Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not Turns 10

on January 23, 2016, 12:00am

Arctic Monkeys didn’t save rock ‘n’ roll. When their debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, came out 10 years ago this month, they felt pressured to live up to the title the British press had thrust upon them: “The Generation’s Most Important Band”. The album broke (and still holds) the record for the fastest-selling debut LP in British history, and the band seemed poised to become the next big thing: Britain’s answer to The Strokes or The White Stripes, carrying the torch of The Hives and The Libertines.

At the time, no one realized that the band, led by singer Alex Turner, had much less interest in becoming British rock idols than becoming serious musicians who crooned over lounge music and made psych rock in the California desert. They knew from the outset they couldn’t live up to the lofty expectations; instead, they quietly turned into one of the generation’s most reliable rock bands, building a discography of mature, nuanced work on top of that first album’s drunken energy.

Ten years removed from its initial hype, Whatever People Say I Am still feels as fresh and lively as it did out of the gate. The band’s enthusiasm is infectious, and their clever lyrics never feel ironic or detached. Turner could never have been the next Julian Casablancas — he cared way too much. When many bands were trying to become the next Velvet Underground or Television, Turner was name-dropping Duran Duran and The Police on his lead singles. At times, he seemed ahead of the curve, with songs like “The View from the Afternoon” warning of the dangers of drunk-texting your ex years before Drake would build a career on the same self-pity. Turner was foremost a storyteller in his lyrics, a quality he carried beyond the youthful enthusiasm of his first record into his later work.

While the band never captured the excitement of their first record again, they would go on to iron out some of the kinks of their debut. At times, Turner’s lyrics strain too hard toward a punchline, and it feels strange to hear him shout each line when a more restrained approach suits his vocals more. The song that arguably holds up the best is closer “A Certain Romance”, the most restrained moment on the record that finds the group tapping into the kind of bleary-eyed balladry that they would perfect time and time again. The band knew it, too. In a 2005 interview with Prefix, the band played a word-association game with each song on the album. Upon hearing the name of the song, Turner would reply with what it was about: girls, doormen, taxis, etc. When he got to “A Certain Romance”, his reply was simply “classic.”

The band would never make something as instantly popular as this record, and 10 years later it’s had less impact on the current state of rock than many had predicted. Roots-rock bands like The Black Keys and Mumford and Sons would shape the mainstream more than the Arctic Monkeys ever did. But the band never wanted that kind of pressure or stature, preferring to distance themselves from the hype and use their initial success to jump-start a long and worthwhile career.

By now, Arctic Monkeys’ rise is part of rock lore. The Sheffield band’s demos were uploaded to the web in 2004 and began spreading like wildfire. As they toured throughout 2005, press and industry figures began touting them as the next big band, the second coming of The Libertines, who at that point had begun to implode. By the time their debut album hit stores in January 2006, the hype behind them translated into actual success: Whatever You Think I Am sold 360,000 copies in its first week.

By the spring, the group had become a sensation. Gigs in cities like Sheffield and Nottingham sold out as fans traveled across the country to see them. In the band’s first ever interview with NME in May, Turner explained that the group thought they would play their first London show to an empty room. Instead, the evening ended with Turner “being carried around the venue on a sea of hands.”

“We played a gig in Sheffield and as soon as I started singing the entire crowd sang it back to me,” Turner said. “I thought, ‘Something’s going on here.’”

Arctic Monkeys were far from the first band to have their music in the hands of fans before its official release. This was years after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot leaked well in advance of its street date, and Napster was a household name. But the Arctic Monkeys were different: This was a brand-new band of teenagers with no recording contract and no established fan base. While the quality of the songs indicated that they had exponentially more talent than your average garage band, it was unprecedented for this much hype to swell solely from the internet for a band of complete unknowns.

While the band didn’t shy away from the prospect of making a living as musicians, it certainly wasn’t something they expected. An October 2005 interview with the Guardian indicated that Turner and Helders were considering university before they signed to Domino and that bassist Andy Nicholson (who left the group in 2006) was planning to work as a property developer. The group was wary of the hype and felt that they could see through it. Every time someone asked about their fame, they were reluctant to get excited about it. When asked about the success of “I Bet That You Look Good on the Dancefloor”, which at that point had been released as an official single, Turner was quite blunt.

