Arctic Monkeys' classic debut album is 15 – here's the inside story on how it was created, why it was a massive success and its impact on Sheffield
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In one day the LP – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not – sold almost 120,000 copies, a quantity that had more than tripled by the time a week had passed, meaning it remains the fastest-selling debut album by a band in UK chart history.
These sales were yet more impressive given that the album had already leaked online at least a month earlier; additionally, many of the tracks had been circulating on the web in demo form for even longer.
So if people felt like they’d missed something, they probably had – deliberately or not, Arctic Monkeys effectively bypassed the traditional media to become one of Britain’s biggest-ever bands, winning fans with a set of songs rooted in their home city of Sheffield.
Singer and lyricist Alex Turner wrote about what he knew, and the lives he saw around him. Nights out, the music scene and everyday quarrels provided the subject matter for songs such as number one hit I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor, Fake Tales of San Francisco and Mardy Bum.
And they started young. Turner and his bandmates – guitarist Jamie Cook, drummer Matt Helders and original bass player Andy Nicholson, later replaced by Nick O’Malley – formed in High Green as teenagers and would be dropped off by their mums after school for their first proper rehearsal sessions at Yellow Arch Studios in Neepsend, showing up there from around 2003.
Andy Cook, director of Yellow Arch, told The Star in 2018 that the debut album was a result of practising in the facility’s room three ‘for years and years’.
"Alex and the lads kind of had a proper working-class miners' mentality of 'We're here, and we're 'avin it.' And they worked, and worked, and worked - some bands were booked in for three hours and you'd say 'Have they done anything?'"
The quartet stood out for several reasons, according to Andy. Musically, they became an extremely tight unit, they exuded a strong sense of camaraderie and 'always came across as if they were definitely going to be stars'.
"It was like the Four Musketeers had entered the building. And that, I feel, comes out in the music, the live shows, the lyrics - attitude comes out, definitely, in that first album."
Yellow Arch mentored the fledgling band, and backed their early tours.
"They held off, bucked every trend and literally waited until they were famous before they released the album. And that worked,” said Andy.
The group’s success was fuelled by forums and Facebook forerunner MySpace, long before the sophisticated algorithms of streaming platforms and TikTok. Interestingly, the members themselves were not the ones doing the online promotion – they distributed homemade demo CDs at shows which were then uploaded to the web by friends, sparking discussion on messageboards before their first album was recorded properly at Chapel Studios in Lincolnshire and 2Fly in Sheffield.
Conor McNicholas, who edited NME magazine during the 2000s, told The Guardian that he went to see Arctic Monkeys’ set at the Reading Festival in 2005 and found the crowd eight-deep outside the tent five minutes before they were due to appear.
“We’d done virtually nothing, and there was this instant fanbase,” he said. Until that point, he told the newspaper in 2015, his publication had ‘owned the conversation around guitar music’ by championing the likes of The Libertines and The Strokes from the beginning.
“That’s what changed in 2005 – we didn’t any more,” he said. “Arctic Monkeys always felt to me like the band that killed the NME.”
In 2006 Alex Turner gave a rare interview to the now-defunct Sheffield music magazine Sandman, and offered a revealing answer when asked how his band had ‘steered clear of all the celebrity’ and ‘all the interviews’: “Is it a deliberate plan or just that you don't like doing them?”
“That's it,” Alex replied. “The way it's worked for us is that we haven't had to do that. There's no feeling of mystique.”
Sandman described Alex – and Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley, who took part in the interview too – as the ‘tip of a great creative iceberg’ in Sheffield. Arctic Monkeys’ triumph prompted record labels to look for similar local acts, with Reverend and the Makers, Milburn and Little Man Tate following in their wake – Chris McClure, brother of Reverend and the Makers’ leader Jon McClure, can be seen smoking a cigarette on the cover of Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, which was named after a line from Alan Sillitoe’s classic novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
Fifteen years on Arctic Monkeys have six albums under their belts and have headlined Glastonbury twice – where Sheffield is concerned, it is surely only a matter of time before they have a star on the Legends walk of fame outside the Town Hall. They have played multiple homecoming gigs and have given back to Sheffield by helping to fundraise for The Leadmill during lockdown, while Matt Helders has invested in the Ambulo cafés at Weston Park Museum and the Millennium Gallery.
However, they have never repeated the garage rock, locally-inspired formula of their debut LP, and are unlikely to do so on their seventh, which by all accounts should be recorded when travel restrictions ease. Their musical and lyrical outlook has broadened, so much so that Alex Turner admitted in 2018 that it ‘feels like we’re doing a cover or something when we play the first album’.
“But that’s fine. I don’t hate doing that,” he said. “It’s just come to the point where I play ‘Mardy Bum’ or something like that and it doesn’t even feel like mine anymore.”