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Welcome to the jungle

Copping a low profile and focusing on music, the Arctic Monkeys trek across the nation that's shot down so many young Brits before.

April 02, 2006|Robert Hilburn | Special to The Times

San Francisco — IT'S opening night of the Arctic Monkeys' first formal U.S. tour and 20-year-old Alex Turner leans into the microphone to spit out the opening line to a song about how too much anticipation has a way of setting you up for disappointment.

Turner wrote that line months ago, one of the many wry observations about the dreams and disappointments of coming of age in gritty northern England that has made the Monkeys' raw, guitar-driven album one of the most celebrated British debuts in years.

But the singer, whose slim frame and shy, disarming manner on stage makes him seem like Conor Oberst's long-lost English cousin, may be thinking on this night about the Monkeys' own recent ups and downs.

Things started off spectacularly this year when the quartet's CD, "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not," became the fastest-selling debut ever in England (350,000 copies in its first week), thanks to massive, fan-fueled Internet exposure.

The CD was met with rave reviews when released here, and "Saturday Night Live" rewarded the band with a coveted guest performance spot.

The Monkeys have even been hailed as master strategists whose Internet popularity could be a blueprint for bands that want to sidestep the formal record business machinery. All these subplots have made the Monkeys the most written-about British rock group since the emergence of Coldplay.

What goes up so fast in the rock world, however, usually encounters turbulence, and it's definitely seatbelt time for the Monkeys.

Hundreds of bands strive each year for this kind of attention, and for the few who get it, it's a moment of truth. Some wilt under the pressure, others thrive on it. The Monkeys -- four down-to-earth young men who were still rehearsing in Turner's family garage and dreaming of making a record just three years ago -- are simply trying to ignore it and stay focused on their music.

It hasn't been easy.

In this country, some rock observers are already grumbling that the band's days may be numbered because the U.S. CD sales haven't come close to duplicating the British success. After entering the U.S. chart at No. 24 on March 1, "Whatever People Say" fell to No. 52 two weeks later, and radio airplay, even on rock stations, has been minimal.

This rush to judgment has caused frustration in the Monkeys camp.

"It's ridiculous, to be honest," says Kris Gillespie, director of the group's U.S. indie record label, Domino. "This is a band that is only starting to tour here, and we've already sold 100,000 records. I think everybody's expectations were thrown so out of kilter by those first-week sales in England."

Jeff Pollack, who advises MTV and numerous radio stations about musical programming, seconds Gillespie's words of caution. "People have to give new bands time to develop," he says. "Imagine if we had sat in judgment over U2 or R.E.M.'s commercial potential after their first album.

"The first week or even first month's sales mean almost nothing here for a British band. The U.S. is a different market. It's so much bigger and more complex. That's why so many British bands don't make it here. What you need to look at is not how much they are selling but how good they are."

On that scale, the Monkeys stand out. The group's album is filled with the sound of rock 'n' roll marking another generational switch in England, a burst of attitude that is equal parts artistry and audacity.

The band is firmly rooted in the grand, guitar-happy tradition of British pop-rock forces, from the Kinks and the Jam to the Stone Roses and the Libertines, that have written about the rites and rituals of life in the neighborhood clubs and pubs -- songs filled with compelling insight, surprising tenderness and sometimes savage bite.

It may not bode well for the Monkeys' commercial future that many of these acts never won a sizable following in this country. But they all did inspiring work.

"I think all this emphasis on sales is misguided," Turner says backstage. "If you look at the Stone Roses or the Jam, you don't think about how many records they sold but what great music they made. That's what is...."

Guitarist Jamie Cook, sitting across the table, interrupts with a point about the streaking British sales that caused the media to expect so much of the band.

"To make it all even crazier, do you know who had that first-week sales record before us?" he asks. "Was it one of the really big bands? Oasis? Blur? Coldplay? No, it was Hear'Say. So what does that show?"

(Hear'Say, a TV reality show pop group, broke up a year after its chart success, declaring that the level of abuse from the public became too much.)

"It did feel good to beat them, but topping the charts was never our goal. We just wanted to make the best record we could. Now, I'd like us to be able to grow like the Clash. When they started, it was a very basic, punky record. Then they started to take off and move in lots of directions. That's what we want."

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Hardly bucking for promotion

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