“It’s a bit shit,” Turner told the Guardian. “The words are rubbish. I scraped the bottom of the barrel. It could be a big song, but I’d hate to just be known for that song.”

With months to go before the record would actually come out, people knew the buzz would soar to new heights, but no one could predict just how big sales would be. One of the heads at HMV (a British music retail store) told the Guardian they were expecting Franz Ferdinand or Kaiser Chiefs numbers from the band. Paul Scaife from the music industry website Record of the Day was cautious, telling the Guardian that the buzz could be self-perpetuating and seem bigger than it actually is. “I think they’ll sell a reasonable amount but not a staggering amount,” he said.

If the group’s history is integrally connected to the rise of the internet, the members themselves weren’t exactly technologically savvy. Right after their first-ever show in New York, the band explained to Prefix that an acquaintance from college had uploaded the demos online for them — their own attempts to upload music failed. The band was getting compliments from fans on a Myspace page they didn’t know they had. When asked if they were “internet users,” Turner replied, “Only for email or whatever.”

While the group wouldn’t deny their connection to the Internet, they didn’t think of themselves as part of a group of “internet bands.” Interviewers would ask them about being compared to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and while Turner was polite about them, it was clear that the members felt no connection to the burgeoning Brooklyn indie group.

The comparison is more foreboding in hindsight — a stark reminder of what Arctic Monkeys could have been if they didn’t have the talent to back up the hype. In 2005, it was perfectly reasonable to compare Clap Your Hands Say Yeah to the Arctic Monkeys. Internet buzz was breaking bands in a way that wasn’t yet quantifiable, and both bands fostered that buzz in spades. Arctic Monkeys pivoted away from the hype as much as they could without taking their fanbase for granted. Perhaps that’s why 10 years later, instead of sending out mass emails asking fans to volunteer their houses for a “living room tour,” the Arctic Monkeys would headline festivals and tour pavilions.

When Prefix asked about critics who called them the “flavor of the month,” Arctic Monkeys gave a wise response. “You can see more bands are doing the same thing,” they said. “But I don’t think ours is the same as that. So I think we could last. We’ve been at it for so long, doing these songs, and we’re doing this first album now — we’ve finished recording it — and we’ve got like eight songs for the second album that have advanced further than that. I could see them attracting mature audiences, as well.”

Arctic Monkeys didn’t just want to be a band that broke records, and they didn’t let that define them. They were wary of fame because they knew it was fleeting. In a 2007 interview with the Guardian, just before the release of their second album, Turner was adamant about moving beyond the success of their debut: “None of us wanted to exist as just that thing — that album and what went with it.”

At the time, people thought the debut’s title was tongue-in-cheek, another example of how witty and irreverent they were. Instead, it was a clear and indicative promise to fans: We’re not the band the press says we are. Naturally, the hype died down, but rather than disappearing, the band pushed their sound further. They matured exponentially on their second record, Favourite Worst Nightmare. Drunken nights clubbing turned into songs like “Cornerstone”, in which Turner somberly stumbles from bar to bar talking to women who remind him of the one who left him behind.

The group matured, from working with Josh Homme on their psychedelic third album, Humbug, to the more relaxed attitude of 2011’s Suck It and See. Their growth was gradual and well timed, to the point that by the time their fifth album, A.M., came out in 2013, it became their highest-selling album in the UK since their debut. In the US, their latest album has sold more than the three preceding ones combined.

The band hasn’t abandoned their debut entirely. A typical Arctic Monkeys setlist will feature at least a couple of songs from Whatever People Think I Am, but it’s just a piece of the larger whole. The group struck a nerve 10 years ago, from the electrifying spark of those initial songs to the novel way they were distributed. To its credit, the album holds up surprisingly well 10 years later; while it may not have been perfect, it’s still one of the better rock debuts of the last decade. Arctic Monkeys may have not become the most important band of our generation, but they have worked tirelessly to become one of the most consistent.

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