Look Back: Favourite Worst Nightmare — A Primal Epitaph to the Garage-Rock Revival
Let me take you back to 2007. Apple has just announced the iPhone. You are you’re friends are debating on who will win the Graduation versus Curtis chart battle. “Chocolate Rain” is flooding YouTube. Good girl Rihanna is about to transform into a global superstar, and sex icon with the release of “Umbrella”. And lastly, the iso, shot-happy, Kobe “Black Mamba” Bryant is the most lethal basketball player in the world. Unbeknownst to us we’re on the edge of a massive breakdown… Of course, I’m talking about the garage rock revival bubble of the mid- aughts.
Since the dawn of the new millennium, it seemed like every new up and coming rock n’ roll band was named, “The ______,” and carried a simple Jack White aesthetic, or Karen O inspired persona with them. By 2007 the simple plug it in and play spirit of garage rock (and rock in general) was beginning to lose its edge, partly due to the frenzied rat race search of “the next great rock n’ roll band” that summed up much of the mid-aughts.
Anyone remember one-hit wonders and supposed rock n’ roll saviors like: The Vines? The Subways? Or The Hives? From 2002 to 2005, there were probably a thousand bands that glazed the covers of NME and The Rolling Stone that were deemed as the next great rock band. Arctic Monkeys began as one of those buzz bands, whose hype felt enormously inflated at the time. I approached them with a healthy amount American skepticism, even though this period also happened to mark the pinnacle of my musical anglophilia. Outlasting the hype, Arctic Monkeys ultimately became the last defining band of the garage-rock revival era.
In late 2005, a spunky teenaged garage rock outfit hailing from Sheffield took Britain by storm. Gaining attention through MySpace and word of mouth, Arctic Monkeys’ first two singles, “I Bet That You Look Good On The Dance Floor” and “When the Sun Goes Down” immediately shot up straight to number one garnering ridiculous hype from an ever-thirsty British musical press. Looking back, it truly is amazing to think and see just how young they were when they broke into the scene. Look how low-key and shy they are here on the official “I Bet That You Look Good On the Dance Floor” music video.
On their record breaking debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, Arctic Monkeys marvelously synthesized all the classic tropes British rock n’ rock, while updating it to fit within a modern musical context. Congruent to many bands of the era, Arctic Monkeys musical inspiration can be traced back to The Strokes, but naturally their musical inflictions trend closer to bands on their side of the Atlantic. Raised on the guitar-centric melodies of Britpop, Arctic Monkeys captured the spirit their own respective era by coalescing the sounds of their peers. Combing the dance-able rhythms of Franz Ferdinand with the straggly distorted guitar riffs of The Libertines, the quartet weren’t exactly that different compared to most of their contemporaries musically, but damn their execution was so much better.
Armed with a sharp social wit comparable to Oscar Wilde — Alex Turner’s microscopic, everyday lyricism provided a unique voice that distinctively elevated Arctic Monkeys past their platitudinous peers, while almost immediately putting them in an echelon reserved for classic British bands like: Oasis, The Smiths, and The Jam. Drawing social commentaries while connecting them to different perspectives, Turner’s illustrative lyrical sketches covering adolescence, pub culture, and prostitution gripped with remarkable detail. Is there a more poignant lyrical snapshot of 2006 — the year of Akon and the Motorola Razr than — “There’s only music, so that there’s new ringtones,” from album closer “A Certain Romance”? Neither overtly dramatic, nor filled with Noel Gallagher gobbledygook, Turner’s keen sense of perspective told you a story, or put you in the taxi cab. You felt present in these songs. His words fire out at a rapid pace, similar to Thomas Mars from Phoenix, but there’s a direct emotional resonance connecting Turner’s lyricism that Mars’s pop-up kitsch-ness lacks. In many ways, Turner’s highly descriptive lyricism personalized and hypostatized millennial culture in songwriting form.
If Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not is about the naïve misadventures of adolescence during a night-out on the town then Favourite Worst Nightmare is the tempestuous neurotic sound of an all week bender. Thematically, Turner wrestles with his booming fame with a wry, cynical slant that ultimately empowers him to create more a personal piece of work. The teetering sinister essence that would define later releases — Humbug and AM gets discovered, and explored with rigor on this cartoonish night terror.
Similar to their debut from the moment you turn on Favourite Worst Nightmare the four-piece make their assault. However, compared to the opening slamming hits heard prior on “A View From the Afternoon,” the thunderous frantic opening tumble of “Brainstorm” feels like a completely different band. In some ways that’s true, Nick O’Malley, formerly of Dodgems replaces original bassist Andy Nicholson. Together with drummer Matt Helders, the group’s not-so-secret special sauce on the their debut, the pair form one of the sneakily great rhythm sections of the modern rock era.
