‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’: Arctic Monkeys and the Death of a Subculture
A U.K. writer looks back on the 18-month apex of the most important band of his young life
Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not was released ten years ago, almost to the day this piece was written, but for me, the wake of their death began precisely on October 29, 2005. As blasphemous as this belief suggests, I reject the piety of worship bestowed on the band when their first two singles and debut album went straight to No. 1 on the U.K. Charts. If not remembered for its buzzsaw guitars, blistering speed, and frontman Alex Turner’s witty courtship lyrics, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” is regarded as the musical zeitgeist of our time. But, with the triumph of knocking Sugababes’ “Push The Button” off the top of the singles charts, the victory was also a death knell. For three months, I was a pallbearer at Arctic Monkeys’ long funeral: carrying the coffin with my peers, weighted by my guilt as I watched the ideologies of my youth and identity cremated and inurned. Our dogmatic faith that they were ours alone decayed when we gifted them to the world as “The Next Big Thing” and it was enough to attract the masses’ perennial curiosity. I blame myself, and I blame us all. The naive belief of immortality is youth’s virtue, and with our innate optimism we set out to rupture the order of things — and we did it. We believed the hype.
No matter how I feel now, Arctic Monkeys were the most significant band in my life to that point. The first time I heard of Arctic Monkeys was when I asked a girl what she was listening to while we talked on MSN. I asked whether they had a CD out, but she said they didn’t, so she sent me a file with all their songs (she found it on the now-defunct Dancing Jesus, whose splinter fansite Mardy-Bum.com soon replaced the NME as my Bible). Within an hour, their homemade demo Beneath the Boardwalk was downloaded to my computer, sent to me by a girl ten miles away in Wigan who I’d meet weekly at a club. The spot, Club Nirvana, was the place of our teenage emancipation: Arctic Monkeys were the fixture of DJ sets, and performed there three times during 2005. A MySpace forum devoted to the venue created a network for everyone who walked through the doors; friendships were formed, song requests were put to a writ in advance, opinion- and file-sharing were at large. Every day, patrons discussed music through twilight shifts over broadband, depicting a microcosm of a fanbase now snowballing across URLs and northern boroughs.
Before this time, I was 18 years old and exploring life outside of my hometown by illegally clubbing in Liverpool and Wigan, while studying A-levels in Southport. Arctic Monkeys were the same age, so although there was a redemptive element in our precociousness, you would fantasize that their lives were the same as yours. Their music was the soundtrack to our run-ins with bouncers, fumbles with lovers, and Tropical Reef spilled on shirts — these should be the worries of our lives, and in 2005, they were. It felt good to be part of something in real time.
I hail from Skelmersdale, a post-war town built to relocate inhabitants in poor or bombed-out housing in Liverpool. In the ’70s, companies left during the economic slump, resulting in an increase in poverty, crime, and drug abuse. Socially and economically, “Skem” had been on life support for decades; so in 2012, when Channel 4 filmed a drama series called Utopia there, the reality was symptomatic of a failed design. Skelmersdale is like the town Alex Turner describes on Whatever closer “A Certain Romance”: “Well, oh, they might wear classic Reeboks / Or knackered Converse, or tracky bottoms tucked in socks,” he sing-sighs. “But all of that’s what the point is not / The point’s that there is no romance around there.” Lyrically, Turner’s lament spoke for the whole generation, to us, and to everybody individually through the poetry of the prosaic and the epiphany of the everyday.
As a teenage indie boy in Northern England, your favorite Morrissey lyrics were scratched into the cavity walls of your box room, and you postured Bowie singing “The Jean Genie” like Sam Riley in Control — “all the weekend rockstars in the toilets, practicin’ their lines,” as immortalized in the Monkeys’ “Fake Tales of San Francisco.” Your cigarettes were Marlboro Red; your T-shirt was Warhol’s banana; and in the two years since you left high school, you absorbed enough culture through music magazines to distinguish you from your peers, even your best friends. These are all things that I did, and I’m not ashamed to admit I was a stereotype.
But something was missing from that collected our version of England. A year earlier, the Libertines imploded in 2004 and with them went their Southern sense of Englishness. Their collapse, then, was an opportunity for Arctic Monkeys to romanticize the grimness and austerity of an England not defined as cosmopolitanism (Bloc Party) or Albion. If history is a cyclical movement, then it’s worth noting that the year Arctic Monkeys released their debut album was almost exactly two decades after the Smiths broke up. The record’s title is taken from the kitchen-sink drama Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Mimicking Morrissey, Turner used Albert Finney’s expression of individuality to champion the Northern vernacular. Ordinariness in music had come full circle — the Monkeys borrowed the language of a working-class hero as a standard, echoing, therefore, the voice of the everyday. Turner snatched more than words from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning; he took its world and illustrated our reality to outsiders.
“Them was rotten days,” Aunt Ada says in the movie, and the same can be said of the mid-’00s too. The idealism and optimism of Blair’s Labour a decade earlier were a distant memory: The 7/7 attacks shook the nation, anti-capitalist riots broke out in Edinburgh surrounding the G8 summit, and, under New Labour, one million manufacturing jobs were lost, primarily in the North. Your school friends went to fight a phony war in Iraq or they evolved into the enemy of ordinary people: chavs (I abhorred the word; it was used abusively towards anyone who wasn’t “alternative”). Escapism was in the form of YouTube (launched April 2005), forums, and MySpace, but also, the world you created online, your ideal sense of self. Music is, according to Morrissey, “the last refuge of young people. It’s the only remaining art form. There’s nothing else that touches them.” The Internet was a hotbed of ideologies, a utopia for indie music and its listeners that fostered our individuality in the face of our social positions ascribed to us within society. It was the essence of subculture: resistance, difference, and defiance. You know how Brian Eno said that everyone who bought the Velvet Underground’s debut started a band? Well, that’s what happened with Arctic Monkeys and Whatever. The lads in “classic Reeboks” ditched them for “knackered Converse,” but they couldn’t fake the identity we’d been cultivating and coveting for 18 months.
If it had been the plan to end Arctic Monkeys, then our doorstep rebellion had succeeded. But, as they soldiered on, they were replaced by a plethora of imitators (Milburn, Reverend and the Makers) who made the original consciousness rot with digital amnesia. The next couple of years saw indie incorporated into the mainstream and the artificial barrier between the two evaporated, presenting Razorlight and Scouting for Girls. Much like punk — in its most definite form — whatever this movement or subculture was called, it lasted for only 18 months. The assertions of difference, authenticity, and radicalism were (and remain) short-lived and naive. Arctic Monkeys’ death, then, was the ease and speed of their transferability into the commercial and the mainstream. With the passage of time, as I know it now, we created our cultural endpoint.
Of course, in fact Arctic Monkeys are still active; the actual demise of the group hasn’t happened. But however successful they have become, nothing is as influential as their maiden voyage. What we mourned was investing in our projection of identity, and in a certain romance embodied by records that anyone could buy; we were seduced by the mistake of consuming an account of authenticity that reached the zenith of inauthenticity. After the funeral, those who once broke our bones picked us up at the reception, and the distant sound said: “There’s only music so that there’s new ringtones.”