In the later winter of 2005 a 19-year-old Alex Turner told an American journalist, “We don’t have influences.” This quote is remarkable for two things: one is it’s both true and untrue at the same time. Arctic Monkeys don’t sound like anybody else, but without a few important cultural sign posts they may never have formed in the first place. Secondly, why would an American journalist even care what music some teenager from Sheffield listened to in his bedroom anyway? After all, they’d only released one single. Although, to be fair, that single had been the riotous UK Number One I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor.
In actual fact, this moment had been coming for four years, ever since Alex and his school friends Andy Nicholson and Jamie Cook woke up on Christmas morning 2001 to find new guitars under the tree. A few months later another friend, Matt Helders (who, like Alex, would go on to date a girl called Lauren Bradwell – the inspiration for the song) bought a cheap drum kit and the band were born. True children of the 90s, they liked hip-hop (Alex had tried his hand at beatmaking and sequencing), Britpop and garage-rock, but the way they put it all together was quite unlike anyone else. From the choice of name – a deliberately un-cool sounding mix of jungle heat and polar freeze – to the lyrical emphasis on observation and colloquial language aligned with a focus (picked up from watching how people reacted to big records at local clubs like The Leadmill) on making every second of music work as hard as possible, Arctic Monkeys set out to be different in every way they could and it was in June 2003, after more than a year of rehearsals, they felt ready to play their songs to people. Two years later, after releasing a string of songs on the internet and playing to increasingly delirious crowds, they signed to Domino Recordings – on a Sunday night four months after that they four were all sat in the Pack Horse Inn in High Green listening to the chart rundown, not quite believing their debut single had gone straight in at One.
“When we started the band none of us played anything,” recalled Matt. “We just put it together.” But put what together, exactly?
Let’s begin with Alex’s parents who, between them, taught German, Linguistics and Music – that’s a good start. Unlike almost every one of his contemporaries, there’s no stories of Dylan, Joni Mitchell or Simon & Garfunkel tapes on long summer holiday car journeys, Alex’s musical life begins with Oasis, Pulp and Blur, while his first gig was The Vines in Manchester, he later named their singer Craig Nicholls as a powerful early inspiration.
As teenagers the whole band liked psychedelic scousers The Coral, while ideas about structure and form came from The Strokes and The Libertines – and through them, The Clash and The Jam. UK hip-hop legend Roots Manuva was a big inspiration, as was North London’s Braintax. Elsewhere Queens of the Stone Age, System Of A Down and even John Barry and Shirley Bassey’s 1971 Bond theme Diamonds Are Forever were claiming their share of headphone time.
There is a line that runs from Yorkshire poet and songwriters like Jake Thackray and Jarvis Cocker, through Lancashire writers like John Cooper Clarke and Stephen Patrick Morrissey right up to West Midlands-born Mike Skinner. Somewhere metaphorically – and geographically – in the middle of all of that is Alex Turner whose eye for revealing minutiae rivals any one of them.
As the band began to spend more time on the road their musical world began to spread wide enough to pull in Nick Cave, The Prodigy (particularly Music For The Jilted Generation), The Velvet Underground (and the solo words of their own John Cale) and Leonard Cohen. As the four move ever further from Sheffield, country music stars like George Jones (the band like Relief Is Just A Swallow Away), Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Hank Williams have all begun to make their mark, hardly surprising as America’s endless spooling highway meets the band’s own love of poignant, personal drama and words.