The Guide to Getting into Arctic Monkeys
From the early, distinctly British years to the more recent desert rock offerings, Alex Turner has written himself through several eras. Here they are.
Illustration by Laura Backeberg
Everyone knows Arctic Monkeys. In the lineage of British rock bands known the world over, their name slots into a family tree that includes the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the five Oasis songs that made their way across the sea. That said, you’re not a computer or a library, so there’s a chance you’ve missed out or forgotten a certain breed of Monkeys tune. Like the Stones and the pot-smoking Beatles before them, Arctic Monkeys come in several flavors.
Across five (and soon to be six albums), the Sheffield group have grown into a formidable, stadium-conquering rock band. But where did they start? Essentially, the story is thus: the Monkeys as a small band in the north of England; the Monkeys releasing the fastest selling British debut album of all time; the Monkeys as men with long-hair and beards who get featured in the LA Times ahead of the release of their new album Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.
If you’re reading this and you’re British, you might have some questions. For example: why did Alex Turner and drummer Matt Helders vacate the lovingly pudding-filled hills of Yorkshire and emigrate to the glistening yet cold concrete streets of Los Angeles? Or—as has been asked time and time again—what’s happened to Alex Turner’s accent? Here at Noisey we don’t have those answers. Or at least we don’t for the first question, and that’s only because we spoke to a linguist for the second.
What we do know, however, are the stages of the Arctic Monkeys career—those different flavors that have, over the years, melded together and made them the globally recognized band they are today. Maybe you’re 15 years old and have come across the Arctic Monkeys in their most recent AM phase and would like to delve into their back catalogue. Or perhaps you’re still hanging from 2007 and haven’t listened to anything past Favourite Worst Nightmare and don’t understand what the fuss is about. Whoever you are, we’ve got you. This is The Guide to Getting into Arctic Monkeys.
So You Want To Get Into: The “I’ll Kick Your Head In” But Still Be a Sweetheart About It B-Sides of Arctic Monkeys
Like all stories, it’s best to jump in at the beginning. In this case: the (probably?) cold winter of 2002. “Me and Cookey got guitars for Christmas that year” remembers Alex Turner in a 2005 interview with NME, referring to himself and guitarist Jamie Cook. “It got to March and I’d only learned a few chords but [Jamie] could already play all the Bond theme. I realized I had to step up my game.”
Likely walking home from band practice in the rain, supermarket hair-gel slipping down their acne covered foreheads, Turner, Cook, drummer Matt Helders and original bassist Andy Nicholson put in the hours and emerged a few months later with their first gig booking—a show at a small pub in Sheffield city center called the Grapes in June, 2003, of which there is sadly no footage.
With a debut show under their belt and their name supposedly christened by a homeless person after they played an impromptu, pissed-up gig in the town center, Arctic Monkeys then set about recording a collection of songs. Initially, these were burned onto CDs and given away for free at local shows. Unbeknownst to the band however, the tracks were also uploaded to indie forums. This then lead to an 18 track EP named Beneath The Boardwalk—so called, says a 2006 issue of Prefix Magazine, after the venue where the fan who uploaded the EP was given the songs. That EP was then passed around the internet, quietly and quickly gaining local then national momentum.
“We played a gig in Sheffield and as soon as I started singing the entire crowd sang it back to me,” blushed Alex in that 2005 interview with NME. “I thought, ‘Something’s going on here!’” And so it was. Some of the band’s earliest, most loved material appeared on this EP—including one of their first singles “When The Sun Goes Down,” then called “Scummy,” alongside seven demo versions of tracks from their debut album. Some songs (see: “Space Invaders” and “Choo Choo”) only live on in low-bit rate YouTube videos. Others, however, were given a new lease of life as b-sides—something the Monkeys very quickly excelled at (and likely helped to solidify them in the lineage of the classic rock band).
