10 Songs, 100 Years: #91. “Lighting the Fuse Might Result in a Bang”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 19, 2009
Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.
Of all the really huge British phenom bands of the rock era, it’s hard to think of one that was much less phenomenal than the Arctic Monkeys. I don’t necessarily mean that as an insult, mind you–just that there wasn’t that much about them that screamed Biggest Band in the Country/Continent/World. They weren’t strikingly original, they didn’t ride any sort of burgeoning movement (either musical or social), they didn’t say anything particularly new, they didn’t look that remarkable, and they didn’t have any real gimmick to latch themselves onto. You couldn’t even say that their lack of notability was extreme enough that that was their thing–they were DIY, sure, but not in a revolutionary sort of way. They might have been novel to UK audiences at the time–I don’t know exactly what UK pop culture was in the period before they broke, obviously–but just from listening to their music or watching their videos, you’d never think that this band would be doing record-shattering sales, or being lofted to the rafters by the UK media as one of the Great British Rock Bands.
Except that they did write some pretty great songs–none better than the first blast and the song that got the whole thing started, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor.” Once again, culturally speaking, it’s hard to stack it up against the other great debut singles in UK rock history, just because you don’t feel like anything is arriving with the song besides the band themselves, but as far as arrival songs go, it’s certainly a pretty great one. The main thing that it has going for it, and one of the main hallmarks of the band themselves, is its supreme confidence. You can see it in the video, certainly–not many bands receiving the level of hype that the Monkeys were getting before they even released their first single would release a video that feels more like a bootleg than anything else, or one in which they actually tell audiences not to believe the hype about them. But if it was good enough for the Strokes, it was good enough for the Arctic Monkeys, and they knew that the song was strong enough to justify the buzz for them anyway.
You could tell instantly that the Arctic Monkeys knew their shit by their use of that classic, master-level intro hook–the wind-up riff. Found in similarly brilliant and nationally galvanizing early-career singles like the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” a wind-up riff is when a song starts with what sounds like the band attempting to sputter their main riff to life. The song sounds like it’s marching right into it, but it stutters a couple times first, like the main riff is so unbelievably gigantic that it takes a couple measures just to generate enough electricity to power it. Assuming it’s not overdone–and none of the songs listed overdo it, otherwise they’d be totally sapped of energy by the time the song even kicked in–it’s the perfect way to create an almost-uncomfortable level of tension and excitement, before the riff finally kicks in and everyone’s relieved and dancing and rapturous and such.
The really impressive thing about “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” though, is not just that it reaches that level of excitement, but that it very nearly manages to keep it up for the entirety of the song’s just-under-three minutes. The whole song is just bursting at the seams, feeling almost unstably overstuffed, and getting a ridiculous amount done in its 174 seconds. Singer Alex Turner delivers the verses like the band’s manager is standing behind him holding a stopwatch, and the song never seems to take a measure off for a breather, transitioning from verse to chorus and back with barely a moment’s rest (so much so that when the song finally does grind to a halt for a full split-second, it’s practically comic relief). The song’s subject is generally pedestrian–just Turner trying to pick up a girl in a club–but it’s delivered with such urgency and passion that it’s not hard to see how it could end up getting received as a sort of generational anthem, despite being thematically analogous to songs like the #92 entry on our list.
What always separated the Monkeys from the pack, though, was their lyrical acuity. Not that they possessed any incredible wisdom or unqiue perspective, but like so many of their British ancestry, they wrote with a kind of observational detail and sharp tongue that just lifted their songs a cut above. “You stop making the eyes at me / I’ll stop making the eyes at you” is a fantastic opening line, managing to establish setting, tone and scenario without really even describing anything. The “Your name isn’t Rio / but I don’t care for sand” line is just clever enough to excuse the somewhat strained reference, and reminding people of a great pop song while trying to sell your own great pop song is always a good move. And then there’s the greatest coup of them all, the main chorus couplet–“I bet that you look good on the dancefloor / I don’t know if you’re looking for romance, or.” It could’ve been horribly awkward, a song-distracting groaner, but it’s delivered with such assuredness and then breezed by so quickly that you barely have time to register what they’ve done before the song’s moved on to bigger and better things, and looking back on it you just kind of chuckle. Turner would flex his lyrical verve more on later singles, but here he does just enough to show that he knows what he’s doing, while keeping the focus on the visceral punch of the music. (What else rhymes with “dancefloor,” anyway?)
I don’t have much of a handle on what the national take is on the Arctic Monkeys in the UK these days, but from this side of the pond, it seems like the band has pretty well fizzled in the mere four years since they were supposed to be the biggest thing ever to happen to post-Britpop UK rock and roll. They never really caught on in the US, but that was hardly surprising–we only really let Brits infiltrate our airwaves if a) We can’t tell they’re British b) They’re so obviously British that it’s kind of funny or c) They get Americans to sing and/or lip synch in the videos while they just hang back and collect royalties, and the Arctic Monkeys fell into none of these three categories. But after a strong string of singles from Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not–“When The Sun Goes Down,” “Leave Before the Lights Come On,” “Fake Tales of San Francisco”–the Monkeys maybe released their second album a little too early, and with a lingering feeling of burnout and diminishing returns musically, it felt like all their early momentum had completely disappeared. They’re currently working on a third album, but early reports that the Monkeys were listening to Cream and Hendrix while recording the album are not terribly encouraging.
Still, I’m not sure the Arctic Monkeys were ever meant to be much more than what they became. Maybe it was due to a derth of other hype-worthy peers, lingering disappointment over the Libertines’ burnout, or a reaction to all the New Rock Revolution darlings being Americans (or Swedes, I suppose), but the Monkeys never seemed like the band to shoulder an entire movement’s worth of hype–they seemed like the band that would be the thinking man’s alternative to the band that was actually getting all the press and national adoration. They were like a Kinks without a Beatles, a Jam without a Sex Pistols, a Pulp without a Blur or Oasis. They were fun and they were exciting, but if I was a 14-year-old kid in Manchester or Leeds or wherever, I’d be pretty disappointed if this was the band being marketed to me as the definitive group of my generation. Really, all they did was write some great songs–and no one can be held at fault for that.