Not many would’ve tipped a pimply indie rock band from South Yorkshire, signed to an independent label, to release the fastest selling debut album in British chart history. But that’s what Arctic Monkeys achieved with their 2005 LP, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.
Arctic Monkeys not only remain enormously popular 14 years later, but in contrast to the majority of the mid-noughties indie crowd, their releases still get critics talking – albeit divisively.
Central to this prolonged success is a willingness to try on new frocks with each release. They retain an unshakeable essence, revolving around frontman Alex Turner’s regional accent and canny lyricism, but have otherwise keep opening doors and seeking out new ideas.
Ahead of Arctic Monkeys’ Australian tour, we’ve zoomed in on six tracks that represent the Sheffield band’s musical evolution.
Song: I Bet You Look Good On the Dancefloor
Album: Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, 2005
This debut single is also The Arctic Monkeys’ biggest song – they performed it at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics and it’ll probably get spun at indie discos until the end of time. Regardless, ‘I Bet You Look Good On the Dancefloor’ is the purest distillation of what made the band’s first album such a revelation for teenage and adolescent listeners.
Despite its thorny garage punk flavour, ‘Dancefloor’ also contains seeds of what the band would become. The track begins with a fangin’ guitar solo that reeks of youthful libido. Turner’s lyrics chart his emotional journey following the intimation of interest from someone of the opposite sex. The action all takes place in his head as he ponders d-floor lust and a possible romantic future. Along the way he navigates longing, emotional changeability and slips in a Romeo & Juliet reference.
It’s four to the flour and catchy, showcasing a band powered by barefaced confidence as well as hinting at their future creative potential.
Song: Do Me a Favour
Album: Favourite Worst Nightmare, 2007
Favourite Worst Nightmare drew from the same well of inspiration as the band’s debut, but boasted upgraded sonics from producer James Ford, enhanced musical sophistication and a more dashing bass player.
‘Do Me a Favour’ is the most apt embodiment of the album’s one foot in the past, one in the future dynamic. It’s an impressively grown-up breakup song written by a 20- year-old; Turner’s lyrics rue romantic decay but don’t fail to take responsibility for the wreckage.
‘Do Me a Favour’ is still a propulsive rock song, but the delivery isn’t straight down your throat. Drummer Matt Helders’ tumbling tom tom beat complements the track’s ruminative vibration, ably supported by his new rhythmic offsider Nick O’Malley.
And to illustrate he hadn’t become an entirely earnest softie, Turner ends the song repeating, “Perhaps fuck off might be too kind.”
Album: Humbug, 2009
When triple j premiered Humbug prior to its August 2009 release, ‘Cornerstone’ immediately signified a songwriting evolution. The song is in a major key for crying out loud! It also does away with jittery staccato guitar riffs and puts the emphasis on Turner’s overwhelmingly melodic lead vocal.
Turner has often cited ‘Cornerstone’ as one of his proudest contributions. His affection for Nick Cave shines through in the lyrics, which chart an impolitic journey through a number of fictional pubs – The Rusty Hook, the Parrot’s Beak – as he tries to account for an ex-lover’s absence.
Variations on the line “Can I call you her name?” form the song’s central hook, and ‘Cornerstone’ could be considered quite creepy. It concludes, after all, with the narrator propositioning the sister of the woman he’s longing for. But as a poetic exercise, it finds Turner at his most concise.
Song: Don’t Sit Down ’Cause I Moved Your Chair
Album: Suck It and See, 2011>/h4>
On Suck It and See the Monkeys were cleaning out the cupboards and readying themselves for an overhaul. Helders had his first crack at lead vocals on ‘Brick by Brick’; ‘Piledriver Waltz’, written by Turner for the Submarine film soundtrack, was given the full band treatment; and there was a leaner, more direct quality to a large chunk of the track list.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on lead single, ‘Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I Moved Your Chair’, which flaunts the band’s heaviest riffing to date. Turner’s lyrics have always betrayed a healthy sense of humour. He lets it run free here, rattling off a list of dodgy suggestions: “Run with scissors through a chip pan fire fight,” “Go into business with a grizzly bear.” The only thing forbidden is sitting down (he’s moved the chair, you see.)
The chorus is a wordless release of no-fucks-given energy that resembles the band’s close pals, Queens of the Stone Age, as does the down-tuned main riff. But altogether the song just sounds like a great big lark.
Album: AM, 2013
AM, the band’s glammed-up, hip hop influenced fifth album, was a bolder, more left turn than any taken previously. Its various components all come together on ‘Arabella’, which is lust-filled and boasts some naughty, Sabbath-aping riffs. Turner engages in rapid-fire, figurative wordplay over a deep R&B groove in the verses. He rises to a sugary sweet falsetto for the chorus, emboldened by the eruption of an all-time air guitar riff.
Lyrically, Turner told NME ‘Arabella’ is the song he’s most satisfied with on the record. It’s rife with outer space references and patent expressions of sexual desire, plus corkers like, “When she needs to shelter from reality, she takes a dip in my day dreams,” and “The horizon tried but it’s just not as nice on the eyes as Arabella.” ‘Arabella’ represents a band comfortable in their new surroundings. They’d always been stupidly successful and now they were embracing it – the gargantuan cock-rock shredding that follows the bridge would’ve been incongruous on any previous release.
Song: Star Treatment
Album: Tranquillity Base Hotel and Casino, 2018
Where are the riffs? The distorted guitars? The pummelling drums? What the hell’s he singing about? And what on earth does the title mean? These were the sorts of exasperated questions filling news feeds and YouTube comments sections upon the release of Tranquillity Base Hotel and Casino in May 2018. But at the risk of invoking recency bias, Tranquillity Base is not only a hugely rewarding listen, but the most comprehensive progression of the band’s career.
No singles preceded the record, which meant the public’s first taste of the piano-led, vintage psychedelic sound was opening track, ‘Star Treatment’. Although it resembles Jarvis Cocker and Serge Gainsbourg more than the Arctic Monkeys’ early work, Turner’s not hiding from his past – the song famously opens with the admission, “I just wanted to be one of The Strokes.”
‘Star Treatment’ introduces the album’s sci-fi theme, with Turner constructing an outer space narrative as a novel means of exploring his life in this world. The lyrics are deftly layered throughout the record. The kernel of meaning isn’t always obvious, but akin to postmodern poetry the lyrics provide rich sensual engagement. Just consider the ‘Star Treatment’ pre-chorus:
“Maybe I was a little too wild in the ’70s
Rocket-ship grease down the cracks of my knuckles
Karate bandana, warp speed chic
Hair down to there, impressive moustache
Love came in a bottle with a twist-off cap
Let’s all have a swig and do a hot lap”
It’s fair to presume there’s plenty more stylistic rambling to come from Turner and co. But ‘Star Treatment’ is indicative of a band determined to create work of substance, irrespective of the contemporary trends.
Arctic Monkeys’ Australian tour kicks off in Perth this weekend. Head here for dates and ticketing details.