10 Years Ago: Arctic Monkeys Debut With ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’
Some bands sneak in with a debut that the critics love but doesn't do much business. Other bands blow up with music fans as soon as that first album drops, but the critics snub them.
And then there's Arctic Monkeys. The British outfit dropped their debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, on Jan. 23, 2006 and within a week, it was well on its way to a half million sales in the U.K. and the critics adored it. By the time it was released in the U.S. a month later, it was already a full-blown phenomenon.
Aside from the fact that they were a great band with fantastic songs, Arctic Monkeys' success right out of the gate is somewhat attributable to a deft understanding of the new music industry landscape. Not long after coming together in 2003, they started handing out discs of demos at gigs which found their way online almost immediately. The buzz led to a huge online fan base (remember MySpace?). In June 2005, they signed a deal with British indie Domino and three months later, Whatever People Say I Am was in the can.
More than half the album's tracks appeared on that early demo, which is broadly known as Beneath the Boardwalk, including album opener "The View From the Afternoon." That track includes one of the greatest opening lines ever for an eagerly anticipated debut: “Anticipation has a habit to set you up for disappointment."
NME called the album "a stripped-down, punk rock record with every touchstone of Great British Music covered: the Britishness of the Kinks, the melodic nous of the Beatles, the sneer of Sex Pistols, the wit of the Smiths, the groove of the Stone Roses, the anthems of Oasis, the clatter of the Libertines…" All great comparisons that allude to the humor that runs through the band's work, but such comparisons also imply that the songs are a bit derivative, which is also true. Pitchfork likened the album to "meat 'n' potatoes guitar rock," noting that "Arctic Monkeys are yet another in a string of buzzsaw guitar bands with Northern accents."
One doesn't need to reinvent the novel to tell a compelling story, though, and that's where Whatever People Say I Am hit the mark. The songs capture the life of millennial U.K. club kids – the drinks, the parties, the run-ins with bouncers. Lead single "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor," released two months prior to the album, takes some fun loving jabs at the vapidity of '80s dance tracks ("Your name isn't Rio, but I don't care for sand") while laying down its own distinctive groove.
For younger music fans, the track that may have hit closest to home was "From the Ritz to the Rubble," with its familiar tale of bouncers guarding the door to the promised land. Frontman Alex Turner told NME the track "really just me having a bit of a dig. I still get asked for I.D. now when I go to clubs, so when I wasn’t actually old enough it was a nightmare trying to get in anywhere at all."
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the album's second single, "When the Sun Goes Down" – a tale of the prostitutes that hung out in front of the Monkeys' practice room. Not since "Roxanne" (which is name-checked in the song's second verse) has the world's oldest profession made for such a catchy single.
Inevitably, what sold the album wasn't the hype but the fact that the songs are simply fun. Turner is a wickedly funny lyricist, and the band's mashup of pop and punk is catchy as hell. When all was said and done, Whatever People Say I Am won the U.K.'s coveted Mercury Prize, a pair of Brit awards and landed on numerous "Album of the Year" lists. Rolling Stone even ranked it No. 30 on its list of all-time best debut albums.
The band have been on hiatus since wrapping up their tour in support of their AM album in 2015, but the individual members are hardly standing still. Turner's side project the Last Shadow Puppets are set to drop a new album in April 2016, and drummer Matt Helders appears on Iggy Pop's upcoming Post Pop Depression, scheduled for March 2016.
As for new Arctic Monkeys, there's no immediate news, but that's okay. Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not is one album we never tire of spinning.