The best British rockers have always been more than mere singers and songwriters. They’re also sociologists, comedians, and local beat reporters. Give Ray Davies, Paul Weller, or Damon Albarn a few minutes, and he’ll tell a little story about a chip shop or tube station that sums up life in his particular postal district.
On Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I Am Not, the wildly hyped debut album they released 10 years ago today (January 23, 2006), Arctic Monkeys inserted themselves into this grand tradition. They did so aptly, if not expertly, with a set of songs about drinking, dancing, fighting, and trying to get laid. It’s all very low stakes — no one dies or gets married or anything — and yet the U.K. press treated these lads like The Beatles times The Smiths to the Stone Roses power.
The hype was a turnoff for many Americans, who had to wonder whether the NME was serious when it ranked the album fifth on its list of the best British albums of all time. While the magazine had definitely gone a bit mental — there’s no way it’s better than Revolver or London Calling — there’s plenty to love about this first blast of manic Monkey business.
Led by singer, guitarist, and songwriter Alex Turner, the Sheffield foursome arrives charged up and cheeky on these 13 tunes. With the exception of a couple of ballads, Whatever People Say is a mad sprint through pubs, nightclubs, and streets filled with drunks itching to fight. Combining bits of Strokes garage, Libertines lad-rock, Franz Ferdinand dance-punk, and Oasis Brit-pop, the music twitches and surges with an assuredness the Monkeys had earned through months and months of live performance.
By the time the boys went into the Chapel Studio in Lincolnshire with producer Jim Abbiss, they’d built a significant following through touring and distributing free demo CDs. They finished the record in just over two weeks, nailing a song a day, and they reaped the rewards nearly as quickly.
On the day it dropped in the U.K., Whatever People Say sold some 120,000 copies, becoming the fastest-selling debut in the nation’s history. When the LP landed stateside the following month, it reached No. 1 on the Independent Albums chart and No. 24 on the Billboard 200 — not bad for a band with a terrible name and a whole lot of buzz to live up to.
A decade later, the Monkeys are still swinging away. Over the course of their four studio albums, they’ve experimented with new sounds (stoner rock on 2009’s Humbug, metallic ‘90s R&B on 2013’s AM) and finally developed a bit of style (Turner’s righteous pompadour). Although Kaiser Chiefs had a cooler debut single and Pigeon Detectives have a better animal-referencing name, Arctic Monkeys have proved the most consistent British guitar band of their generation.
Read on for our track-by-track review of this, the rock ’n’ roll treatise on 21st century urban courtship rituals that got it all started.
“The View From the Afternoon”: This preface to a night in the pubs begins with a drumroll, then some heavy distortion, then lots of sharp, twitchy guitar for Turner to prognosticate over. He’s thinking the evening ends with 3 a.m. drunk texting — a way safer bet than those barroom slot machines.
“I Bet You Look Good On the Dancefloor”: The band’s first U.K. chart-topper is a hyperactive horn-dog tutorial on how not to attract a woman — unless the girl Turner’s eyeing actually falls for the corny Duran Duran-referencing pickup line in the pre-chorus or the slightly better one that gives the song its title. He’s persistent, just like the guitars and drums banging away behind him.
“Fake Tales of San Francisco”: The Monkeys slow things down with a quasi-funky number about wannabe rock stars doing blow, talking BS, and boring patrons at the local rock club. The only person in the joint who can stand these poseurs’ music is the singer’s girlfriend, which leads to one of Turner’s sharpest barbs: “love’s not only blind but deaf.”
“Dancing Shoes”: The rumbling drums again build anticipation for a night out, only this time, Turner’s not even anticipating drunk texting. In this disco-punk vision of single-person hell, there’s no communicating of any kind — just a bunch of scaredy-pants blokes pretending to dance instead of actually approaching the girls across the room.
“You Probably Couldn’t See For the Lights But You Were Staring Right At Me”: The awkward melody and stabbing guitars offer a pretty good indication of what Turner must sound like as he tries to woo a young lady he’s deemed the pinnacle of desirability.
“Still Take You Home”: Angry garage-rock guitars set yet another unhappy scene: Turner is chatting up a potential hook-up he has nothing in common with simply because she looks alright in the bar light. He’s not proud of himself, but there’s a job to do, and he intends to do it.
“Riot Van”: A wastoid ballad of The Libertines variety, “Riot Van” is about bored working-class kids getting drunk and messing with local coppers, perhaps because there’s nothing better to do. The song ends with one dude catching a beating he’s hopefully too numb to feel.
“Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secure”: The jabby guitar riff goes around and around as Turner fidgets in the back of a cab, drunkenly recounting two events from earlier in the night: a failed attempt to buy a girl a drink and an altercation in the taxi queue that turned violent. The song nearly ends with more disappointment and bloodshed, but the cab doors lock before Turner can leap out.
“Mardy Bum”: Another decaf palette cleanser that would’ve fit neatly on The Libertines’ Up the Bracket, “Mardy Bum” is a look at what happens six months or a year after “Dancing Shoes” or “Take Me Home.” Turner’s found himself shacked up with a lady whose frequent moodiness makes it difficult to remember all the “cuddling in the kitchen” that once made domesticity worthwhile.
“Perhaps Vampires Is a Bit Strong But…”: Armed with snarling guitars, the Monkeys do battle with local yokels who figure the band is destined to fail. Rather than just tell everyone they’re wrong, Turner and the gang prove their mettle by stretching a standard garage song into a multi-part mini-epic complete with extended bass vamping and a funky finale.
“When the Sun Goes Down”: After a fake-out slow and strummy opening, the Monkeys kick into a speedy punk tune about the prostitutes they used to see near their pre-fame practice space. While Turner seems protective of the ladies and fearful of the dodgy john in the Ford Mondeo, he keeps a safe emotional distance, singing with more anger and disgust than tenderness.
“From the Ritz to the Rubble”: Bassist Andy Nicholson swerves through the verses as Turner describes a Saturday night twist of fate. After a bouncer throws him out of line at the club, he winds up drinking heavily and having a heart-to-heart with his lady. The talk gives him new perspective, but then he wakes up Sunday morning as confused as ever.
“A Certain Romance”: The sadness and frustration of the previous 12 tracks comes to a head as Turner takes a hard look at his social circle and declares, “There ain’t no romance around there.” The Monkeys set this realization to a springy third-wave ska beat, suggesting they’ll dance their way out of this dead-end town.