This week marks five years since Arctic Monkeys released 'AM', the iconic album that caught the rest of the world up to something Brits had known for a while – that the Sheffield four-piece are a once-in-a-generation band. Via archive interviews and conversations with key players, Thomas Smith looks back at an album that cemented a legend. R U Ready? Then we'll begin...
On September 9 2013, Arctic Monkeys released ‘AM’, an album that catapulted them into headlining prospects at virtually every festival in the planet. It went to Number One in the UK and 10 other countries, charted in the Top 10 in 15 more (including the US), and as of May 2018 is reported to have sold almost three million copies worldwide.
Arctic Monkeys were, of course, already a massive band – particularly for NME readers. But ‘AM’ pushed them to the music’s upper echelons, and gave them the freedom to – quite literally – shoot for the moon.
For a new era of fans, those too young to remember Bluetoothing the video to debut single ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ to their mates, ‘AM’ was the gateway to one of the biggest British bands since Oasis, and arguably its best in decades. Though it wasn’t her first encounter with the band, 17-year-old mega-fan Sophie Williams from Cardiff was just five when debut ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ came out. ‘AM’ felt like her Arctic Monkeys album. “The sheer intensity of excitement that I felt upon its release bordered on hysteria, a feeling I haven’t had since,” she says.
“The sheer intensity of excitement that I felt upon its release bordered on hysteria”
– fan Sophie Williams
Arctic Monkeys are presently touring their sixth album ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’ across the globe, but it was the gargantuan success of ‘AM’ that made that possible, unleashing Britain’s best-kept-secret on the US and beyond. And it all started with a haircut. Or, at least, it seemed that way.
At V Festival in August 2011, a British crowd got a first glimpse of Alex Turner’s bold new ‘do (Elvis via Richard Hawley) that had found its way on the cover of NME a week earlier. For a band that marks its tectonic shifts with new looks and visuals, it was clear that a new era of the band was about to begin, and not for the last time, Alex Turner’s barnet was headline-worthy news.
Privately, the mindset shift had been coming for some time. ‘R U Mine?’ – a standalone single released for Record Store Day in February 2012, which was recorded during the ‘Suck It And See’ sessions a couple years earlier and momentarily binned – hinted at these new pastures. It packs all the head-banging, beefed-up nature of songs from ‘SIAS’ and its predecessor, ‘Humbug’, but had a new, sleeker, sexier edge. Speaking to NME a month before ‘AM’s release in 2013, Turner expanded on how the song would go onto inform the rest of the musical journey. “Not to blow my own trumpet here, but when we stumbled across that it was like, ‘Let’s explore this idea!’ The high vocals that we’re doing there – I call them The Cosmic Opera Melodies and these two [Helders and O’Malley] are The Space Choirboys. So we went down that road.”
“The high vocals we’re doing there, I call them The Cosmic Opera Melodies and Helders and O’Malley are The Space Choirboys.”
– Alex Turner
That road lead them back to Los Angeles, where the band recorded ‘Suck It and See’ with longtime producer James Ford. But instead of returning to the luscious Sound City, the band went DIY. As James Ford recalled to NME in 2013, they had decamped to their rehearsal space, Sage & Sound, about a year earlier to start work on ‘AM’. “They had been camped in there for months, even before I arrived, and they’d been doing loads of demos on these pretty shitty ‘70s four-tracks,” Ford said. “That studio was so important to them – to have their own space to experiment and fuck around in was great.”
From there, the band allowed LA to seep into their creative melee: the QOTSA-influenced rock of ‘Humbug’ mixes with the rawness of Birmingham’s Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’ in songs like ‘Arabella’, while the grooves of Dr. Dre’s classic album ‘2001’ found its way into songs like ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’. Alex Turner put it best to us in 2013: “It sounds like a Dr Dre beat, but then we’ve given it an Ike Turner bowl-cut and then we’ve sent it galloping across the desert on a stratocaster.”
But before the big reveal, there was a gig to play.
The band were booked to headline Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage in June 2013, two months before ‘AM”s eventual September release. This, in itself, was a statement and a half. Few bands have the nerve to book their biggest show of their career and play three new songs (‘Do I Wanna Know?, ‘Mad Sounds’ and ‘R U Mine?’) from an album they hadn’t even finished yet. The last, notably, were fellow Sheffield icons Pulp, unveiling much of ‘A Different Class’ when standing in for The Stone Roses in 1995.
And it proved to be a pivotal moment for the band.
Turner told NME that he been worried ‘AM’ could end up being a massively delayed, overworked monster in the vein of Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Chinese Democracy’: “I began to see the beginnings of that downward spiral where you end up spending four years on it and millions of dollars spiral down the staircase,” Turner told NME in 2013. “I went down the first few steps of that staircase this time, and Glastonbury snapped me out of it”.
