‘Humbug’ at 10: How Arctic Monkeys’ desert-daze sparked the band’s most divisive era

Ten years ago today (August 24), Arctic Monkeys released their sludgy, bold and supremely divisive third album 'Humbug'. Thomas Smith revisits the risks, the records and the sessions in the Californian desert that changed the band forever

On July 6 2009, something dark and twisted leaked from BBC Radio 1. ‘Crying Lightning’ was Arctic Monkeys’ first single in over two years, and the first from third album ‘Humbug’, released over a month later. Except… it sounded absolutely nothing like the band who had found instant fame with 2005 debut ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ and 2007 follow-up ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’. A gruesome, squelchy bassline set the tone, and not long after Alex Turner started singing about strawberry laces and gobstoppers. It sounded like it was being played at half-speed. It was fucking weird.

Ten years later (released August 24 in the UK), ‘Humbug’ now seems less of an anomaly and more of a revelation. With the benefit of time, the band’s third – and most challenging album at that point – remains a crucial stepping-stone for the band they would become. Years later, ‘Humbug’ is quite clearly the moment the Sheffield scamps started a new chapter. No longer were they just the biggest fish in the indie pond, they were rock stars.

It was a shocking moment at the time. Both ‘Whatever People Say…’ and ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ were praised for lightning-quick songwriting, zippy guitar lines and even sharper lines about British youth-culture. Within minutes of ‘Crying Lightning’s premiere, it was clear we’d never see that band again.

Days after ‘Humbug’s release on August 24 2009, the band headlined Reading & Leeds Festivals and took the album to the puzzled masses. In between smashers like ‘Brianstorm’ and ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ there was a thundering cover of Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’ and the smokey cut ‘Potion Approaching’. Look, it takes serious guts to open your first Reading headline set with ‘My Propeller’ which – as you can see below – the crowd desperately tried to up the pace of by clapping along at the wrong speed.

It would take time to win over the naysayers, but there’s no doubt ‘Humbug’ turned Arctic Monkeys into a better band.

A shift was inevitable for the band following 2007’s ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’. That album was recorded just weeks after the band had finished touring ‘Whatever People Say…’ at the tail-end of 2006. The band wanted to strike quickly, and had been performing some of the songs live on tour.

The ditching of an overarching concept (their debut is about every shit night out it was possible to have in ’00s Britain) provided fertile ground for some of their gooiest songs ever. ‘Only Ones Who Know’ channelled Sheffield crooner Richard Hawley, and the love-lorn ‘505’ is now a live favourite.

A year after ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’, in 2008, Alex Turner teamed up with Rascals member Miles Kane to form The Last Shadow Puppets. Influenced by Scott Walker, early David Bowie and more of the swashbuckling singer-songwriters of the late-’60s and early ‘70s. Their debut album, ‘Age of The Understatement’, showcased more mature vocals and songwriting from Turner. ‘Calm Like You’ is a triumphant thing where his voice plunges into hidden depths, while ‘Separate and Ever Deadly’ possesses the same frantic yet haunting melodies that ‘Humbug’ would expand on.

The opportunity to enter a new phase was appealing to the band. In July 2009, Turner told NME that the band’s second album – recorded in less than a month in December 2007 – was built out of time constraints and the desire to get back on the road. “We did the second album really fast and there’s loads of bits I love, but it was like trying to shed a skin,” he said.

Where better to shed that skin than in the desert…

Arctic Monkeys first came across Queens of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme in September 2007. The band had been invited to join Homme’s band on their US tour as a support, but it didn’t go to plan. “We first met in Houston, playing a gig together in front of about 300 people. It was a humble beginning, for us both,” Homme told BBC 6 Music in 2014. The band hung out with Homme, and the idea of working together came up when the band were ready to get back to it. 

In November 2008, with the encouragement of Domino boss Laurence Bell, the band began working with Homme at his Pink Duck Studio in Burbank, near Los Angeles. They spent 10 days there before driving out to Rancho De La Luna – a recording studio near the Joshua Tree in the Californian desert, where Homme’s band Queens of The Stone Age had recorded their debut album. The production was split with James Ford – who worked in in Brooklyn, New York, and who the band had already worked with on ‘Favourite Worst Nightmare’ – who’s credited with producing ‘My Propeller’, ‘Secret Door’ and ‘Cornerstone’.

The barren surroundings and climate of the desert suited Arctic Monkeys fine. For years they’d worked in cramped studios in Liverpool, Sheffield and London, but in the desert they had nothing with them but their guitars and the thirst for a challenge. Guitarist Jamie Cook put it succinctly speaking to NME in July 2009: “There’s nothing to do out there but record, shoot BB guns and make fires”. Turner concurred in August 2009; “The desert definitely did make a better environment, and definitely introduced possibilities that wouldn’t have been there without it.”

The band ended up spending over two weeks at the studio, using it to test out new grooves and dirtier sounds. Homme is often credited with reinventing Arctic Monkeys – something he disputes – though it’s hard to imagine the band’s direction being in a more capable pair of hands. Helders says the band were listening to Cream, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrick and more for inspiration on ‘Humbug’. And the doomy spectre of Nick Cave looms large over the songwriting and production on this album – so it’s little wonder they felt compelled to lay down a twisted cover of Cave’s haunting 1994 song, ‘Red Right Hand’.

