Last week we wrote here that "the Arctic Monkeys are a fucking great band." After seeing them live, I'll only enhance that this week: The fucking Arctic Monkeys are a fucking sensational fucking band.
It's a curious phenomenon -- overseas, the Monkeys are Paris Hilton-style household names, tabloid fodder whose every utterance is endlessly dissected by gabbling Fleet Street hacks. Even my fiftysomething mother-in-law in England was impressed when I got to interview them -- at last, I think she might finally believe I have a proper job. "I 'eard John's interviewing the really big bands now," she told my wife over the phone from England. Evidently she hadn't been too impressed with my body of work up to now, but mothers-in-law seldom are...
Anyway, this was one show my wife didn't want to miss, in no small part because it makes her two brothers pretty jealous. She gets to see the lads that conquered England in the relatively intimate confines of a venue on the small side of the mid-range class; while they'll have to go to a festival or a huge arena to see 'em. (Hell, on the way in to the club, we walked right by Monkeys singer Alex Turner in the club's parking lot -- he was kicking a soccer ball around between the tour buses totally unmolested. No way in hell he could get away with that in the UK.)
And you got the impression she was not alone in that -- Warehouse Live was dotted with clumps of English people in their forties who looked like they were there just so they could tell their kinfolk back home that they went.
While many of the Brits were obvious -- decked out in English soccer "kits" and the like -- Mrs. Racket had no trouble at all picking out those who tried to blend in. "See those lads over there," she said, indicating a couple of guys in jeans, ball caps and collared shirts who just looked like normal American frat boys to me. "They're English." "How do you know?" I asked. "Look at their jeans," Mrs. Racket said. "They've been ironed. Only English boys iron their jeans." (A walk-by confirmed her suspicions via their telltale London accents.)
A thirtysomething bronze-skinned brunette was the next blip to pop up on her UK-dar. Mrs. Racket knew she was English because she was overtanned, smoked like a chimney and had lost the curves in her waist to years of overly dedicated beer consumption, a habit she was actively engaged in at that very moment.
Mrs. Racket is also fairly hard to impress at shows. Openers We Are Scientists failed to wow her (or me, for that matter). Too many of their songs were all over the map, bereft of hooks or much personality at all. As we stood in a corner of the main room, we watched the crowd, most of whom stood stock-still through the Scientists' set.
"There's some lovely bricks in 'ere," Mrs. Racket shouted up at me over the Scientists' muddled din. (She's a foot shorter than I am.) I looked around and noted a singular lack of bricks in the venue. "What?" I shouted back down at her. "I said, 'There's a lot of pricks in 'ere!" And so there were -- the non-Brit contingent had its fair share of Castro-hat-clad emo douchebags and shiny-shirt Mafia 30K millionaires.
Just before we abandoned the Scientists' set for the cozier confines of the club's side room, Mrs. Racket grumbled that they were ripping off Oasis. For what it's worth, I failed to hear it.
The soothing sounds of a piped-in string quartet heralded the Monkeys' arrival on the stage. They didn't so much launch into their set as they oozed into it -- I believe it was "Despair in the Departure Lounge," their most tender song from beginning to end, singer Turner's rasp alone over his own jangly guitar.
And from there it was a damn-near relentless onslaught of funk-infused, highly rhythmic rock. In Turner and Jamie Cook, the Monkeys sport two truly gifted rhythm guitarists, and their elaborate interaction was every bit as great live as it is on their recordings. Sure, neither of them can come anywhere close to anything like shredding, but these kids have mesmerizing right hands. And drummer Jamie Helders kicked some serious bum back there on the kit -- he closed the show with an energetic burst that put me in mind of Keith Moon.
Out in the crowd, rock and roll bedlam threatened but never quite ensued. The room was dotted with pockets of people jittering along, their jerky Caucasoid moves reminding me of footage from those crazed televised rock and roll dance party shows from the '60s -- you know, those ones with the swirling lights and go-go dancers in thigh-high white boots? Anyway, had those pockets linked up, things would have gotten pretty crazed, but it never quite happened. (There was about a 60-40 male-female ratio; had there been a few more women there, it's likely the link-up would have occurred.)
A good number of people sang along, especially on "Mardy Bum," "Dancing Shoes" and "Riot Van," which I pointed out to Mrs. Racket. "See, the Americans can understand this stuff," I said, referring to the band's very British-oriented subject matter and Turner's thick Yorkshire accent. Mrs. Racket disagreed. "Those are all English people," she said. Far be it from me to doubt the accuracy of her highly calibrated UK-dar...
So, are they the new Beatles? I don't think so, but they have that kind of potential. Right now they are further along than the Beatles were at this point in their career. Think of the Beatles circa 1964 -- a quartet of guys from northern England who had barely moved beyond covers of American rock and R&B. Their gooey originals from that era are completely basic, both musically and lyrically; today only children and nostalgic fiftysomethings favor stuff like "Love Me Do" and "She Loves You" over "A Day in the Life," "Hello Goodbye" and "In My Life."
The Monkeys are way ahead -- Turner's lyrics are light-years beyond what Lennon and McCartney were coming up with at the same age. Turner and Cook are likewise more accomplished than Lennon and Harrison as guitarists, and Ringo doesn't even belong in the same paragraph as the Monkeys' Helders.
It's probably unwise to compare the Monkeys to the Beatles, anyway. (Such talk comes more from similar sales rather than sounds.) It's more accurate to trace these Monkeys' lineage back to the Who. Like them, the Monkeys are as much about driving rhythm as they are melody, not to mention the fact that their lyrics are more about life in general than they are about love. Add in the Monkeys' well-publicized love of hip-hop, which they seem to have absorbed rather than been influenced directly by, and it suggests the Who's "Maximum R&B" slogan, updated for the Dr. Dre Age. Just as it was hard to hear echoes of "Long Tall Sally" in "I Can See for Miles," you don't hear much of "Gin and Juice" in "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor." But somehow, someway, all four of those tunes come from the same funky place. Whether they'll go on to compose rock operas remains to be seen, but with a lyricist like Turner in the band, it would seem a distinct possibility.
So that's my verdict. As for Mrs. Racket, she thinks they sound like Oasis, but in a better way than We Are Scientists.
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I also talked to local record producer/engineer and musician Marco Saenz about the show the morning after. "I dug it and I was really familiar with them beforehand," he said. "The sound could have been better, but I dug the idea that young people are putting out real rock and roll music. It seems to be a widespread phenomenon. A lot of the folks I'm meeting under the age of 25 have gone back to actual rock music."
I put forth my theory about the male-to-female imbalance -- that had there been a few more women at the show, we would have seen something magical. "To tell you the truth, the ratio was pretty impressive for a Houston rock show lately," he pointed out. "Live rock music for the past seven years here has been pretty much a sausagefest."
Saenz liked the fact the band was unpolished and underproduced. "They had a lot of energy, and with the audience, it seemed like a throwback to the early '90s in a way. People were actually into the band, it wasn't like they were into a scene. And the Monkeys legitimately delivered a rock show. It wasn't this held-back thing, where you keep waiting for the satisfaction of Ôrock,' for lack of a better word. You know, that visceral satisfaction you get from the opening of 'Highway to Hell' or something, where you like, 'Oh, shit -- this is gonna rock.' "
Marco, I told him, you're sounding a lot like Jack Black. "Well," he said with a laugh. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't agree with the stupid shit he says."