Here’s How It Felt to Grow Up in Sheffield During the Rise of Arctic Monkeys
Looking back on the group's debut album, I can’t help but think their impact made my city a worse place to be.
Photo by M Tarvainen
There are two types of people in this world: those who think Alex Turner’s 2014 Brit Awards acceptance speech was righteous, charming, “everything rock’n’roll is meant to be”, and those who think it was the magnum opus of a bell-end. As the 10th anniversary of the Arctic Monkeys debut album, Whatever People Say I am, That’s What I’m Not, rears its head this month, expect to see both tribes out in full force. Those who think the group are the last great British rock band, versus those who think they’re nothing more than alleged tax dodgers with dodgy American accents.
The pitch from one side is a familiar one: the album changed British guitar music, altered the indie landscape, and gave back some cultural muscle to the voices of the Northern working class. But as someone who grew up in Sheffield during the noughties, the band had a different effect on me than they seemed to have on everybody else in the UK. They changed guitar music yes, but their rise also aggressively changed the whole vibe of the city I’d come to love.
I first moved to Sheffield in 2004 as a teenager, having come from a little market town in rural North East Yorkshire that only had two clubs (and one of them was called Hooters). Sheffield wasn’t exactly the heaving cultural metropolis of the entire country, but it felt like it to me. It had clubs, gig venues, art galleries, decent pubs, cinemas, a vibrant music scene, and young attractive folk. All I’d had was an off licence, a youth centre, and a couple of well-placed benches sheltered by trees.
The city wasn’t much like the hardened industrial, or just generally miserable, stereotypes that get bandied around about it. It was green; littered with parks and green open spaces, but with a characteristic coating of grime to it. My flat was placed around boarded up pubs, an abandoned cutlery factory with put-through windows, and the general scars that some collapsed industry can leave on a city, but all these spots sat side-by-side with thriving night spots such as Gatecrasher and Niche, giving each corner of the city a strange concoction of life and death.
The area’s last great icon hadn’t been a no-nonsense footballer or a downbeat Northern rocker. It had been the British boxer Prince Naseem Hamed, a local-turned-national hero with sacks of swag, who showed off all of the city’s nuanced, radical, and multi-cultural glories, as he danced into fights to the sound of speed garage, wearing leopard print Adidas shorts.
Inside Niche (Photo via The Drop Documentary - read about the rise and fall of UK bassline here)
The music scene had fired off in a shit load of directions, and was the antithesis of anything resembling lad culture. A big local band were Pink Grease, who were sort of like a ragtag, pound shop version of the New York Dolls, reeking of poppers and androgyny, and sounding like Devo obsessives. There was the electronic presence projected by proto-techno duo Hiem; pop-leaning outfits like I Monster or Kings Have Long Arms; the math-rock of 65Daysofstatic or the eccentric and odd Super Furry Animals-like esoteric pop of Champion Kickboxer. Movements like Prince Naseem’s beloved speed garage and a burgeoning electro-dance scene in club nights like Razor Stiletto helped to define the city too. And that’s before I even mention the ecstatic debauchery of bassline – which was still thronging when I touched down – Sheffield’s greatest contribution to UK dance culture, and a genre that subverted UK garage to give the North an electronic identity.
So when I came across the Arctic Monkeys, they felt like the opposite of it all. I first saw them in early 2005, in a small upstairs venue called Fez Club – bottles and cans only at the bar, a no-frills dark room sort of place - and it transported me back into the confines of my sixth-form common room. They came across like the smell of stale weed smoke and lads who had calloused thumbs from 12 hour Pro Evo sessions. I liked the urgency of their performance and that it was just a bunch of spotty, seemingly nonplussed, kids going for it with careless abandon – and I could see why it appealed to others – but it just sounded like a forgettable past.
