A couple of years ago, four teenage lads played a gig in a pub in Sheffield called The Grapes. They went down pretty well, and were invited back to play the next week. Soon, demo versions and live recordings started appearing on the internet and if you lived anywhere in South Yorkshire it was only a matter of time before someone said to you: “Have you heard of Arctic Monkeys?”
Now they’re releasing easily the most eagerly anticipated debut album since Definitely Maybe, tickets for sold out gigs are flogged on Ebay for three figures and even the United States are starting to talk about them. It’s a long way from The Grapes, that’s for sure.
Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I Am Not gives a pretty good idea of why they’re the name of everyone’s lips right now. It’s not a totally perfect record, for which we should be thankful – remember what happened to The Stone Roses after they’d released their flawless debut? – but it is an excellent first album, and gives notice that Alex Turner is already one of this country’s best lyricists.
It’s those lyrics that set the Monkeys apart from their contemporaries. Turner effortlessly describes scenarios that everyone can identify with – a taxi ride home, pretentious bands who pretend to be from New York, arguments with a girlfriend – and manages to make every line sound pithy, funny, poignant and immensely quotable.
Take the already legendary Fake Tales Of San Francisco for example. A story about “weekend rock stars in the toilet practicing their lines”. You can almost smell the air of desperation that Turner describes, and feel like cheering when he pricks their bubble of pomposity with the soon to be classic line “you’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham”.
Moments like this are scattered all over the album. The reluctant wooing of a “Top Shop princess” in Still Take You Home is an obvious highlight (“what do you know? You know nothing, but I’d still take you home”), and Turner perfectly describes the hesitation of a teenager’s early visit to a nightclub (“shit shock horror, you’ve seen your future bride, oh but it’s oh so absurd for you to say the first word”) in Dancing Shoes.
Elsewhere, Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secure manages to take a normal conversation in the back of a taxi and fit it perfectly into a wondrously catchy tune, while When The Sun Goes Down is a sad and witty tale of a prostitute and her pimp. It’s the closing A Certain Romance that should deservedly take all the plaudits though – a wonderfully articulate dissection of youth culture that belies Turner’s tender years.
Musically, it’s scratchy, raw guitar rock all the way – the sort that makes you fall in love with music all over again. The pace only lets up for Riot Van, a languid account of a ruck with the police. Otherwise, it’s hard to catch your breath, from the opening View From The Afternoon right up to the slightly alarming moment where A Certain Romance threatens to turn into Ocean Colour Scene’s Riverboat Song.
Although Turner will undoubtedly attract most critical attention, credit should also be given to the rest of the band. The years of gigging together have sharpened up the Monkeys’ sound, resulting in an incredibly tight unit. The instrumental coda of Perhaps Vampires Is A Bit Strong But sounds like it should have been played by veterans twice their age, while the moment that When The Sun Goes Down slams into its chorus will be one of the most exciting moments of the year.
Ironically enough, it’s likely to be long-term Monkey devotees that will be most disappointed with the album. Some songs don’t sound as good as the demo versions that were available on the internet (the live favourite Mardy Bum sounds a bit slow and listless here), and for the obsessives who’ve already downloaded every early version, there’ll be little new to lap up.
Not that it matters of course. For those poor misguided fools who say that Arctic Monkeys are hype over substance, this is a blisteringly good album which promises even better things to come. And don’t be surprised if, in 30 years time, there are still obsessive fans paying homage to The Grapes to see where it all started…