I felt a twinge of sympathy while listening to the undercurrent of discontentment on the new Arctic Monkeys album, Favourite Worst Nightmare.
The first song addresses a hipster in “a T-shirt and ties combination” who radiates insincerity and slipperiness. “Who’d want to be men of the people when there’s people like you?” spits the next track, vituperating some hapless “poseur” who isn’t interested if “it’s not in the top 100 list”. Later on, the singer Alex Turner complains that “all the attention is leading me to feel important” and “completely obnoxious”.
Poor thing. It can’t be easy navigating the boom and bust life-cycle of the typical British rock band. If the notoriously over-excitable and fickle UK music press were to devise a strategy tree it would read “build ’em up, knock ’em down and find the next big thing”. Treacherous waters, indeed. No wonder Arctic Monkeys are so chippy.
But then I caught myself. What is there to feel sympathy about? The Arctics are phenomenally successful, makers of the fastest-selling debut album ever in the UK. They have a huge fanbase and the freedom to do much as they please, such as rush-release a follow-up barely a year after their first LP (record companies usually prefer to leave longer between recordings to maximise their earning potential). They are in an enviable position.
Yet they treat the trappings of fame with suspicion and hostility. Awards ceremonies are shunned or mocked, as when they refused to turn up in person at this year’s Brit Awards, and instead made a pre-recorded acceptance speech dressed as Village People. In interviews they come across as prickly and
I blame selling out: not the act itself, but the concept. We must blame hippies for it, I suppose. Just as they dropped out from straight life, so too they expected their bands not to sell out to it: Grateful Dead, to take a garishly tie-dyed example, were as allergic to the corporate dollar as they were to decent pop hooks. In this highly romantic, dope smoke-obscured view of rock economics, bands and their fans were outlaws, while record companies were sulphurous agents of the Man. Boo hiss.
The idea of selling-out may have originated in US west-coast counter-culture, but it reached its apogee in the UK in the late-1970s when punks tossed the term around like a petrol bomb. If you had long hair or liked Genesis or were over 25, you were a sell-out. The ranks of the sold-out swelled to vast proportions, as if mirroring the ranks of the unemployed from which punk drew its cohorts.
Punk happened at a time of economic and social crisis. That can’t be said of today’s bands, who probably think recession is the name of a Joy Division song. Yet the cry of “sell-out!” continues to resound.
Its focus now is celebrity culture. Show any hunger for fame and you’ll be bracketed with the Pop Idol wannabes whom the Arctics predictably loathe. Yet that strikes me as a timid response to stardom. A rock band with ambition and drive should treat fame as a birthright and an opportunity: Liam Gallagher sneering “I’m a rock and roll star” as if none had come before him.
While Oasis’s subsequent decline was terrible to behold, the swaggering populism of their early days was unimpeachable. They didn’t care one jot about the unreliable patronage of trendsetters and tastemakers, but sought instead to grab the public by the scruff of its neck.
The Arctic Monkeys, in contrast, are preoccupied by questions of fashion and phoniness. It is time for them to realise that the only “sell-out” label that matters is the sign outside their gigs.