For Emily Eavis, it was a no-brainer to book them. “I don’t think we’d heard a note [of AM], but we knew that we wanted them,” the festival boss tells us now. “I don’t think it was a risk, no. In our opinion, they’re one of the greatest bands to come along, so we were always going to be ready for them. I remember going up to London with my Dad to see them play Brixton Academy around the first album and it was just electric. We hadn’t seen that sort of reaction for a band since Oasis first appeared.”
“I remember going up to London with my Dad to see them play Brixton Academy around the first album and it was just electric. We hadn’t seen that sort of reaction for a band since Oasis first appeared.”
– Glastonbury’s Emily Eavis
Glastonbury became the band’s legacy-cementing show. Sure, they headlined back in 2007 and closed the Olympics ceremony with a cover of The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ a year prior in 2012, but this was Glasto on a Friday night and a band showing swagger like never before. In Glastonbury folklore, the Friday headliners are the party starters, and Arctic Monkeys certainly got the memo. Speaking to NME before the show, Helders admitted that he was feeling “excited, tired, honoured… and a little bit nervous,” but Turner saw an opportunity. “This is sort of what we do now. It’s not just another day at the office – definitely not – but so many things have changed since the last time we were here. I feel kind of… all right.”
When the sleazy riffs of opening song ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ zoomed across Worthy Farm, you knew it was going to be alright on the night. The setlist featured a hint at the upcoming album, but mainly comprised hits from their early albums ‘Whatever People Say I Am…’ and ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’, all of which had been given a bolshy makeover. Meanwhile, cuts like ‘Pretty Visitors’ and ‘Crying Lightning’ delighted fans, as did an orchestral version of ‘Mardy Bum’.
More notably, the AM Tour – and this Glasto set – saw a serious shift in their live performances. After years of baggy hoodies, begrudging crowd chatter and hiding behind instruments, Arctic Monkeys became true performers. “It sort of had to happen,” bassist Nick O’Malley told NME in November 2013. “It couldn’t go on the way it was, which was four lads stood there with their heads down, staring at their shoes for 90 minutes.”
As a result, the boys became unmissable showman. Guitarist Jamie Cook stomped around the stage in immaculately tailored suits, while Helders bounced around with a cheeky smile the back of the stage. But it was Turner who was the revelation, as the album’s slower cuts such as ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ and ‘Mad Sounds’ emboldened him to command the stage via glitzy crooning. “At that point he threw the guitar down down and started prowling around more,” says Matt Wilkinson, ex of NME and now a presenter at Beats 1. “If you see the show now, it’s completely in that direction where he’s just walking around from piano to percussion to guitar. It’s almost like you’re in the rehearsal room with him a little.”
“Glastonbury was like a giant launch party for the album and the new show. They announced the album and a huge tour straight after and off they went.”
– Emily Eavis
“I think it was important, in a way,” Eavis says, about the importance of hosting the big comeback. “All the new stuff went down so well here at the farm, but also on the BBC coverage, so it was like a giant launch party for the album and the new show. They announced the album and a huge tour straight after Glastonbury and off they went.”
After the set, Britain’s appetite for the Monkeys reached fever-pitch. The band announced a huge UK arena tour for later that year, and would spend the following weeks until release conquering Europe’s festivals. A second single, ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?,’ landed next, on August 13, and became their highest charting [Number 8] since 2007’s ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’. In the space of eight weeks, they were on the cover of NME three times, as well as making a concerted effort to feed the world’s press via radio sessions, interviews both here and across the globe.
It was this openness that helped kick things up a gear, says Wilkinson: “In that period from 2011 to 2014, it seemed that they were taking this all in their stride and were just really happy to just see the success. Before maybe they’d been a bit uncomfortable with how big they’d got and how quickly. You see that in a lot of bands where they think, ‘God, is this really justified? Are we really that good?’”
“It seemed that they were just really happy to see the success of ‘AM’. Before, maybe they’d been a bit uncomfortable with how big they’d got and how quickly.”
– Beats 1’s Matt Wilkinson
“It felt like they were talking so much to the press because they wanted to tell that story and celebrate the album, which is nice, because a lot of bands are unwilling to let you in and tell you the secrets behind the record. But there are so many secrets in that record, so much to delve into – it felt right that they should open themselves up.”
