Album Analysis | Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
On this day in 2006, Arctic Monkeys won the Mercury Prize for their debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. We look back at the day they won, and exactly why.
On the 5th September 2006, young British rock band Arctic Monkeys were awarded the Mercury Music Prize by a panel of judges at a ceremony held at Grosvenor House in London and hosted by Jools Holland. On receiving the prize, the then-20-year-old frontman Alex Turner praised another Sheffield artist, quipping "somebody call 999, Richard Hawley's been robbed." The indie-rock singer-songwriter Hawley's album Cole's Corner was on the shortlist alongside other big names such as Muse, Thom Yorke, and Scritti Politti.
In the years to come, Turner himself would evolve into a veteran songwriter as accomplished as Hawley, and - most notably on later albums Suck it and See and AM - develop a similar penchant for leather jackets, quiffs, and richly-crooned romantic balladry. Even later, their album Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino took a sharp left turn into Bowie-esque piano-based high-concept sci-fi.
In 2006, however, things were very different. The four-piece of Alex Turner, guitarist Jamie Cook, drummer Matt Helders, and bassist Andy Nicholson (who left the band between the release of their debut album and their reception of the Mercury Prize, to be replaced by Nick O'Malley) had burst onto the scene with a sound based on angular guitar riffs, rapid-fire drumming, and kitchen-sink lyrics about nights out in Sheffield and taxi ranks, sung in Turner's unapologetically thick Yorkshire accent.
It was a simple-but-effective formula, helped by their considerable writing and performing talent and eye for detail. Inspired by US garage-rock acts like The Strokes, British rappers like Roots Manuva, and the punk poetry of John Cooper Clarke, their debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not caught the attention and captured the imagination of the public. Even in the era of the charts being dominated by singers from The X Factor and similar reality TV programmes, the British public loves an underdog story. When four "ordinary" northern lads in their late teens appeared, seemingly from nowhere, with a winning combination of catchy songs and cheeky grins, the nation was hooked - now why does that sound familiar?
Whatever... had been released in January 2006 and gone straight to the number one spot, on the strength of lead single "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor", which combined a blistering guitar intro with a strong backbeat and tongue-in-cheek lyrical nods to "dancing to electro pop like a robot from 1984", comparing young drinkers on "dirty dancefloors" to "Montagues and Capulets". With this song being played at every indie disco night in the country ever since, it's hard to remember how it sounded back in 2006.
Thankfully, the rest of the album was just as infectious. From the raucous opener "The View From The Afternoon"'s frenetic drumming and tales of drunken regrets ("you can pour your heart out around three o'clock, when the 2-for-1's undone the writer's block"), all the way to closer "A Certain Romance"'s melancholy reflection on the dead-end lives of "friends of mine" in a town with "no romance", the energy never drops - save for when downbeat ballad "Riot Van" appears to give a brief break from the onslaught of frenetic drumming, tight guitar hooks and witty couplets.
Turner's vocals on later albums would display more acrobatics, more crooning, and an American twang, but on Whatever... his voice sounded both defiantly northern and adolescent. His rapid-fire vocal delivery showed the clear influences of both poetry and British rap, while sounding completely in keeping with the band's indie-rock sound. His lyrics also displayed skill in observation and wordplay well beyond his years - the songs almost entirely concern themselves with young, working-class British nightlife in all its excitement and mundanity, but his sharp perspective and pathos towards his characters (who are most likely real people that he knew) make these stories universally relatable as well as capturing a specific time and place.
There's a wry, self-deprecating humour to most of these songs, as evidenced on "Fake Tales of San Francisco", a surprisingly groovy cut detailing "weekend rockstars" playing in the pub: "his bird says it's amazing though, so all that's left / is the proof that love's not only blind but deaf". On the bass-driven "From The Ritz to the Rubble", Turner describes two nightclub bouncers: "one of them's alright, the other one's the scary'un / his way or no way, totalitarian". The lyrics aren't just satirical digs at local characters, though - the melodic swoon of "Mardy Bum", a plea to make amends with a disgruntled partner, is both heartfelt and down-to-earth:
Why can't we just laugh and joke around?
Remember cuddles in the kitchen yeah, to get things off the ground
And it was up, up and away
Oh, but it's right hard to remember that on a day like today
The album's production by Jim Abbiss (Adele, Kasabian) is refreshingly straightforward, with the rough edges left in in the style of then-recent British indie bands like The Libertines and The Cribs, giving the whole album a slightly ramshackle, shambolic sound that best presents the band's youthful exuberance. It would go on to start a wave of British guitar acts that varied from the genuinely inspired, to shameless attempts to cash in on the Arctic Monkeys sound. Regardless of the success of some of its imitators, Whatever... remains probably the most vital and defining album of the '00s British indie-rock boom.
Whatever... still remains one of the great musical success stories of the 21st Century, and showed that despite the hyper-capitalist, manufactured world of pop music, a band with nothing more than a bunch of well-crafted songs and a loyal grassroots fanbase spreading the word via the internet could achieve international acclaim and recognition.
Listen to Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not on Spotify here.