Preview: The Arctic Monkeys, Japan, 2006


The big record companies and media conglomerates are worried. Or at least they want you to think that they are. The cause of all the fuss is a band called the Arctic Monkeys, four unassuming lads from the North of England, aged 19 and 20, who are, apparently, taking the World by storm, including three dates in Japan early next month to push their new album Whatever People Say I am, That's What I'm Not.

The Monkeys are a tight band with an impressive percussive style and a singer-guitarist, Alex Turner, who half raps and half sings his way through incisive, streetwise lyrics that non-British audiences might find challenging. As such they are the latest and most evolved rock-rap crossover, citing the Jam, the Clash and British rapper Roots Manuva among their influences. But, although their music and lyrics are definitely worth a listen, the buzz about the band is centered on the DIY way they broke upon the music scene.

Instead of being promoted by a record company or hyped by the New Musical Express (NME), Britain's main music paper and cheerleader for new music, the Monkeys did it all on their own, becoming a youth phenomenon without any help and – more importantly for their fast-developing myth – without permission from anyone older. In other words, they epitomize the teenage dream.

After Turner and fellow guitarist Jamie Cook got guitars for Xmas in 2001, they hooked up with drummer Matt Helders, and bassist Andy Nicholson. and practiced hard.

"We just played whatever we could then," Turner recalled in a BBC interview. "It was like no specific style or anything. We were all learning, so if we could get from the start of the song to the end, it were like an achievement. So the style didn't start until like 18 months after we started playing together."

After their first gig in Summer 2003, they quickly built up a dedicated fan base by handing out free, home-burned CDs that were then shared over the internet on several peer-to-peer file-sharing networks. Through the 'viral marketing' of file sharing and word or mouth they soon started to get attention from record companies, signing for Domino Records in June last year. By the time the NME finally got round to hyping them, the music paper was clearly just jumping on the bandwagon.

The band's sound and image fit perfectly into this 'done without permission' grassroots paradigm. It has a hard ska-inflected edge that complements Turner's dry, sardonic delivery and whiplash lyrics about gritty, grimy, post-Industrial Britain. In A Certain Romance, the last song on their album, Turner takes a poke at the commercialization of the music business.

"There's only music, so that there's new ringtones," he sings with a sneer. Inevitably, their own music has now followed the same path.

Imagewise, the Monkeys seem unprepossessing, almost hiding behind their instruments before they launch into the sharply focused energy of their performances. This sends out a signal that they are unhappy with all the attention and perpetuates their image as rebels and music business outsiders. Their early career has also raised the specter that the music industry dreads the most – the notion that the culture of popular music can be divorced from the music business, recreating some of the same excitement of the punk and Napster years. Accordingly, the band has been embraced by teenagers and others desperate for rock music with a whiff of rebellion.

But like those earlier rebellions were, the Monkeys are now well on their way to being tamed. When their debut album was released in January, it went out a week early because of fears that it had been leaked and would be distributed on the internet the old fashioned Monkey's way, for free through file sharing. And, right on cue, prompted by an orchestrated media blitz instead of the old word of mouth, the fans rushed out to buy the glossily packaged CD and every magazine with their heroes faces on the cover.

Now, as stable mates of that other recent big phenomenon, Franz Ferdinand, it's one long tour bus ride across three continents and a busy schedule of interviews, photo ops, and planes to catch. In the next chapter of their story, the music may even improve, as a top producer is brought in for that difficult second album, and the Monkey's Northern English grit may take some wearing down, but already they are clearly on the corporate treadmill as tours of Europe, America and Japan prove.

When they get here, I predict that they'll work hard, stay at the best hotels, get limos everywhere, be polite to top record company people, and maybe even take a little trip up to Nikko for that perfect photo op – the Arctic Monkeys with those other three famous monkeys, you know, the ones that see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil. And don't upset the music business's apple cart either.


International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun
3rd March, 2006
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