Yet as the hype machine exploded in their wake, the sounds of “Cigarette Smoker” or “Scummy” seemed to be blasting from every orifice in the city: from bars, clubs, pubs and shops, to cafes, taxis, and the back row of the bus. Everything standardised, quickly. I remember a mate of mine who was a few years older than me Djing one night – an ex-Gatecrasher kid who used to sport furry boots, neon clothes, dummies, daft hair, a real club kid – and he played “I Bet That You Look Good on the Dance Floor” the week it came out and went to number one. A few of us looked over in shock but he shrugged his shoulders as if to say, ‘it’s a tune’. To be fair, he was kind of right about that one.
When the debut album finally dropped, there was a noticeable change in the atmosphere and music community in the city. The Monkeys had fans ranging from excited teenagers to re-energised old timers, but while some were impassioned and others overzealous, a really good chunk were just proper angry pissheads. I was DJing a lot in various bars and clubs across the city at the time, and the shift in attitude was prevalent on nights out. Refusing to play the Arctic Monkeys when this album came out was treated like high treason – nevermind whether you were an indie night or a electronic night – and usually resulted in a fight or a flying drink. When interviewing Dorian Cox from the Long Blondes earlier this year, he told me of a time in 2006 when they supported the Monkeys at the Leadmill and were met with a chant of “Puffs! Puffs! Puffs!” from the moment they started playing until three songs in when they just sacked it off and walked.
As the Monkeys flew high, leading the way in sales, acclaim and influence across the country, plenty of young people in the city found themselves in a delusional state, where being in or from Sheffield became a national achievement in itself. A sense of hyper-localism took hold and the really broad and inclusive music scene I knew seemed to narrow enormously. For a start, the bassline scene was killed off by South Yorkshire police, after one too many incidents. One couldn’t help but think the authorities preferred the idea of young white pint drinking students filling up the new siege of indie nights, more than range of folk who had travelled from afar to rave all night to bassline and probably take pills. Around the city, good music being good music started to get replaced by the notion that it was only good if it you pronounced your accent and used guitars.
Record labels came mooching around town for Monkeys-esque signings and, generally, they found them in bands like Milburn, the Harrisons and Reverend and the Makers – some of whom had actually got together way before the Arctic Monkeys. Younger fresh bands would aspire to follow the blueprint, only to add to the endless echo of localised indie rock, and it all contributed to a decidedly one-note output that was now considered the popular ‘sound of Sheffield’ throughout 2006 and into 2007. Of course, most of those bands were dropped at a hat when labels realised they wouldn’t sell quite like the Monkeys. Hands up if you remember Little Man Tate. The exception perhaps being the Long Blondes signing to Rough Trade, who become one of the few unique antidotes to the male rah that was going on.
Everyone looks back on Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not as Turner’s great lyrical masterpiece, and to some extent it is. But from the street level perspective, it felt like whenever a song wasn’t about romance, it was reinforcing that “Grim up North” stereotype with constant smacks of fatalism or references to prostitutes in Neepsend or shithead bouncers – basically, all the perceptions that non-Northerners have about the North. And, to some extent, encouraged those in the city to revert back to those miserablist reference points.
The irony is, I still find that earlier period of the group’s career as by far their most interesting to me, because of the sheer velocity of the effect it had on the forward-thinking city I had moved to. It brought a change in sentiment, the return of boozed-up indie lads, and the fact I can’t go to the pub anymore without having to look at Alex Turner’s face, gloriously recreated in garish pop-art on the urinal wall. That’s not necessarily the band’s fault – they were, after all, one of the few modern British bands who had some interesting stories to tell. But as an Americanised Turner moves further away from Sheffield, singing the line “you’re not from from New York City, you’re from Rotherham” with hypocritical lunacy, perhaps it’s time Sheffield stopped being so hung up on the Arctic Monkeys. Because as the celebratory anniversary articles pour in, it’s worth remembering that they certainly didn’t rescue the Sheffield I knew.
You can find Daniel on Twitter: @DanielDylanWray