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Going ape for the Monkeys

Published May 9, 2007


In January last year, the Arctic Monkeys - four lads from High Green in Sheffield who, at the time, still lived with their parents - released their debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. It sold 363 735 copies in a week, making it the fastest-selling album in British music history.

The critics, meanwhile, repeated what they had been saying for months - that the Arctic Monkeys were the biggest British band in a decade, and that Alex Turner, their winsome, lank-haired frontman, was an indie genius to be compared with Paul Weller, Morrissey and John Cooper Clarke.

But Turner, then the 20-year-old holder of the NME's award for "Coolest Man on the Planet", was having none of it.

"From where we are as a band … it's too much," said Turner in the same broad Yorkshire tones in which he sings. "We're just starting. As good as we know it is, it'll be built up to be such a thing that if it doesn't cure cancer or solve inner-city poverty, it'll be a disaster."

The Arctic Monkeys have not yet cured cancer or solved inner-city poverty, but give them time. Later this month, Turner and his mates - Jamie Cook on guitar, Matt Helders on drums and Nick O'Malley on bass - will release their second album, Favourite Worst Nightmare.

Journalists who have been invited to Domino Records' headquarters to listen to the new record say it is a coruscating follow-up to Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. Meanwhile, on the Arctic Monkey online forums, fans who have attended one of the sold-out gigs on the band's UK tour have raved about the new material.

But don't expert Turner to be too excited. For a young man with such a formidable standing in the rock world, he displays little bombast. Indeed, he displays little of anything, since the Arctic Monkeys have, after an initial period of accessibility, largely removed themselves from media commitments.

Is this calculated recalcitrance? Turner insists it is not. After the band accepted their Brit Awards by video link, dressed as the Village People, Turner claimed that their decision not to attend was based purely on the fact that they were "very busy boys", and had a tour to prepare. The Arctic Monkeys, though, have never needed to play the fame game to be wildly popular, and they know it.

Turner's unwillingness to embrace celebrity can be traced to a distinctly unstarry childhood. He was born on January 6 1986, the only child of Penny and David Turner, who teach German and music at local schools. It was Penny and David who bought Alex his first guitar in 2001. He remains close to them. Indeed, his 21st birthday party was a typically low-key affair to which only his parents and his bandmates were invited.

Turner grew up next door to Cook, with whom he shared a love of The Vines, Oasis, and Sheffield Wednesday. He met the rest of his original bandmates (the first bassist, Andy Nicholson has since been replaced by O'Malley) at Stocksbridge High School, where Turner was a clever, if unexceptional pupil, and seemingly uninterested in playing music.

Cook and Turner left school at 16. They developed their interest in performing while at sixth-form college, and formed the Arctic Monkeys in 2002. Turner honed the witty, street-smart lyrics with which the Arctic Monkeys made their name.

"(At first) nobody wanted to admit they wrote them, so we kept trying other singers so they'd do it for us," admitted Turner. "But I'd secretly been writing since school and I enjoyed it. I just never told anyone because I didn't want to have the piss taken out of me."

It took the Arctic Monkeys more than a year of practising before they performed for the first time - a gig at The Grapes pub in Sheffield. The reception was riotous. Before long, they were performing at the Sheffield Forum, to fans who knew the lyrics to songs Turner had himself barely learnt. The free demo CDs that Turner and the band had handed out to their fans at smaller gigs had already been uploaded by their fans, and shared with other Internet users.

Turner may not have felt that his songs were worth much, but his fans did. Suddenly, an Arctic Monkeys gig was indie's hottest ticket - and the band had neither signed a record deal, nor released a single. The music industry cottoned on quick, but Turner wasn't bothered.

"Before the hysteria started," said Turner, "labels would say: 'I like you, but I'm not sure about this bit, and that song could do with changing…' We never listened. And once it all kicked off we didn't even worry about it any more. In London, the kids were watching the band and the record company were at the back watching the kids watching the band."

Eventually, in June 2005, the Arctic Monkeys signed to Domino Records, an indie label that looked after fellow British rock darlings Franz Ferdinand. The first single, I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor, shot to No 1 in October 2005. The album followed suit. The Arctic Monkeys had become the biggest band in Britain.

The attention has, not surprisingly, affected Turner. The boy who his schoolmates remember as "shy … normal" is now confident enough to dismiss his pop contemporaries, remarking, at the Q Awards, that "even I know Take That were bollocks". He also knows that, just as his band didn't need the record companies to reach rock Valhalla, they didn't need to become media whores to stay there.

"I don't know about Alex - I think maybe he's just really bad at doing press," says a producer at MTV. "Whenever we've done interviews with him, it's always dried-up really badly into a string of monosyllables. Sometimes, he has things to say - like when he slagged off Take That at the Q Awards - but, actually, I think he really misjudged the mood there. At any rate, it's clear he doesn't give a shit what we think of him."

Andy Bell of Oasis thinks the singer is playing a cute game.

"They're obviously very young," says Bell. "Everyone goes on about that, as if you can't be smart and young. But you only have to listen to Alex's lyrics to know he is very smart. I don't think he avoids the press because he's shy, but because they know they're not that kind of band. You can put Liam or Noel (Gallagher) in front of a camera, and they're great. But Alex is never going to be like that. So he avoids it, without being boring - like what they did at the Brits when they dressed up. I think they're doing everything right: the second album's out only a year after the first, which is a genius move."

Turner appreciates honesty - a quality his parents drilled into him, and one which appears in spades in his songwriting. He once described one of his wittier tracks, Fake Tales of San Francisco, as being about the "cool bastards" the Monkeys shared stages with in the early days of their career. "The easiest way to describe this song is as the sound of us getting annoyed at people pretending," he said. "If it's a Tuesday night in Sheffield, that's fine. Why pretend it's anything else?"

Therein lies the secret of Turner's appeal, both as a musician, and a rock star. He takes the world as it is, and describes the world as he sees it.

Turner also knows he has talent. It's not just because Gordon Brown and Noel Gallagher have told him, but because he believes in their songs. When Turner received the 2006 Mercury Prize for their debut album, he said he was "very, very pleased" before explaining why he thought they had won. "It's just good tunes," he said. "There are no tricks." - The Independent

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