Arctic Monkeys had everything you want out of music when you’re just becoming a teenager: relatable lyrics, huge choruses and a hot-as-hell lead singer with an accent. They caught on ridiculously quick in the U.K., where Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not became the fastest-selling debut record in the country’s history, but their highest charting single in the U.S. is 2013’s “Do I Wanna Know,” which only peaked at no. 70. I found Arctics through the mind-reading streaming service Pandora — a site I have remained intensely loyal to ever since—when I was in eighth grade, and from then on, even with friends who mostly listened to indie rock and pop punk, I felt like I was privy to a huge secret, the only one in America who could find the band’s hometown of Sheffield on a map of England or knew what the phrase “Mardy Bum” meant.
To some, this alone might disqualify me from calling myself a hardcore fan, but I only ever learned two of the band members’ names — there’s the cyclone that is Matt Helders on drums, and there’s Alex Turner on vocals. That’s okay, though, because — at least to young me — Turner was everything. He was the voice that had full control over every wild track, he was the dude with the messy hair and gorgeous eyes looking out from magazine covers, and he was the ever-cool frontman I fell in love with. When Turner was singing about being snarky to cops or cutting down a pretentious rival or throwing a tantrum because a bouncer wouldn’t let him into a club, I was right behind him, agreeing with every word he said and just listening in wonderment at the fact that you could be sarcastic or clever or just a complete dickhead in a song and make it sound like poetry. Early Arctics is like Oscar Wilde fronting The Strokes — just a charismatic beauty with a hilarious superiority complex asserting his dominance over brilliantly in-sync garage guitars. Even though, at the time, I couldn’t totally put into words why I was so obsessed with Turner, he was always the magnetic presence that put Arctic Monkeys miles ahead of their contemporaries.
I could probably write a full article on every single song from Whatever…’s lineup, but key to the whole enterprise was “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” the lead single that announced the arrival of the world’s next rock stars. Postmodern with its Duran Duran and Shakespeare references while utterly timeless in its tale — boy meets girl, boy wants to fuck girl — “Dancefloor” was indie cleverness mixed with mainstream rock force. It’s impossible to ignore, a perfect-for-any-occasion party-starter that everyone loved.
But it was “A Certain Romance,” the album’s final song, that closed its grip on my heart. Set up more theatrically than any of the sub-three-minute pop songs on the rest of the record, a long drumroll and some pretty guitar strumming open the curtain on the singer. Young Alex Turner does this amazing thing with his voice where he doesn’t lose a lick of his working-class Dickens character accent when he sings, making the first verse just a delightful swoon-worthy run of pronunciations like “poonch” for “punch” and “int” for “isn’t.” That local color is perfect for the scene, because Turner spends the song wandering some bar in his hometown, loving the assholes who are his old friends and scrapping with the ones who aren’t. It’s just a short survey, a quick lookaround of the band’s roots, and yet that song still stands up as one of their best, the sport of bold work that tells you everything you need to know about an artist to realize that they’re something special.
I finally fulfilled my dream of seeing Arctic Monkeys live about a year and a half ago, and it was everything I wanted and more, but I don’t think they’re my favorite band anymore. That’s always a weird thing to just decide, but Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, in particular, is one of those records I have committed to memory and don’t really pull out for listening very much anymore. Writing this piece, I have found that I still remember it all perfectly, from the overlaps in the guitar parts to Matt Helders’s early flashes of virtuosity on drums, but Turner’s not quite the idol I once thought he was. To be honest, if I was a Sheffielder who knew young Alex Turner, I’d probably still love him, but I’d also hate his guts. As frenetic and fun as the record is, it’s just a little juvenile to love unconditionally forever.
But the more I think about it, the more I think I understand why almost nobody goes on to marry the first person they love. It’s an exciting, world-opening event to discover a person or a new thing that makes you feel amazed and special, but usually that happens when you still have a lot of growing left to do. Whatever People Say I Am was a beautiful whirlwind of new realizations, a huge marker in my young life that I memorized front to back, wrapping my ears around every guitar arrangement, backing vocal and beautifully British turn of phrase, and though I still get chills of nostalgia when I hear it today, I’m happy that I’m not still tied down to it.