“You can’t spend all our time worrying about them people who are like, ‘I’m not into this long-haired bollocks’” – Alex Turner, 2009

Nick O’Malley says that Homme had little desire to tell the band what to do, or how to do it – he was merely there to help realise the band’s vision. He did so in, er, rather visceral ways. “He’ll be talking about a bassline, and say ‘I want it to sound like a fat kid’ with chocolate on his face’”, O’Malley told NME in July 2009.

If the desire was to make something gritty, sticky and slightly manic – the boys did good. To kick things off, there’s a haunting hand turning ‘My Propeller’, and the satanic chanting ‘Pretty Visitors’ and ‘Dangerous Animals’ sounds like a sermon from a man possessed. “Maybe we were not aware of it at the time, but things we’ve done before were pop music,” Turner told NME in July 2009. “It’s fucking rock’n’roll and that but it certainly had that sensibility.” 

On Humbug, the melodies became more challenging and the lyrics obscure. Here, for example, are the lyrics to the chorus of ‘Secret Door’: “Fools on parade cavort and carry on for waiting eyes/That you would rather be beside than in front of/But she’s never been the kind to be hollowed by the stares”. Not a karaoke classic, that one.

By January 2009 – before the album was officially finished – the band started playing some of the songs live. Sporting long-hair and leather jackets, ‘Dangerous Animals’ and ‘Potion Approaching’ (then titled ‘Would You Like Me To Build You A Go-Kart?’) got their first airings during tour dates in New Zealand. In 2009, phone footage of new material and live gigs were patchy at best, but despite the grainy footage and distorted sound, it was clear a new chapter was beginning.

By the time ‘Crying Lightning’ got its release, the band had already been announced to headline Reading & Leeds Festival and embraced the rockstar lifestyle and look. Turner moved to New York with then-girlfriend Alexa Chung, while the group – minus Helders – adopted Sabbath-esque manes. They’d also made some famous friends. For some reason, rapper and mogul P Diddy became obsessed with the band, and just weeks before the album’s release in August, he was spotted down at the front during ‘Cornerstone’ at a New York gig

‘Humbug’, though, was largely still an unknown. It’s unimaginable now, but between the time of ‘Crying Lightning’’s release at the start of July 2009 and the album’s release six weeks later, the only place to hear the songs was in concert. A smattering of European festivals saw debuts for ‘My Propeller’, ‘Secret Door’ and more, and the UK finally got their turn on August 26 – two days after the album’s release – at Brixton Academy. Need further proof they’d become bonafide rock stars? They managed to rope in Them Crooked Vultures – Dave Grohl, Josh Homme and John Paul Jones’ supergroup – to support them.

‘Humbug’ was the first (and not the last) time Arctic Monkeys had to face a push-back from a few critics and a lot of fans. A whirlwind ride since 2005 had seen them become Britain’s most celebrated band, but ‘Humbug’ was a huge departure – it was heavy, dense and much slower than anything that had come before. Upon release in 2009, NME gave the album 7/10, and called them “fatalistic, smirking sceptics who’ll never, ever take the soft option”, and that ‘Humbug’ “can often feel sticky, claustrophobic, like your heart is going to explode, and about a week long”. That’s a compliment, I think.

The album still went to Number One in the UK, though some fans were tricky to win over. The band, of course, didn’t give a shit. “You can’t spend all your time worrying about them people who are like, ‘I’m not into this long-haired bollocks’” Turner told NME in November 2009, on the eve of their first UK arena tour. “I can’t imagine what that would have sounded like even,” Turner added regarding the reinvention. “This seemed like the natural way to go.”

Over the next decade, their ‘Humbug’ moment would prove pivotal. It shed the lager-louts that their live shows were becoming infamous for, and unleashed the band beyond the narrow-walls of indie-discos and into stadiums and arenas.

Two years later, their 2011 album ‘Suck It and See’ built on the poetic songwriting seen on ‘Humbug’ and retained the humour on songs like ‘Reckless Serenade’ and ‘Black Treacle’. The teeth-shattering heaviness of those desert sessions were revisited on ‘Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I Moved Your Chair’ and the punk-thriller ‘Library Pictures’.

Pop was back in play, but 2013’s ‘AM’ pushed them back towards the twisted and deranged. They may have thought that they sounded like Black Sabbath back in 2009, but the debauched LA scene around the times of their fourth album pushed them over the edge. “If Arctic Monkeys had never walked into the desert with Josh Homme to record ‘’Humbug’’ in 2009, they could never have made ‘’AM’”, NME said in a 10/10 review for the album in 2013. “‘Humbug’ was as much about subverting people’s impressions of who the band were as it was an album in its own right.”

Arctic-Monkeys-2009

Neither of those albums proved to be as controversial as 2018’s ‘Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino’. The piano-driven, space-dwelling album was their boldest and most divisive since ‘Humbug’. By embracing pianos and ‘70s vibes, a new avenue was carved out for the band to explore on the album. 

‘Tranquility Base…’, much like ‘Humbug’ was largely loved by critics (4/5 here on NME, and 76% on Metacritic) but it shed a similar amount of fans that were not along for the ride, and couldn’t get on board with the slower live shows. Again, they simply couldn’t give a fuck. “I’ve never found much use in reading the reviews, like in either direction – if it’s good or bad,” Helders told Beats One in 2018.

So this weekend, throw yourself into the world of ‘Humbug’. Close the blinds, think about joining a cult and let this mystical album wrap it’s tentacles around you – it’s what the album deserves. Without the risk and challenge of ‘Humbug’, the journey from Sheffield streets to the stars might never have happened.