Courier Classics: Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (2006) by Arctic Monkeys

Film Editor Joe Holloran looks back at the biggest selling debut rock album in British history

Joe Holloran
8th March 2020
The early 2000s were a bleak time for mainstream rock music in the UK. Britpop, that odd but effective mixture of 'Cool Britannia 60s pop nostalgia and indie rock, had subsided and the charts were dominated with boy bands, girl groups and electronic music.

Thankfully, in 2005 in a small practice room/recording space in Neepsend, Shefield, a group of young lads were crafting an album that would define a era and bring guitar music back to the masses. That band was of course the Arctic Monkeys.

The High Green based indie outfit initial consisted of lead singer/ guitarist Alex Turner, then aged only 19, rhythm guitarist Jamie Cook, tracky-bottom loving drum maestro Matt Helders and original bassist Andy Nicholson. Nicholson would leave the band shortly after the recording of this album and was replaced by Nick O'Malley. That foursome remains the line-up to this day. Influenced by the New York-based Indie kings The Strokes and their album Is This It? (2001), Alex Turner asked his parents for a guitar for his first electric guitar aged 15. He found some fellow like-minded friends at his high school and one year later the Arctic Monkeys were formed.

Since their inception as a band in Alex Turners bedroom in 2002 to the present day, the Arctic Monkeys have released six albums, featuring influences ranging from post-punk, indie, hard-rock, psychedelic rock (Humbug), pop, hip-hop (AM) and even lounge music. But it all started back in January 2006 when Domino Records issued copies of Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. The band had a loyal, if small, following online (one of the first bands who started online to break into the mainstream) but no one, especially the band themselves could have predicted what was to come. Whatever.... sold 360,000 copies in its' first week and would smash the record as the fastest selling debut album in British music history. So, the question is, does it deserve its lauded reputation?

The simple answer is yes. 100%. This album, like all great albums, captured vividly a moment in time and reflected a culture in such a realistic way that its appealed to all. Those who lived in the rougher areas of the North of England may have been the focus of the lyrics, but the simple themes of working-class life, drinking and 'pulling' were relatable to many young music fans at the time.

Over the course of 13 songs and its short 40 minute run-time, Whatever.... is a collection of brilliantly told stories showcasing the lives of ordinary Northern lads. With the exception of tracks 5 & 8, any of the songs on this album could be included in a top 3 list. After some consideration, here are my top 3 songs on Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not.

Song #1 - The View From The Afternoon

There are many reasons to love this song, but the main ones for me are its amazing music video (See above) and the ferocious drumming from Matt Helders. 'The View From The Afternoon' tells the story of a young guy who meets a girl on a wild night out in town. There are forlorn girls in Devil horns and others hanging out of limousines. But all our hero cares about is getting some 'love'. Sadly, however, drunk-texting gets in his way and he is left to regret ruining his chances. The music video for this song has little connection to these lyrics. It features a young man drumming day and night in the middle of a council estate in Sheffield in front of broken advertising board. This in itself makes for an interesting video but when you learn that it is in fact a modern take on the story of how the Buddha achieved enlightenment by sitting in front of a tree meditating for days, ignoring all who approached him, it becomes even more special. This video goes to show that even gritty social-realism can be used to great effect when paired with the right song. It truly is a work of art and remains, in my opinion, the best video the band has ever done and one of drummer Matt Helders finest moments.

Song #2 - When The Sun Goes Down

'When The Sun Goes Down' is a song about prostitution, exploitation and violence. Its narrative is pretty simple, it speaks of a young girl who walks the streets and sells her body to a variety of scummy men. Sometimes sex work is glamorised in the media. Shows like 'Secret Dairy Of A Call Girl' showcase a life where the women are in charge, love their job, get well paid and have fun doing it. This song and powerful accompanying video showcase the reality for most sex workers. It's a topic we don't like to talk about. As Alex Turner says "You're trying not to listen. I bet your eyes are staring at the ground" but this album is about reflecting the reality of growing up in Sheffield (or any big post-industrial city in Britain) where desperate and vulnerable people do terrible things to survive. Musically this song borrows from the old Pixies handbook of quiet verse/loud chorus and features the best guitar work on the album, with odd tuning and distortion used to great effect. In the background throughout is that bass which dictates the pace and acts as base to allow the guitars to come in and out when needed. This is the guys at their flowing best and perhaps more than any other song on the album shows what an fantastic, observant lyricist Alex Turner is.

Song #3 - A Certain Romance

Lastly is my favourite (and many other fans) song on the album - the epic closing track 'A Certain Romance'. Opening with a stampeding drums and quickly followed by clashing guitars, the song soon slows down once Turner's plucking, catchy riff and bouncing bass come in. Turner and Cook play off each other brilliantly, much like they do on 'When The Sun Goes Down'. While most songs on the album feature single characters that act as representations of the kind of people Turner grew up with, this song is about one singular friend. One who, despite embodying everything Turner hates; the heavy drinking, the fighting and general 'laddy-ness', remains one of his closest friends. This song is about those guys you see in the pub who have no self-awareness, who think just because they have had one too many they "think it's alright to act like a dickhead". They think they are Gods gift but in reality there "Ain't no romance around there".

It's not all doom and gloom though. Remember that alongside the "Broken bones, music made just for ringtones & kids who like to scrap with pool cues in their hands" there are also "Boys in bands". Well these boys and their band achieved something special back in 2006, and although they have since left their working-class storytelling days behind them,Whatever People Think I Am, That's What I'm Not ramains a prime example, alongside The Smiths, of how an group of ordinary lads from the forgotten cities of Northern England can create poetry out of the often gritty mundanity of the world around them. And they did it all in their late teens/early twenties.

Rating: 5/5

(Bonus track: Although it didn't make the top 3 you can't talk about this album and not include the song that made them famous)

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