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 quartet--none of whom is of American drinking age--has been lauded as 2005's "Best Breakthrough Act" at the Brit Awards. Their sound and lyrics have drawn comparisons to such monsters of Brit-rock as the Clash, early Elvis Costello, the Jam and Blur. 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.
Inevitably, the backlash has begun. On the title track of Who the Fuck Are the Arctic Monkeys?, the band's spanking-new EP, the band acknowledges as much in grand fashion, with a 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 way--people not likin' us because it's not cool anymore or whatever...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."
Already 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 grime-core acts or whatever. Bollocks to all of that. No, they don't have some earthshakingly original sound--in the broadest terms, it's much the same funk-tinged post-punk we heard from bands like Franz Ferdinand and Kaiser Chiefs, albeit with occasional fuzz-rock passages that recall the White Stripes.
But there's a furious drive to all of their songs (as opposed to just the singles), a righteous energy that comes only from utter self-confidence. Band lore has it that both 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 intricate interplay between guitarists even in acts 15 years older than these guys. The rhythm section--especially Helders--more than maintains the often ferocious pace right behind them. "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."
So it's fair to fear that the Monkeys' stories about decaying red-brick British steel towns, sung in thick accents, might not do so well 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. The band is wise to the risk, but they're just as wise to the rewards.
"It's not like we're singing and we want people to know exactly what we live through," Helders says. "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."
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