Britain's Arctic Monkeys swing into US jungle
The teen sensations are starting a US tour. But will the band's lingo and humor translate Stateside?
LONDON — As rock 'n' roll antics go, it's a routine usually reserved for big stars and their biggest hits. The lead singer abandons his microphone, gestures to the thousands of adoring fans and waves a hand to encourage a singalong.
But on this occasion - last August's Reading Festival - it wasn't the Rolling Stones or U2 offering up one of their anthems, but a teenage four-piece from northern England who hadn't even released a record.
And yet the crowd knew every word.
Such vignettes are part of the legend of the bewildering rise of a band that has become something of a cultural phenomenon in Britain. To the casual observer, the Arctic Monkeys may come across as your typical new indie wannabes: black T-shirts, moppish hair, you-lookin'-at-me eyes, and that underfed lankiness that suggests a good, home-cooked meal or two might not go amiss.
But there is nothing typical at all about a band whose CD, "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not," became Britain's fastest-selling debut album. Ever. This collection of teenagers from the city of Sheffield only picked up guitars four years ago. Even more astonishing is that they used self promotion on the Internet to sell out sizable venues before the media or record labels had even heard of them.
"People want a band to get excited about," says Alexis Petridis, a music writer for the Guardian newspaper. "There is nothing better than that moment when everything coalesces around a band. Last time it happened was with Oasis and before that the Stone Roses."
That fervor has started to bubble in the US. The album made its debut at No. 24 two weeks ago - a promising start to an 11-date North American tour that kicks off this weekend with an appearance on "Saturday Night Live." Back home, the band has already notched two No. 1 singles: "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" and "When the Sun Goes Down."
In a refreshing change from the usual story of hype and puff in the age of manufactured pop, the band's success stems not from a reality TV show or a large marketing budget, but from its own fans.
Demos of early gigs and tunes were made available to fans who copied and shared them on websites such as MySpace.com. The viral buzz of the chat room arguably spread the word more effectively than record-label marketing. And the band's popularity looks far more authentic because of it, according to rock critic Neil McCormick.
"It's the opposite of hype," he says. "The bandwagon started rolling from the ground up." The Web-based marketing may have helped, he says, but only because the songs were appealing in the first place. "It's all very well to talk about the Internet as a forum, but it's no use swapping songs and giving away your music if it isn't any good," Mr. McCormick says. "They speak to the young consumers of this country in a way that we haven't seen since the Jam and the Smiths."
Indeed, music writers and fans have marveled at the precocious lyrical talent of lead singer Alex Turner, who is already being labeled the voice of a generation. The album is a succession of spiky songs about the loveless inner city, about prostitution and pimps, about running away from police and not getting into nightclubs, about the raucous commotion of youth before it is silenced by the dreary certainty of age. Turner's turns of phrase are ambitious (at one point he rhymes "problem" with "Rotherham," a particularly unheralded northern town), funny, cynical, and angry.
"He really is a poet," says Andrew Collins, a cultural commentator and avid Arctic Monkeys fan. "He is chronicling life from an 18-year-old's perspective. He's not showing off with long words, but with clever sentences. He looks around him and sees there is humor there."
In truth, the British music scene was probably ready for the Arctic Monkeys. Britpop, that exuberant soundtrack to the "Cool Britannia" of the 1990s, has been fading away for years like a dreary Coldplay outtro, giving way to a mope rock scene that needed an infusion of energy. Mr. Petridis of the Guardian says there is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy in the way that the rock world has embraced the Arctic Monkeys as the next big thing. "It's partly willed into existence," he says.
Despite the enthusiasm, there must be a worry about longevity. Though still teenagers, the Arctic Monkeys are entering a business in which life cycles are mayfly-short. But so far, there have been few signs of the bombast and/or self-destruction that routinely claim other acts. These are, after all, Yorkshiremen, and Yorkshiremen have a reputation for stolidity.
Cracking America would help cement the band's reputation. The band has a reputation for a tight live show, but it remains to be seen if their cultural references will find a response from US audiences. "You wonder if Americans will literally be able to understand Turner," says Petridis, noting the way the songs are spat out in a thick South Yorkshire accent.
But he adds that, although the songs may seem parochial, "there is a universal element to them as well." After all, these are songs about drinking and rebelling and having a laugh. "These sorts of things happen all over the world," says Petridis.
• For tour dates go to arcticmonkeys.com