This Arctic Monkeys article was written by Tim Burden, a GIGsoup contributor
It’s 2006. Justin Timberlake is at the height of his powers, Johnny Borrell is still relevant and a group of teenagers from Sheffield have just won the Mercury Prize for one of the most important albums of the decade. ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ was the Arctic Monkeys’ debut album and from start to finish it is still a fantastic fresh listen. The singles ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ and ‘When The Sun Goes Down’ grabbed the imagination of the public with their floor-filling mixture of pounding garage-rock indie and Alex Turner’s astonishingly memorable lyrics – and the album is stuffed with plenty more of the same.
‘Whatever…’ almost entirely consists of Turner’s observations of growing up in Sheffield. Songs about nights out are written large with six of the thirteen tracks dealing with clubbing in some way, whether they’re about dictatorial bouncers (‘From The Ritz To The Rubble’), lads on the pull (‘Dancing Shoes’,) or cab rides home (‘Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured’). What makes these songs so listenable is Turner’s precocious talent as a wordsmith. Listeners instantly recognised the nightclub characters described in the above songs but his lyrics also held up a witty mirror to other areas of pop culture.
‘Fake Tales of San Francisco’, for example, is a scathing and hilarious attack on pretentious derivative indie bands (“Yeah I’d love to tell you all my problem, you’re not from New York city you’re from Rotherham”, “Get off the bandwagon, put down the handbook”), something instantly relatable to those of us growing up in an era when it seemed anyone with a trilby and a waistcoat could make it onto the cover of NME. The best example of Turner’s perceptive style is the album’s closer ‘A Certain Romance’, in which he laments certain areas of modern culture (“There’s only music so that there’s new ringtones”) but remains optimistic in highlighting the “romance” to be found in the ugly and mundane. It’s an astonishing song, the album’s standout track and still a highlight of the band’s back-catalogue.
Looking at the strength of the Mercury shortlist in 2006 it’s obvious that whatever album won had to be pretty special. This was the year that Thom Yorke’s haunting solo album ‘The Eraser’ was nominated alongside contributions from strong contenders like Hot Chip, a world-conquering Muse, Editors, Guillemots and Richard Hawley who Turner referred to in his speech as being more deserving than him (“Someone call 999, Richard Hawley’s been robbed”). The remaining nominations that year went to grime artist Sway for his critically acclaimed ‘This Is My Demo’, jazz pianist Zoe Rahman, singer-songwriter Lou Rhodes, new-wave veterans Scritti Politti and a collaboration of Isobel Campbell (of Belle and Sebastian) and Mark Lanegan ‘Ballad of Broken Seas’.
The fact that Arctic Monkeys rose to the top of this pile is testament to the quality of the album. ‘Whatever…’ is one of the best debut albums ever in terms of both quality and public appeal (it is still the fastest selling UK debut ever), it launched the career of one of the world’s most successful bands and is arguably the last great album of the noughties UK garage-rock revival. On this occasion, hats off to the Mercury committee. They got it spot-on.