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Pop Music

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

YOU see why fans in England went crazy over the Monkeys as soon as the band takes the stage at the Great American Music Hall. The group doesn't represent a revolutionary departure a la the Sex Pistols or even Nine Inch Nails, but it carries the tradition of intense, street-level British rock forward.

The music pulls many of the most appealing strains of British rock -- the punk insistence of the Clash, the melodic urgency of the Jam and even some ska bounce -- into a rumbling collage that grabs you by the collar. Then, suddenly, the group can turn on a dime to deliver music as delicate as a snowflake, only to pick up the tempo again with an almost skip-along charm.

Most absorbingly, Turner's songs speak about the struggles involved in searching for a life beyond childhood boundaries, physical and emotional. The lyrics are sometimes filled with so much English slang that you wish the album came with a translation sheet, but the heart of the Monkeys' message has a universal ring.

There's playfulness in "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" that winks at sexual infatuation, while "Riot Van" speaks a bit more anxiously about the ongoing tension between young rebels and police. In the especially moving "A Certain Romance," Turner writes about how young people try to separate themselves with fashion statements but really are bound by similar desires and doubts.

Well, oh, they might wear classic Reeboks

Or knackered Converse

But all of that's what the point is not

The point's that there isn't no romance around here.

Later in the song, Turner even comments on the bleakness of much mainstream pop:

There's only music

So that there's new ringtones.

What breathes life into the themes and aggressive, raucous musical arrangements are modern sensibilities that reflect hip-hop influences and other contemporary thought. Turner's vocals and lyrics have much of the same personal commentary that marks the work of Mike Skinner, the British rapper known as the Streets.

But there's also an intangible at work that adds greatly to the Monkeys' appeal. Some bands just seem like a bunch of guys (or gals) on stage. Others, all the way back to the Beatles and U2, come across as actual mates, bonded by their middle-class roots and a common passion.

The Arctic Monkeys have been a pack since their school days in the old steel town of Sheffield, giving them a background so shared that all four give the same answer when asked to name the first band that truly excited them. It was Oasis, whose first two albums were portraits of youthful swagger and desire that achieved a popularity of almost Beatlesque proportions in '90s England.

"I don't think I ever wanted to be like Oasis," Turner says, sitting in the dressing room, tugging at his hooded sweatshirt. "I just remember them playing football stadiums back home and I thought it was amazing, the fact that they could move that many people, that music could touch people in that way. That's what really intrigued me.

"I used to like making about with stuff, playing piano and things, but I didn't really get into records until I was older and I started listening to rap music." He cites Roots Manuva, a British rapper, as a special influence.

The real move toward music for the foursome began in summer 2002. Turner, Nicholson and Cook all played guitar, so Helders volunteered to learn how to play drums.

"What really triggered us," Helders says, "was when a bunch of exciting new bands came along at the same time -- the Strokes, the White Stripes, the Hives, that whole bunch. They had such energy and passion. We started out playing Strokes and Stripes songs in Alex's family garage."

"When we started writing songs," Nicholson adds, "we didn't know what we wanted to sound like, but we knew what we didn't want to sound like. We didn't want to do what had already been done. Sure, you'll find influences in our music, but we wanted something that felt our own."

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Encouraging news

TWO days later, the Monkeys are on stage at the Henry Fonda Theatre in Hollywood, and the mood is upbeat. The audience is younger and more responsive than it had been in San Francisco. Major label record company heads squeeze in alongside fans.

For those keeping track on the business front, the news is encouraging. Thanks to the "Saturday Night Live" appearance and the start of the tour, the Monkeys album actually moved back up the chart -- from 52 to 42.

The first-month total of 98,000 was almost three times what James Blunt and Franz Ferdinand, two other hit makers from across the Atlantic, sold in their first month in the U.S., and both of their albums have sold 1 million copies.

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