How Did Arctic Monkeys Become the Biggest Band in Britain?
As fans await the band's first album since 2013, we take a look at their rise to their current rockstar status.
Image by Zackery Michael via PR
Barely a month ago, Arctic Monkeys announced that Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, their sixth LP, was on its way. The news came in the form of a teaser video which pictured a diorama (presumably of that titular hotel) soundtracked by vague, fairground-style music of the sort that feels inherently sinister, like it’d be played in a horror film just before someone met a spectacularly grim end. The video provides no information about the record, just its name and its release date, May 11.
In the lead up to that landing date, the band have issued no advance singles and details about the record have proved surprising. In their first interview for this album campaign, guitarist Jamie Cook told Mojo, “It’s definitely not a guitar-heavy record, not typically what we’d do. It took a lot more thinking about," while Turner told Rolling Stone that as he sat down to write music at a piano, the places his fingers instinctively fell “suggested to me this idea of a lounge-y character, which never would have occurred to me had I been playing a guitar.” He has cited Serge Gainsbourg as a major influence and early reviews point to preoccupations with Los Angeles (where Turner and drummer Matt Helders live) and virtual reality. Suffice to say, as they have awaited Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, the only thing fans have been sure of is that they are certainly not getting AM part deux.
But in many ways, it doesn’t matter what Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino sounds like. Though Arctic Monkeys’ aforementioned fifth album had all the hallmarks of a solid gold hit (AM sold 157,329 copies in the UK in its first week of release, went platinum in the US in 2017, and, with “Do I Wanna Know,” gifted the world a bassline which imbues the listener with the exact sensation of having drunk two pints of beer), the same doesn’t need to be true of Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. Because in Britain at least, Arctic Monkeys have reached a point where they are too enormous, too beloved a force to truly fail. The record will, inevitably, sell brilliantly, and the band have booked many dates in the most towering slots and largest fonts on European festival bills. Their UK tour—due to take place at the end of this year in huge arenas—mostly sold out in under an hour and a half. They are, based on these facts, probably the UK’s biggest, most culturally important band. It seems prescient to ask, then: how did four unassuming lads from Sheffield become so astronomically successful?
The answer is a many-headed and multi-layered beast, so perhaps it is best to begin with the most obvious part. Arctic Monkeys are the biggest band in Britain—the band that your friends whose music taste can otherwise be described as “ Match of the Day-wave” are desperate to see perform live; the band dads and little brothers have in common—simply because throughout their career, they have remained consistent, while their peers in both sound and age have failed to keep similar longevity.
If you type ‘Arctic Monkeys’ into Spotify, the ‘related artists’ tab reads like a who’s who of the pages of a particularly tightly-crammed edition of NME circa 2007: The Libertines, The Strokes, The Fratellis, Franz Ferdinand, The Kooks, Kaiser Chiefs and Kasabian. But while most of these bands still exist, few are considered with the same credibility as the Monkeys—in fact, the utterance of those other names now mostly just elicit responses like “wow they’re still a band?” (followed by a long meditation on how very, very old the speaker has become.) In 2018 specifically, Arctic Monkeys’ dominance over bands who emerged at a similar time is probably assisted by the fact that AM was so outrageously successful commercially and critically. However, at a macro level, it’s also true that while others of their ilk lost their mass credibility (Franz Ferdinand are now favorites of the Radio X crowd; Ricky Wilson of Kaiser Chiefs went on The Voice; The Kooks, well...) or have been relegated to a categorisation of ‘lad rock,’ Arctic Monkeys have survived largely by making a string of solid records that fans have continued to relate deeply to, even as times have changed.
I’ve written on Noisey before about how listening to Arctic Monkeys—especially their debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not—illuminated my teen years spent in unremarkable suburbs (although it appears to have served a different function in their own city). Their debut LP felt special because unlike most music I gravitated towards growing up, it offered not escapism, but something better: it made the dull, boring place I lived in feel as though it too was worth exploration, worth observing with the care that Alex Turner paid to his own home of High Green in Sheffield.
As the band’s career has advanced, Turner has also grown into a stunning ability to express desire and emotion with a turn of phrase that never slides into either sentimentality or cynicism. It’s a skill that seems to have contributed to the band’s continued success among their core audience of young men, as Turner delivers emotional nakedness without ever falling into overt mushiness (thanks, socialised masculinity.)
The sheer, normal Britishness of his lyricism is also undeniable. Where other acts who emerged at the same time (specifically The Libertines, who were the only UK act to really climb to the same heights as Arctic Monkeys) felt inextricable from their London-centric, Hawley Arms epicenter, Alex Turner’s words located him in the sorts of towns untouched by the capital’s gritty glamour. It’s hard to deny, after all, that lyrics like “From the bottom of your heart / The relegation zone” or “She was close, close enough to be your ghost / But my chances turned to toast” could have sprung from anywhere but the brain of a Northerner.
The beauty and humor in Turner’s ordinary British turns of phrase, and scenarios, and modes of expression, share similarities with another Sheffield legend: Jarvis Cocker (who, at this point, feels like the closest point of comparison for both Turner’s career, and his songwriting style). Like Cocker, in making art out of everyday life, Turner’s lyrics have always offered Brits something that they don’t have to aspire to, but that is already theirs. In a rock landscape now dominated at the very top by Americans, that’s important, though it’s certainly true that Arctic Monkeys have evolved enough from the accomplished but raw, scrappy days of their debut to be able to stand alongside major US rock bands like Queens of the Stone Age and Foo Fighters. Their sound has grown glossy and huge like a racehorse, their riffs muscular and burly, their drumming fucking furious—even Josh Homme performed on their last album. The band have successfully brought the largesse of modern rock sounds together with Turner’s highly specific, unmistakably British vision of the world: it’s tough to see how any British music fan could resist.
And while it has not always been a direct path to rock superstardom for Arctic Monkeys (Turner risked total malignation amongst Brits when he started talking like a cowboy/dickhead at the 2014 BRIT Awards, for example), there isn’t a British band more suited to it. From what we know about Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, it seems like the band might be using the album to carve unexpected paths through their rockist legacy, introducing new sounds and pushing their evolution into weird—or at least brand new—territory. But if anyone can make weird work for him, it’s Alex Turner. By changing tack and letting AM be AM, the band might extend their own longevity, as well as what ‘Arctic Monkeys’ can be and mean. And yes, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino might be a lounge-jazz concept album about LA, but it also might just be Arctic Monkeys’ best trick yet – when you’re the biggest band in Britain, you can afford to try it out.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.