The duo’s post-punk rhythms bounce with an elastic funk on “Balaclava,” that’s comparable to the legendary Bronx outfit ESG, but with the added punch and oft-kilter exertion of Manny Pacquiao in his prime. O’Malley’s thick bass line rumbles underneath Helder’s octopus-like drumming on the fervently cartoonish — “This House Is A Circus.” Despite notably hitting fiercer and pushing tempos faster, there’s a funky, hip-hop precision that is augmented within the structure of Turner’s refined songwriting. Rhythmically and structurally cascading, the thumping “D Is For Dangerous” and cavorting “Old Yellow Bricks” are composed almost as if they were made for the dance floor. Sure, the indie-disco thing was rage a few years prior, but rarely did it actually rage this hard.
Singing in a boyish fever, often with a mouth full of witty observations — Turner’s voice wasn’t necessarily the most dynamic, or nuanced aspect of Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. Despite his extraordinarily vivid lyricism, and punkish bravado, he wasn’t a necessarily a singer yet; however beside the chaos of Favourite Worst Nightmare, you begin to see Turner stumbling across his signature baroque croon. Taking a break from the fast, heavy onslaught, Arctic Monkeys display a new sense of restraint, despite the rejuvenated musicianship on the gleaming, starry-eyed, “Only Ones Who Know.” Notable for being the band’s first A-side without drums and bass, “Only Ones Who Know,” drapes like a minimalistic film score with its twinkling romantic backdrop that’s clearly indebted to fellow Sheffielder Richard Hawley. “Well, all the little promises — they don’t mean much, When there’s memories to be made,” Turner cautiously croons, as his youthful sanguine approach to romance evaporates.
On the first record, Turner often played the role of a wallflower; he basically was an observant fly on the wall describing the world around him. Here, Turner begins to look in the mirror at his personal flaws and relationships. The tension fueled “Do Me A Favour,” details a car ride break-up with a tired scurrying sense of anxiety. Sure, most break-ups are shitty, and sometimes they are tumultuously nasty. Even shittier, for some inexplicable reason, some relationships just seemingly have to have an ugly ending. On “Do Me A Favour,” the romantic crime scene is tinged with regret and resentment from each party. There’s a realistic weariness covering Turner’s overlook. He knows he’s the asshole; “Perhaps ‘Fuck off’ might be too kind,” Turner puckers from his partner’s perspective, as the band comes to a destructively cathartic ending that doesn’t leave room for closure. It’s clear that there’s nothing left to be said.
The eerie homesick gloom of “505” remains a career standout. Opening with a humming Ennio Morricone organ sample — each instrument subtly enters, eventually bringing Turner’s seductive simmer nuances to a devious boil. There’s a newfound sense of self-awareness, “I’m always just about to go and spoil the surprise,” Turner admits as he points his critiques inward. It’s a remarkable moment that marks a turning point in terms of Turner and the band’s artistic growth. Contrasting in tenor, but similar in quality — “Florescent Adolescent” is another career standout. It could be argued that it is still Arctic Monkey’s finest pure pop songwriting moment to date. Its ska inspired flavors provide one of the few moments of brightness on the record. With a checklist of quotable one-liners, Turner chronicles a domesticated woman reminiscing over her youth, and how her “Bloody Mary’s are lacking in Tabasco,” these days. It’s a remarkably effective piece of wry pop nostalgia, especially considering it was written by a 21 year old.
By 2008 the musical zeitgeist had begun to shift. The indistinguishable term known as “indie rock,” would transition to another even more abstract flavor — “indie-pop,” or at this point just straight up “indie” music, whether or not these releases were released independently was besides the point; the term “indie” still had some cultural cache as being valued as “different” and “authentic.” Later that year, the idiosyncratic debut albums by MGMT and Vampire Weekend’s caught mainstream and critical attention with their bright, transcendental songwriting hooks. By the end of the decade abrasive guitars were no longer at the musical forefront. The lush sonic textures of bands like Fleet Foxes and Arcade Fire would soon grip guitar-oriented audiences.
Flash forward to 2017 and everyone’s got an iPhone. It’s pretty clear who won between Kanye and Fiddy. “Chocolate Rain” sounds eerily prophetic. Rihanna has now sold over 230 million records, and has a Humanitarian award from Harvard. And LeBron James is chasing the ghost of Jordan for the title of the GOAT.
For over a decade, Arctic Monkeys have carved out quite an admirable career for themselves. For a band born out of ridiculous British press hype, at the pinnacle of MySpace’s cultural influence they had all the hallmarks to be a flash in the pan. Instead, they’ve flipped the narrative and have become one of the most consistently interesting rock n’ roll bands of the new millennium. Often Humbug, the band’s stoned-out third album recorded with Josh Homme gets credited as the pivotal creative reinvention of the band. That’s not necessarily wrong, Homme definitely deformed and reconstructed a new habitat for these raucous primates; but Favourite Worst Nightmare showcases a band at their cultural and artistic zenith, while firmly establishing their musical ethos. Amalgamating the sights, the buzz, and the style, it’s a perfect epilogue to the garage-rock revival era.