The Arctic Monkeys are three teenagers and one 20-year-old with bad skin and a very ordinary dress sense who write noisy, kitchen-sink songs about prostitutes, nightclubs and working-class life. A year ago, they were just an unsigned band playing concerts and handing out demo tapes around their hometown of Sheffield, a musically storied, but never especially fashionable city in Northern England. They weren't the "next big things," they weren't even "ones to watch": They were, for all intents and purposes, completely unknown.
But with their debut album, "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not" -- released in the USA this week -- the Arctic Monkeys skipped straight over that heartwarming, familiar plot titled "indie band achieves a modicum of mainstream pop fame" to a success story of scarcely believable proportions. When it came out in the U.K. in last month, "Whatever People Say I Am" sold more copies in its first week of release (360,000) than any other debut album in British music history, surpassing the previous record set by the group Hear'say, the product of Simon Cowell's first reality TV extravaganza "Popstars," by some 60,000 units. And whereas Hear'say seemingly encapsulated corporate pop values, the Arctic Monkeys' rise is an apparent reversal of the consumer-recording industry relationship -- once the band's demos hit the Internet, the music business was playing constant catch-up to a grass-roots, fan-driven juggernaut.
The reaction to "Whatever People Say I'm Am" among established rock writers in the U.S. has been almost uniformly positive -- surprisingly so, perhaps, considering the thick accent and dialect employed by lead singer Alex Turner. Leading critics Kelefa Sanneh and Sasha Frere-Jones have given the album rave write-ups in the New York Times (Times Select required) and the New Yorker, respectively, with Sanneh, in particular, won over by Turner's wise-beyond-his-years lyrics: "He delivers pithy, unpretentious descriptions of a teenage world defined by daydreams and nightlife. And he has an uncanny way of evoking Northern English youth culture while neither romanticizing it nor sneering at it. " The New York Post (four stars out of four), the Los Angeles Times (four stars out of four) and Newsday (grade A), meanwhile, all give the record the maximum possible rating in their reviews. In Britain, too, the Arctic Monkeys have enjoyed a mountain of good press -- NME, finding itself in the unusual position of reporting on the breathless excitement surrounding a new band rather than generating it, has led the way with a 10 out of 10 review, and a 5th place for "Whatever People Say I Am" in its recent "Best British Albums of All Time" list, while the Guardian also gives the LP full marks. The band won the best breakthough act at the Brit Awards, an accolade that had the "dull thud of inevitability" - despite it's undoubted merit - according to the Guardian, and picked up three prizes at the slightly hipper NME Awards, including an unprecedented best new band/best band double.
With all the goodwill surrounding what is a thrillingly confident debut, however, there has also been a significant backlash. The L.A. Weekly offers blistering criticism: "Arctic Monkeys are the most cynical band in the world. Their surge to prominence in the U.K. (and hipster notoriety in the U.S.) has been guided by an amazingly successful hype campaign: Relentless Internetworking, MP3-sharing and toilet-circuit gigs have led to countless articles about how the Internet has 'changed pop music.'" Stylus Magazine, in its review of "Whatever People Say I Am" splutters that this is "a band who've planned every single gig, press release, hype burst, chart assault, [at] each and every single level has gone through 50 A&R guys and a street team with the manpower and delusion of the Elite Republican Guard."
The debt owed by the band to MySpace is a contentious point, with Turner's frequent protestations of naiveté parodied by the L.A. Weekly ("What's a MySpace? What's a hype?"). Despite the attempts by the group to distance itself from the title of "first Internet pop stars," the fact remains that the work done by the band's fans -- the so-called Arctic Army who were distributing MP3s of demos online before a single word had been written about the band in the music press -- and the decision by Domino to allow those MP3s to remain on the Web, speeded up the Arctic Monkeys' surge to prominence exponentially.
Yet, whatever the claims of certain music blogs, it does seem that the unsigned Arctic Monkeys demos became such desirable Internet currency for one old-fashioned reason: They were quite astonishingly good. As Jarvis Cocker, indie-rock royalty and lead singer with another Sheffield band, Pulp, notes of the Arctic Monkeys' rock 'n' roll revolution: "They've done it without trying. The only reason people have got into [the music] is because they've listened to it and they like it ... it's something that has happened naturally, there's no way to apply spin doctorism to it."
-- Matt Glazebrook