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Arctic Monkeys: Many Happy Returns To Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not

Friday, 22 January 2016 Written by Graeme Marsh

When Arctic Monkeys released ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’ a decade ago this month, they had already amassed a considerable following. But what happened next was staggering. Their debut album went on to win the Mercury Prize and rapidly became the fastest-selling debut in UK history. Two Glastonbury headline slots, countless awards and a notable sphere of indie influence would follow.

The power of the internet has been heralded as the main reason for their meteoric rise, but contrary to popular belief the young band themselves weren’t driving that home. “[The internet played] quite a big part, actually, but it’s not like we had a plan,” Matt Helders told Prefix in 2005. “We used to record demos and then just burn them onto CDs and give them away at gigs for free. Obviously there weren’t many demos available so people used to share them on the internet. Which was a good way for everyone to hear it.”

The file sharing was carried out by excited fans as the next big thing stirred up a storm. When people started turning up at gigs knowing all the words to their songs, the band realised something was going down. MySpace, that old cultural touchstone, was frequently cited as key to their arrival and, despite their ignorance of it, it represented a collective bubbling up of support. “I don’t even know what MySpace is,” Helders told Prefix. “We were on the news and radio about how MySpace helped us but that’s just the perfect example of someone who doesn’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. We actually had no idea what MySpace was.”

The band’s assured, self-confident swagger, which has become prevalent in more recent times, was already showing signs of coming to fruition in the early days.“Before the hysteria started, labels would say: ‘I like you, but I’m not sure about this bit, and that song could do with this changing.’ We never listened,” vocalist Alex Turner told NPR. "And once it all kicked off we didn't even worry about it anymore. In London, the kids were watching the band and the record company were at the back watching the kids watching the band. We had people crowd-surfing and landing on monitors. In Manchester this kid came flying over the crowd and his cheek just smashed on the side of the stage. Another kid came over and just rolled across, a perfect land like a gymnast. But best is when everyone's just bouncing."

They eventually signed to Domino Records in 2005, approaching their skyrocketing profile with a shrug more than a grin. The boys had all but grown up together and decided to form a band after seeing others do the same. They fought against expectation and became notorious for turning down interviews and appearances.

“We said no in the beginning [to almost everything] because we didn’t want to do it,” Turner said in an Esquire interview. “I never liked the idea of being everywhere. And I think because it was such a whirlwind, you try to keep some semblance of control. You try to be, like, ‘Well, I don’t want to overdo this thing…’ and there’s this idea that maybe it will burn out if you do. Our nonchalance was the USP, yes. I don’t even know where that attitude came from. It was our world and we didn’t want to let people into it in the beginning. Even when it came to record producers.”

Prior to their debut’s release, the Guardian’s Laura Barton asked the question: ‘Have the Arctic Monkeys changed the music business?’ She was referring to the internet’s  part in their rise and its helping “the songs spread like a rampant outbreak of nits”. But Barton also pointed out that one of the band’s demos had previously been aired on Radio 1, long before they were well known, and that XFM had repeatedly hit listeners with the Arctics, at one stage spinning I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor approximately every three hours. This was a success story built on both new and traditional means.

The band’s initial, rapidly snowballing local following is also largely overlooked, as is their much-hyped appearance at Reading Festival in August 2005, where frenzied fans gathered eight-deep outside the Carling Tent for their performance following Jo Whiley’s persistent pre-festival plugging. NME editor Conor McNicholas said at the time: “They’ll be bigger than the Smiths and could be as big as Oasis. This band are going to knock the country sideways, I can’t tell you how excited I am about them.”  

The burgeoning power of the internet, though, cannot be overstated in the case of the Arctic Monkeys and what would follow. MySpace was in the right place at the right time. Co-founders Chris De Wolfe and Tom Anderson explained: “MySpace is changing the band-to-fan dynamic. It lets people find music in the same way they find out about music in person – through friends.”

Since then, numerous other websites and services have come to the forefront. It seems strange that these outlets, which we all rely heavily on today, are still so new. Back in 2005, as the Arctics blossomed, they were barely more than a glint in the eye. YouTube arrived in 2005, Soundcloud was founded in 2007 and streaming services such as Spotify were still some way off the prominence they would later achieve. Before that, illegal file swapping had been rife among users of Napster and their ilk.

There is little doubt that the Arctic Monkeys caught the wave at just the right time. With internet developments occurring rapidly, it was only a matter of time before a band took advantage – knowingly or not – of its remarkable power. The fact that the record is also an astonishingly accomplished bow full of brilliant, breathtaking moments probably had something to do with it too. Many Happy Returns, ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’.

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