Tracks like “Bigger Boys and Stolen Sweethearts” and “Stickin’ To The Floor” showcased Arctic Monkeys at their most raw, while later b-sides such as “No Buses” and “The Bakery” introduced a lighter, more romantic tinge to Turner’s songwriting (which we’ll get to later). Then there’s “Temptation Greets You Like Your Naughty Friend”—a b-side from their 2007 single “Brianstorm” that for some reason includes Dizzee Rascal. Anyway: have away with the tunes that are available on Spotify above.
Playlist: "Chun Li Flying Bird Kick" / "Bigger Boys and Stolen Sweethearts" / "Stickin' To The Floor" / "7" / "No Buses" / "Temptation Greets You Like Your Naughty Friend" / "Da Frame 2R" / "Nettles" / "The Bakery"
So You Want To Get Into: Indie Club Night Arctic Monkeys
Ah, the indie club night; that horrible, sticky-floored place that acted as a formative experience for most people who went to a university or sixth form in the United Kingdom in the 2000s!
Though Turner was mostly writing about things he’d seen while working in his local bar in Sheffield—the observations in his lyrics culminating in viewpoints altogether more mature than that of an 18 year-old on their first Big Night Out—Arctic Monkeys’ first two albums are indie club mainstays. With lyrics like “You’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham” on “Fake Tales of San Francisco,” the songs are also distinctly British, belying the creature Turner would then morph into as the years went by, making the evolution of the Monkeys seem—at least at some points—like an ironic experiment on how far it might possibly be to stray from your roots.
Even from song titles alone—“Dancing Shoes,” “Still Take You Home,” etc—it’s obvious these tunes are placed within the realm of the night, near a club or a dark room with tacky neon lighting and a fat angry bouncer with a bald head. Besides Morrissey having his little panic at the disco and the odd tune from Pulp and Blur, the first two Monkeys albums (and standalone 2006 single “Leave Before The Lights Come On”) described the best and worst quality of Britain (going out on the lash) with a decorum and wit that hadn’t been seen in a generation, if not ever before. It helped, too, that Turner knew how to take the piss and slotted in Britishisms like “slag” and mentions of clothing brands like Topshop alongside all his chat about switching jumpers to sneak into a club.
Where the next most-successful British band before them (The Libertines) had focused on whimsical places like Arcadia, Arctic Monkeys—for better or worse—offered an insight into Britain that was relatable on a mass scale. Essentially, if you didn’t know what Turner was on about in his lyrics you were probably a dickhead, a hermit, in a coma, elderly or not from the country. And so, by virtue of this process, Arctic Monkeys became the biggest band in Britain. First, their debut album sold quicker than anything had ever before. Then, with the quick follow-up of Your Favourite Worst Nightmare a year later, they headlined Glastonbury (and did the damn thing in tracksuits and hoodies too). In little over 12 months Arctic Monkeys had ticked boxes, become a national treasure.
Playlist: "Dancing Shoes" / "Teddy Picker" / "Fluorescent Adolescent" / "The Bad Thing" / "From The Ritz to the Rubble" / "When The Sun Goes Down" / "Fake Tales of San Francisco" / "Still Take You Home" / "Leave Before The Lights Come On"
So You Want To Get Into: That Romantic Arctic Monkeys You’ve Been Hearing About
For many people, the biggest selling point of the Arctic Monkeys—at least initially, anyway—was Turner’s knack for writing a tune that went off. But even from the release of Whatever People Say I Am... he’s been sneaking in low-key, romantic pieces of songwriting. Tracks like “Riot Van” and “Mardy Bum” from the Monkeys' debut took things away from the club, with the former coming across like a bonding session between wreckheads in spite of being arrested by the police and the latter sounding like an aural reinterpretation of an episode of Coronation Street that starts with two lovers cuddling in the kitchen, then throwing plates at each others heads, then ending with them in love. “A Certain Romance” is worth a mention too for its romanticized assessment of the area Turner grew up in—a mining town where people wear knackered Converse, Reeboks and tracksuit bottoms tucked in socks.
