school. When we were at secondary school Oasis were churning out all their other albums, which were not the good ’uns.”
So what did he listen to as a youngster?
“I used to be into hip-hop at school, Roots Manuva and a few other things, this guy called Braintax. I used to like making little beats, creating music more than I liked listening to it. And when the opportunity to do a band came along I thought, ‘Fantastic, I’d be right up for making stuff.’”
Strangely enough, given Turner’s love of hip-hop, his band’s sound is clenched, pent-up and powerful rather than loose and baggy. Sly vocals scrape against six-stringed skronk – the archetypal hyperactive power trio fed through a post-punk blender. Indeed, the level of musicianship on the record is way above most young British bands and more on a par with bar-hardened US hardcore players.
“I don’t know about that… I mean, we’re good as long as we know what we’re doing and we’ve had a long time to kinda prepare it,” Alex admits. “If we have to just do summat on the spot we’re fuckin’ rubbish. It takes us a long time to get it tight. But them songs, most of ’em, we’ve been playing ’em for a good year. We can do them great, but when it comes to new things we’re all over the place. Matt our drummer’s amazing, but out of the four us he was the last person to pick his instrument up. He’s the best musician in our band, I think. He’s just dead inventive and I think that’s more important than, y’know, being solid a lot of the time. We like to work on the rhythms as much as I work on lyrics cos it’s so important. I think if you start to neglect it it’ll just be… shit!”
Revisit Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not below:
Keep an eye on hotpress.com for our upcoming live report of Arctic Monkey's brilliant Electric Picnic headline set – coming soon...