None of this came without criticism. In NME’s last Arctic Monkeys cover feature before ‘AM”s release, the band were forced to contend with accusations that America had consumed their soul, first via the creeping in of a West Coast drawl on Turner’s one-time Hovis advert accent, and then by the perceived lack of attention to British fans. “You can’t worry what everyone’s gonna think about your step, about whatever direction,” Turner told NME. About the perception that the band are living it up at “debacuched Hollywood Hills parties every night”, Turner remained bullish. “I think, even if if that’s what you did think about us – and let’s say it is – this record is good enough that it doesn’t even matter…”
Upon release, ‘AM’ met with glowing reviews here in Britain and across the globe. NME gave it 10/10, then-editor Mike Williams decreeing it “absolutely and unarguably the greatest record of their career”, while, in an 8.0 review, Pitchfork called it a “paranoid, haunted collection”. The fans agreed. In the opening week, it sold a staggering 157,329 copies in Britain on its way to Number One and has since become the best selling vinyl album of the last decade in Britain, with 73,000 units sold [as of May 2018].
With that level of sales came a change in the fanbase. Sophie Williams, a self-described “Arctic Monkeys aficionado”, remembers seeing the shift in fans’ mentality. “I don’t think it’s a secret that the album changed both the dynamic and size of the fanbase. ‘AM’ is their most accessible work to date,” she says. “I think by dipping their toes into the mainstream, they reached a much wider audience, particularly from a younger bracket. After all, the artwork has become a Tumblr mainstay.”
There was little time to stop and take stock. Immediately after its release, the band headed back to the US for a string of club shows (they’d return for arenas the following year) before hitting up Europe for another run of arena gigs. By the end of 2013, they’d played a whopping 88 nights, with a further 62 to follow in 2014 – including a 40,00-capacity all-dayer at London’s Finsbury Park and headlining Reading & Leeds Festival.
“Invoice me for the mic…”
But every cycle has its wobble and ‘AM’ was no different. At the 2014 BRITs in February, after picking up the prize for Best British Album, Turner launched into that speech. You know the one: “That rock ‘n’roll, eh? That rock’n’roll, it just won’t go away,” he said as the rest of the band shuffled nervously behind. “Yeah, that rock’n’roll, it seems like it’s faded away sometimes, but it will never die. And there’s nothing you can do about it,” he added, before imploring the BRITs to invoice him for the microphone he was about to drop. It was an arrogant or stupid thing to do, some said. But for Monkeys fans, it was a rare honest outburst by a man who is famously a coy and thoughtful interviewee.
Speaking to Esquire later on in 2014, Turner went some way to explaining his actions. “I suppose on some level, in that environment, rightly or wrongly, it almost feels like we were representatives of guitar music, or rock’n’roll. And while I don’t see getting any trophy as a great victory, in some sense it’s a victory for our music.” A week after the BRITs, Turner returned to his reclusive self as he collected the band’s NME Award for Best Live Band: “I think I used all my best shit last week, so thank you very much, I’ll see you later.”
The lost sequel
After the tour wrapped up in Brazil in October 2014, the band went their separate ways to reconvene with families and friends back at home, both here and in the US. It’d be nearly four years until we saw the Fab Four together again. In that time, Cook and O’Malley returned to their families, while Helders joined Iggy Pop’s all-star touring band with Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme and Dean Fertita.
Turner, meanwhile, couldn’t stop himself. In 2016, he popped up on US songwriter’s Alexandra Saviour’s debut album, co-writing and producing a selection of songs, before spending much of the following 18 months promoting The Last Shadow Puppets’ second album ‘Everything You’ve Come To Expect’. Despite the loungier path he’d turned down, there was still an expectation from fans that Arctic Monkeys’ next album was due to be ‘AM II’ – after all, in Turner’s mind, the idea of a sequel seemed appealing.
When NME asked him about the possibility in November 2013, Turner said, “I think I can see there be something. I can’t really confirm or deny that that one. I can sort of imagine what it might be.” Matt Wilkinson, who conducted the interview, seems to agree that a sequel might not be out of the question, “I remember talking to Alex and I distinctly remember him saying, “I’ve been writing recently and I feel like there’s an AM Part II”, and obviously that didn’t happen.”
Instead, the band channelled their collective cinematic and literary influences on ‘Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino’, a piano-led album stuffed with humorous lyrics, grand ideas and, yep, not a lot of choruses but an instant classic nonetheless, the kind of album only a band at the absolute top of their game – and an absolutely fearless one at that – would dream of making. It channeled soundtrack of Italian director Federico Fellini’s post-modern sci-fi flick 8½ and David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, but is more palatable than either. The leather jackets and dark sunglasses have been swapped for plunging collars and tan suits. “I think in the past, what I was reading and watching didn’t come into the music as much as it has now. I didn’t think I was letting it in,” Turner told Radio X earlier this year.
Whether or not there is a ‘AM’ sequel somewhere scribbled down in one of Turner’s lyric books is something for the thousands of fans on Reddit to debate. Sequels are never as exhilarating as game-changing as the original; what Arctic Monkeys did this year, built on the foundations of ‘AM’ was. And we, like you, can’t wait to see what they do next.
Illustrations by Kai Ortmann