From there, however, his romantic songwriting has extended beyond British cultural references and into a film-noir like space, telling tales of hotel rooms and purposefully long car journeys home. “Baby I’m Yours”—a 2006 b-side and cover of Barbara Lewis—is a good summation of the environment where Turner’s most-loved up songs aim to sit. The band’s cover, on which they’re joined by a barbershop quartet, is one of the closest things they’ve done to a James Bond soundtrack or something set in the 1960s. Meanwhile there’s Turner’s own soundtrack work—in 2011 he contributed six solo songs to the film Submarine, including the sublime “Stuck on the puzzle.”
Playlist: "Baby I'm Yours" / "Cornerstone" / "505" / "Mardy Bum" / "Stuck on the puzzle" / "No.1 Party Anthem" / "I Wanna Be Yours" / "Riot Van" / "A Certain Romance"
So You Want To Get Into: Proper Rock Band Arctic Monkeys
So, you’ve got the early British years of Arctic Monkeys and you’re caught up to speed with Turner’s romantic urges. But what about their transition into the big, proper rock band they’re known as today? Partially, the evolution in sound is due to Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme who co-produced their 2009 album Humbug. Recorded entirely in the United States, and in places like the Mojave Desert, the Monkeys shedded their tracksuits on that album and became a little more suave. However that’s not to say they became any less lyrically imaginative. Instead, their sound simply became a little more refined; Turner’s vocal darker and descending into an oily yet slick place on tracks like “My Propellor” and “Crying Lightning.”
Inspired by the likes of Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Nick Cave and John Cale, Humbug was the Arctic Monkeys entrance into the grown up, global realm of rock’n’roll. Then came fourth album Suck It And See, lead by the singles “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair” and “Brick by Brick.” Perhaps the weakest of their releases, the album is a lighter listen than both Humbug and their most recent release AM, instead sitting more in the classic rock vein suggested by its monochromatic, simple album cover.
Suck It And See could have been the beginning of the end of the Monkeys. They rode the train of hype from Britain and into the United States and then they landed, with a splat, a neither-here-nor-there album on their back. But then, in 2013, they released “R U Mine”—the lead single from AM. Fuzzing, loud, witty—the complete combination of everything people had come to love about the Monkeys—the track preceded the group’s most successful album to date; the one that solidified them as this generation’s most intimidatingly brilliant rock band. Including the also very huge single “Do I Wanna Know,” AM achieved mostly 4 to 5 stars across the board.
Playlist: "One For The Road" / "R U Mine" / "Pretty Visitors" / "Dangerous Animals" / "My Propellor" / "Do I Wanna Know" / "Don't Sit Down 'Cause I've Moved Your Chair" / "Crying Lightning"
So You Want To Get Into: Mainstream, Festival Headlining Arctic Monkeys
And so, here we are. This summer Arctic Monkeys will headline almost every festival in Europe while, in the UK, they will play a selection of massive sold-out arena shows in places ranging from their hometown of Sheffield to London. The collection of songs here are likely the ones you know the Monkeys for best—the assemblage of the best parts of their discography. However in case you don’t or you’re being dragged along to a festival to see them this summer, then here’s a setlist I copied from their recent tour on setlist.fm and put into a playlist. Bang it on your headphones before going along or—as a gift to someone who doesn’t know anything about them—send to a friend. This is the collection of songs Alex Turner and co. have decided are their best. Smash it.
Playlist: "Arabella" / "Don't Sit Down 'Cause I've Moved Your Chair" / "The View From the Afternoon" / "Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High?" / "505" / "The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala" / "Crying Lightning" / "Do I Wanna Know?" / "Brianstorm" / "Pretty Visitors" / "You're So Dark" / "Snap Out Of It" / "Cornerstone" / "Knee Socks" / "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" / One for the Road" / "R U Mine"
You can find Ryan on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.