Photo By Arctic Monkeys
Steel and innovation. Sheffield has proven itself an influential and pivotal city in England’s history. Its importance during the industrial revolution as the epicenter of the country’s steel industry cannot be understated, where subsequent booms in innovation laid a marker for its residents to draw inspiration from. Whether it was the development of stainless steel (a game changing product being introduced into the global economy at the time), artistic inspiration in the form of the UK’s largest theatre complex outside of London, or even in sports where the world’s first and oldest football club was formed, South Yorkshire’s “Steel City” has an honours list that it looks on with beaming pride.
Indeed, those very two words - steel and innovation - are quite the relevant metaphor for some of Sheffield’s favourite sons. The Arctic Monkeys have drawn on this bedrock of strength their hometown has given them throughout their career. Alex Turner, Jamie Cook, Nick O’Malley and Matt Helders have most certainly used their collective creativity and artistic innovation to the fullest in order to change the game with their respective product as well. It was no easy task to cure the sore heads of the post Brit-Pop hangover, but through steely strength and innovative craft, the band defied adversity to rock on from the early 2000s until now.
Being rockstars means taking risks, which The Arctic Monkeys are no stranger to. Arguably,they stand imperiously above their peers as a crown jewel in modern UK music exports. Their most recent album, “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” from 2018, was polarising to say the least. Released off the back of yet another critically acclaimed album, “AM”, which came out five years prior and draws on influences from hip-hop, R&B, blues and heavy metal, the stage was set for the Arctic Monkey to continue having listeners eat out of their palms.
Yet, they decided to throw a curveball. “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” was met with confusion and perplexion in its first few days of life in the wild. The criticisms ranged from personal attacks and accusations towards Alex Turner’s ego and delusions of grandeur as a writer, whilst the praise was supportive of his and the band’s ventures into an abstract, subdued and more toned-down sonic concepts to what they’re usually associated with. As time has passed, the album would appear to be viewed more favourably as hindsight worked its magic yet again, but its always fascinating to see what direction the pendulum swings for risk-taking, global superstars.
For every undisputedly great, grandiose body of work, to which the Arctic Monkeys can comfortably claim to have at least three in their portfolio, there are other efforts that test fans in equal measure. The euphoria after “AM” was the complete opposite of what “Tranquility…” did. But after the dust settled, we were left with two things in our sight again. Steel. Innovation. The Arctic Monkey stood tall and sturdy as they steered their ship into more tranquil settings. And this wasn’t the first time. A look back on their modest origins and humble breakthrough details exactly the type of artists and people they are.
Longtime friends beforehand, they formed their band in 2002, except for Nick O’Malley who replaced original bass player Andy Nicholson from 2006 onwards. The band name– which was Jamie Cook’s idea - is a play on the derogatory “northern monkey” term aimed at England’s northern inhabitants. Perhaps an early indicator of their marketing strategy (we’ll get on to this in a bit), given the name of their debut album “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not”. But in the years prior to their commercial debut, the band would have to think outside the box and do things a bit differently.
Their initial rehearsals at Yellow Arch Studios in Sheffield lead to a handful of gigs, giving them local notoriety. Eventually recording an 18-track demo at 2fly Studios, they would distribute burned copies for free at their gigs, resulting in fans file-sharing it with various different titles (some claim it to be “The Boardwalk”, while others go by “Beneath The Boardwalk”). This would prove to be a marker for the group’s branding strategy. As we touched in the previous paragraph, their laissez faire approach, coupled with relatable natural personas, proved incredibly successful. Their limited release of the EP “Five Minutes With Arctic Moneys” would follow, adding more fuel to their self-made hype-train – not to mention appearances across festivals, radiostations and general media buzz in publications. The Arctic Monkeys were betting on themselves and doubling down, even if it wasn’t the right financial move to make at the time. Ballsy.
By 2005, they would sign with Domino, a record company known for an abstract, DIY approach to distributing and marketing their artists. Given what the band had done and been through up until this point, you can understand why this was an appealing prospect. Laurence Bell, who runs the label, would only sign the acts he actually liked and favoured personally. You can imagine the appeal this would have for them, and they type of characters they are. From here on in, as the saying goes, the rest would be history. Music videos, EMI contracts and the eventual release of their debut in 2006 resulted in record-breaking, fastest selling copies of a debut album in UK chart history at the time. The lads from Sheffield had built themselves from the ground up with their bare hands,reminiscent of their hometown city’s own story from the industrial revolution onwards. Steely. Innovative.
What followed after “Whatever People Say I Am…” is quite simply the stuff of dreams and befitting of their superstar status. The band would rack up many awards, a tidal wave of praise from every direction, and even adulation and critical acclaim from American audiences after a worldwide tour. Their second album, “Favourite Worst Nightmare” would shoot straight to number once again, proving they are no fluke. Any doubt over the band’s talents were out the window; they had well and truly Arrived and deserved to be seen amongst the music industry’s crème de la crème. More accolades, recognition, and festival appearances, including the headline slot at Glastonbury in 2007, cemented their current and future legacy as consistently great musicians.
But there’s more. Because if you think the curveball The Arctic Monkeys threw when releasing “Tranquility” was a surprise, you’d need to refer to ten years prior to look again. Their third and fourth albums, “Humbug” followed by “Suck It And See”, fitted these bills in quick succession. Another earlier sign that these guys are cut from different cloth, proving that their risk-taking adventures did not die out from their formative years, especially for Alex Turner, who sandwiched a side-project with his The Last Shadow Puppets project in between his day job. Psychedelic rock into somewhat synthesis pop-rock was the name of the game for these two albums respectively, which completely derailed what listeners’ palettes. Although there were many areas of overlapping styles incomparison to the first two projects, The Arctic Monkeys were still venturing into the dark (literally with Humbug, when you take in the tone and mood of songs on offer) with this album, albeit not in completely unknown territory, before flipping their sounds on its head afterwards. But both projects were met positively overall, with the band’s depth of talents from a musical and lyrical perspective on full display. While maybe not the most fruitful period in their career, it was certainly important and significant in their development.
All in all, there’s a theme and method to the proverbial madness. While their most recent venture and explorative journey caused the most debate, the feedback loop eventually resembled one of a smooth line rather than a fluctuating curve. Just when we think we’ve figured them out, they throw us a surprise. Before the limelight, they took advantage of the file-sharing climate and demand for attainable music in order to bring their identity to the forefront. Once they signed their deal, they made music that was impossible to ignore and admire.They then leveraged that good will to experiment and dictate their art on their own terms – a sword that has proven fatal to many others. As we anticipate their next move, where rumours are already circulating about an imminent project in the works, its key to remember that whatever The Arctic Monkeys put out, it will be a worthwhile experience that can provoke an array of thoughts and emotions. Yet, regardless of the outcome, they remain calm and at peace within their own sphere. Strong as steel and as bright as the bulb. Too big to fail.
Written by: @WhosAria
In collaboration with Insight.