Maybe you’re about to read this and find out about a band called Arctic Monkeys. Or maybe you already know more about them than 1,000 words could ever convey. Maybe you downloaded their songs months before record companies cared and maybe you were grabbed by the sudden urge to drive for half a day just to see them play. Maybe you picked up one of the demos they handed out at early gigs, memorised every word and bellowed them back at them during their next gig. Maybe you were one of the kids who’s taken up surfing across Monkeys’ crowds as a full-time hobby. And maybe you’ve also ended up with a permanent monitor-related injury because of it.
Because unless your definition of success rests on how many private yachts you can afford, Arctic Monkeys were already massive way before they inked a deal with Domino in June 2005. People obsessing over the songs? Sold-out gigs full of stage-diving nutcases? Hardcore fans pressed up against venue windows, just hoping to catch a glimpse? Such checkpoints have all been ticked.
“What’s happened has been proper hysterical,” grins lead singer/guitarist Alex Turner, acknowledging the hurricane of hero worship his band have been swept up by in the last few months. “If I say ‘phenomenon’ it sounds like I’m right up my own arse, but we’d be daft to act like we didn’t realise how incredible the last year’s been. When it all started we were like ‘fucking hell, what’s going off here?’”
Of course, it was guitars that started it all: two of them, given to Alex and Jamie Cook as Xmas presents just three years ago. The pair began practising furiously – some might say competitively – before Andy Nicholson (bass) and Matt Helders (drums) joined the throng.
The boys may share a love of The Smiths, The Clash and The Jam (and sure, Jamie may boast a healthy passion for Oasis, System Of A Down and Queens Of The Stone Age) but in no way were The Monkeys ready to simply regurgitate the well-trodden Brit-rock path. Rather, they spent their school days listening to Roots Manuva, Braintax and other stuff on [UK hip hop label] Low-Life, not to mention Lyricist Lounge compilations and Rawkus Records cuts like Pharaoh Monch. Another unique influence was Mancunian poet John Cooper Clarke, who Alex is a huge recent fan of.
“He’s this dead skinny guy with big mad hair, red tinted glasses and drainpipe jeans, a proper character,” raves Alex. “Everyone tells us we’ve got a shit band name but he was like ‘That’s great! There’s no trees in the arctic! How would it survive?’ He painted this picture instantly, a real creative mind!”
Hence the razor-sharp lyricism that fuels songs like ‘A Certain Romance’, a witty observation of small-town life where “there’s only music so that there’s new ringtones” and where going out could sometimes mean having a pool cue wrapped around your head. Elsewhere, there were grim tales of girls who’d ended up on the streets (“She don’t do major credit cards, I doubt she does receipts” – ‘Sun Goes Down’) and glorious swipes at the rock’n’roll clones that arose on the back of the great garage rock boom of 2002 (“Yeah I’d like to tell you all my problems/You’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham” – Fake Tales Of San Francisco).
This was life in satellite-town England, as cutting and observant as anything you’d hear from Mike Skinner. But it wasn’t always like that.
“Lyrics were a dark patch,” admits Alex. “Nobody wanted to admit they wrote them so we kept trying other singers so they’d do it for us. But I’d secretly been writing since school and I enjoyed it. I just never told anyone because I didn’t want to have piss took out of me!”
Even with their poetic obstacles overcome, it was a year before the Monkeys dared venture onto a stage. Why? It had to be perfect. And by the time they played their first gig at The Grapes in Sheffield, it was. People went berserk and the band walked offstage thinking they might just be onto something. A few gigs later and they found themselves playing Sheffield Forum, in front of a crowd who knew words that Alex hadn’t learnt properly yet. They couldn’t understand it, but there was a reason their fan base had been swelling: the demos they’d been handing out for nowt at gigs in true DIY punka style.
“I used to work in a bar at venues and it really annoyed me when bands would say ‘We’ve got CDs for sale at the back, three pound each’,” says Alex. “You’d think ‘Fuck off, who do you think you are?’ We had this one time where people were literally running up to the stage clambering for these demos, a right frenzy, and we were thinking ‘Fucking hell this is cool’.
With demos doing the rounds, across the web and at gigs, bizarre things started happening. Bizarre things like turning up for gigs in Wakefield to be greeted by hardcore Monkeys fans who’d driven from places as far away as Aberdeen. And when the band played the Boardwalk at the start of this year they were greeted with the entire crowd singing the lyrics to ‘When The Sun Goes Down’, a song that’s never been released (at the time of writing this, the band have released just one single).
Alex: “I had to stop playing, I were pissing meself! It just erupted into this thing. We had people crowd-surfing and landing on monitors. In Manchester this kid came flying over the crowd and his cheek just smashed on the side of the stage. Another kid came over and just rolled across, a perfect land like a gymnast. But best is when everyone’s just bouncing.”
In the space of a few months, word-of-mouth buzz had spread in a way the industry couldn’t keep up with.
“Before the hysteria started, labels would say ‘I like you, but I’m not sure about this bit, and that song could do with this changing…’ We never listened. And once it all kicked off we didn’t even worry about it anymore. In London, the kids were watching the band and the record company were at the back watching the kids watching the band.”
And, naturally for a band who’ve never once sat and contrived things, questions of the ‘where next’ variety are met with a shrug: “People already proper care about the music, before it’s even finished. You can see it in their eyes and nobody can take that away from you. I guess it can still get bigger, though. Instead of hundreds of people singing the words, it could be thousands. Does that feel any different, I wonder?”
Maybe like you, he’s about to find out.