Just One Song: ‘Fake Tales Of San Francisco’

Alex Turner's greatest moment…?

Before Alex Turner became ‘Alex Turner’ – a quixotic white rock albatross complaining drunkenly about glass ceilings at the 2014 Brit Awards ceremony and recently outed for tax avoidance – he was just Alex Turner: a cocky Northern prodigy who could deliver social-realist poetry over inventive and rhythmic rock with such an absorbing baritone cool that he could get city boys reading John Osborne plays in about three minutes flat.

That Alex Turner, along with the other three members of Arctic Moneys (including original bassist Andy Nicholson), were responsible for ‘Fake Tales Of San Francisco’, which first appeared on 2004’s ‘Beneath The Boardwalk’: the unofficial collection of demos that ignited their careers.

As a relatively simple trip through a rambunctious garage-rock wilderness, it may not exhibit their greatest musicianship, but I would argue that it, nice and early, positioned their fresh imperfections as part of their allure and showcased Turner’s first great lyrical masterpiece. The demo version below validates this: the guitars are often out of time, the mixing is dodgy, and Alex’s voice sounds inexperienced. But in all those factors reside that untamed, organic and ferocious beauty.

‘Fake Tales Of San Francisco’, demo version

Included, re-recorded, on 2006’s ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’, a debut album conceptually based around Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, ‘Fake Tales…’ joined Turner’s nocturnal youth safari in the early evening (probably between 7pm-10pm). It attacked the vacuous nature of what he labelled as ‘cool bands’, and set to music his personal accounts from early Arctic Monkeys gigs, and working nights on the bar at Sheffield’s Boardwalk venue.

To Turner, these were the bands that came on stage drenched in contrived identities, telling fake tales of San Francisco – an impotent cocktail of what they wished they were and what they thought the crowd wanted. Image, angle and attitude – gleaned amateurishly from whatever was hot that week, and delivered with the inevitable inadequacy of an afterthought.

“He talks of San Francisco, he’s from Hunter’s Bar / I’m not quite sure the distance, but I’m sure that’s far. Yeah, I’m sure that’s pretty far,” says an 18-year-old Turner, with a troika of vitriol, humour and charm that you’d expect from wiser, older wordsmiths like Jarvis Cocker, John Cooper Clarke or even Mike Skinner (as opposed to ‘Mike Skinner’). He concludes with the thoughts of an onlooker: “The band were f*cking wank, and I’m not having a nice time.”

Arctic Monkeys would play White Stripes and Strokes covers at their early gigs, and Turner always saw them as more in keeping with that American garage rock sound than The Libertines, Oasisblah-blah-Brit-rock labels that they were reluctantly grouped with at the beginning. With that in mind, you can almost imagine the embittered Turner standing at the back of the venue, watching a terrible band senselessly butcher an approach he was so patiently incubating, ‘Fake Tales…’ slowly forming in his head.

In 2006, music journalist Simon Reynolds wrote of Alex Turner for Blender: “His lyrics couple the invincible confidence of youth with a sense of pathos and fatalism of someone older, wiser, and sadder.” And that very notion is captured in the finest line of this song and one of Turner’s greatest ever: “Yeah, but his bird said it's amazing, though / So all that's left / Is the proof that love's not only blind but deaf.”

‘Fake Tales Of San Francisco’, official single-release video

In describing the band member’s girlfriend as inexplicably oblivious to how shit they really are, he reworks a classic poetic proverb – love is blind – to describe his new revelation – that love is deaf – with such dry nonchalance that it perfectly captures Reynolds’ suggested dualism of youth and wisdom. Even if he’s had a shit night, at least he has this massive humanistic discovery as consolation. The way the line arrives in a rare respite of silence, just before the explosive climax, indicates Turner had an idea of how good it was.

Online intellectuals who spoke less favourably of his lyrics at the time pointed to Turner’s tendency for ‘reflexive impotence’, which is essentially the state of being aware of the world’s ails at the same time as recognising one’s helplessness to change anything, thus creating a dangerously self-fulfilling prophecy within British youth. However, the huge success of the Arctics’ debut suggested that although this may be the case, it was a chord that struck heavily on a national and global front, and while it didn’t solve anything, the album is indicative of a psychological era in recent British history that still resonates.

In ‘Fake Tales…’, that reflexive impotence appears in a very subtle form, when Turner begins: “And yeah, I’d love to tell you all my problem…”. Insinuating that although he recognises what’s wrong with the situation in front of him, he just isn’t the type to get up and voice it.

What follows that line is my final thought on ‘Fake Tales…’, and a remark that is made increasingly interesting with eight years of hindsight. How would 2006 Alex Turner and 2014 Alex Turner discuss that damning sentiment of retaining your roots: “You’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham”?

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Words: Joe Zadeh (Twitter)

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