Spotlight Special: Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

A look back on their seminal debut album 15 years on...

Remember downloading new music to your MP3 player off of LimeWire? Remember setting ringtones on your flip-phone to your new favourite tune? Then you’ll remember the breakthrough band of the internet age… Arctic Monkeys.

‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ catapulted the careers of four young lads from High Green, Sheffield into the stratosphere. Many Monkeys’ fans may contest that the band’s best work arrived in 2013 with ‘AM’ – an album full of swagger that captured the attention of audiences far beyond the UK. However, there’s undeniably a certain charm, naivety and sense of reality missing from ‘AM’ compared to their thrilling debut. It’s relentless, it’s frantic, it’s skilfully crafted and it’s unique.

In Turner, Arctic Monkeys had a lyricist brimming with talent who could document working-class life to pin-point precision and relatability. Together, the band would come to define an era of renaissance in British indie music of the mid-Noughties. 

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Forming in 2002 and playing their first gig in a local pub the year after, the band frequently gave away free demo CDs to fans at gigs. As they began to earn a fierce reputation in their local gig circuit, and some clever fans thought to upload the band’s music to sites like MySpace, their notoriety grew like wildfire. They then made the careful decision to sign to indie record label Domino, who they remain with today, and chose to ignore the lure of the majors.

Before they knew it, they’d brought out two #1 singles, levels of demand from fans, the press and the music industry were stratospheric, and their debut album hadn’t even been released yet. Thus, the internet may have helped bring the band to the public’s attention, but it was ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ that made the band household names. Many tracks on the album pose as raucous anthems that subtly hide more complex meanings (‘Dancing Shoes’, ‘You Probably Couldn’t See For The Lights…’), while others offer contradictory conclusions on the uneasy compromises of teenage life (‘Riot Van’, ‘Mardy Bum’).

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Distilled versions of Turner’s chronicles of life on High Green flourish throughout the album. In an interview, Alex explains their breakout single ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ is about eyeing up someone when you’re really with someone else. He later told a Guardian journalist that he thought the lyrics were “a bit shit”, but his typically sharp observations on aspiring nightclub romance infused the hearts of thousands up and down the country.

‘A Certain Romance’, which featured in NME’s Top Ten tracks of the decade, most poignantly depicts the overall essence of the album. Razor-sharp lyricism and unseating honesty are laid bare to both be admired as well as to be reflected on. It’s imbued with reality and it stirs together what it feels like to be a teenager full of anticipation, energy, angst and hope. What better way to conclude a truly remarkable album?

‘Whatever People Say I Am…’ is more than just a Mercury Prize winning, six-time platinum, fastest selling (at the time) #1 album in British history, it’s a musical masterpiece. Through their magnificent debut LP, Arctic Monkeys achieved what artists throughout history have been renowned for – to capture their own interpretation of reality and allow others to find their own within their work. But perhaps most of all, they united a generation and epitomised what it was to be young, lost, and British.

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Words: Jamie Wilde

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