Alex Turner: Rock and Roll Greatness

I have spent the last 14 years with the Arctic Monkeys. The lessons I learnt from songs like Bigger Boys and Stolen Sweethearts are as true at twenty four as they were when I was ten. At 15 I bought Suck it and See. The next day I lifted the line ‘still breaking hearts with the efficiency that only youth can harness’, found in Love is a Laserquest, for my end of year English exam. In the Summer of 2014, they released two songs, R U Mine and Do I Wanna Know. I was on holiday with a group of lads in Malia. Every night, following four pints of Amstel we rolled through to the Indie Bar where they played, alongside copious amounts of Oasis’ Cigarettes and Alcohol, these two songs on repeat. Then the day of my 18th Birthday the Arctic Monkeys played at Earls Court. Finally, I had the chance to lay eyes on the man who had been with me all my life. Every bloke in the audience unsuccessfully attempted to reinvent the sweaty short back and sides into an Alex Turner quiff. In the five years until I would next see the Arctic Monkeys, I had fallen in love with someone else. We broke up the night of seeing them at the O2 arena, in part inspired by Turner’s tales of adventure and romance.

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I have often mused on the roots of greatness. What made John Soane design the most beautiful buildings in London? Why was Christopher Hitchens’ cultural mind distinguished from other essayists? My conclusion is that one must consume all the cultural symbols that have come before them and then be able, not only to imitate them but to reinterpret and innovate. John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn is the greatest example of this, displaying the vast collections of Roman imperial architecture that was then appropriated for designs on The Bank of England, Petersham Lodge, Dulwich Picture Gallery. Christopher Hitchens had all major writers, Orwell, Woodhouse, Marx, Dickens to memory and then applied them towards debates on Abortion, Bill Clinton and the existence of God. It is, in a sense, choosing to stand on the correct shoulders of the correct giants and then making the most of your height advantage. Alex Turner did for sub-culture what Hitchens did for essay writing and Soane did for Architecture.

The day when the Arctic Monkey’s Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (WPSIATWIN) became the fastest selling debut album in British music history, Alex Turner had been 20 for just 17 days. Zane Lowe describes Whatever People Say I Am I’m Not as the British equivalent of Nas’s Illmatic. The former combined youth with mastery of British subculture, mixing punk distortion and Strokes riffs with the aggression of Grime and Larkinesque observations on youth culture in Sheffield. This was the equivalent of the hat-trick scored by Wayne Rooney on his Champions League debut; the moment were people realised this bloke, barely an adult, has mastered something that hundreds of millions of people idolise.

F Scott Fitzgerald wrote that ‘premature success gives one an almost mythical conception of destiny as opposed to will power – at its worse the Napoleonic delusion’. Rock and Roll graveyards are full bands that fail with the sophomore albums, the most haunting being the Stone Roses’ Second Coming which considerably damaged the reputation of the band that with the song’s I Wanna Be Adored, She Bangs the Drums, Waterfall, Don’t Stop, Made of Stone, I am the Resurrection and This is the One had written arguably the greatest debut Indie Rock and Roll Debut album.

The Arctic Monkeys did not fuck about. 16 months after WPSIATWIN they came back with the Matt Helders drum roll, the high pitched shredding riffs, break in the drums, BER BER BER BERBER BER BER, drums come back, BER BER BER BERBER BER BER x 3 (pause) ‘BRYAN TOP MARKS FOR NOT TRYING’. Brianstorm punches with the left, then Teddy Picker goes for the knockout. On Favourite Worst Nightmare, Alex Turner has more wit, more women, more power, more mischief. They were playing themselves at poker; for every Riot Van there was an Only One Who Knows. Fake Tales of San Francisco was matched by Old Yellow Bricks. The mythical conception of destiny was matched by a Napoleonic conquest: they sold 227 thousand copies on the first week, they became one of the youngest bands to headline Glastonbury bringing out Shirley Bassey and Dizzee Rascal.

Where does one go after conquering the world? Following the first two albums, Turner went from lippy British lad to confronting two of the most powerful archetypes in British culture in his project The Last Shadow Puppets where Turner and Miles Kane wrote the soundtrack for a mod James Bond, sporting Ben Sherman coats, riding on Soviet Tanks through Eastern European snow.

They say that you can judge a man by the company he keeps. Turner picked strong representatives of British subculture. He cited punk poet John Cooper Clarke as his ‘hero’, paid respects to Dizzee Rascal, had Akala writing a cover of Old Yellow Bricks, was associates with Chris Morris then later worked with Richard Ayoade on the soundtrack for Submarine. Turner was learning the symbols and archetypes that had monopolised the British subcultural imaginations of rock and roll and film and then was reinterpreting and introducing them to a new generation on a much bigger stage. This was a frontman completely aware of what to write, say, wear and learn.

The Arctic Monkeys third album Humbug marks the creative maturity of Turner. As described by Drummer Matt Helders, it is the transition from anti-rock stars to rock stars. They had left Sheffield, the Fred Perry polo shirts and the models for the challenge of defending the title of Rock and Roll star, previously held by John Lennon, Mick Jagger and David Bowie. At the age of 13, I was disappointed. They were about LSD, Josh Homme and the desert. I was beginning to drink, smoke and pull. The Arctic Monkeys had grown up whereas I was beginning to live the first two albums.

 

The combination of Humbug’s heavy guitars with the laddy wit of the first two albums is best encapsulated through the Suck it and See B-Side Evil Twin. Turner snarls, bearing sharp teeth, over a steaming riff: ‘you’ve never met before/ but still she greets you like a long lost rock and roll/she’s definitely one of those/ where you go wherever she goes’. The greatness of Alex Turner’s song writing has been defined by the bands B-sides, Temptation Greets You Like Your Naughty Friend, Settle for a Draw, Cigarette Smoker Fiona, Anyways, which are the rock and roll equivalent like playing the 2010 Spain team and seeing Fabregas, the Liverpool Torres, David Silva and Jesus Navas on the bench.

By the fourth album Suck it and See, a piece of graffiti found on the wall in Alex’s apartment block in Clockwork Orange, Turner had stopped observing the prosaic and started to create their own eccentricity where black treacle and dandelion burdock sat alongside the band’s toughest midfield outlet of Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair, Library Pictures and All My Own Stunts. Turner was in Holland Park surrounded by peacocks picking off marble goddesses with a shotgun.

The greatest collective moment for Suck it and See and the next album AM was the 2013 return to Glastonbury. When the Arctic Monkeys first played, they had been underexperienced and scruffy. This time, Turner’s Elvis hair cut didn’t have a strand out of place. The audience was under Turner’s command with the lead singer slowly swaying the hips and casting out the hand like a Jedi using the force. The final song has Turner bring back Miles Kane for 505. Kane plays the guitar. Through cigarette smoke, Turner sings ‘in my imagination you’re waiting, lying on your side/ with your hands between your thighs’. Fog descends onto Worthy Farm. He’s got his foot on the amp holding the microphone as Rascal did in the guest appearance 6 years earlier. The streetwear and fringe have gone but he keeps the Sheffield accent. ‘Glastonbury – Thank You Vary Moch’.

With AM, Turner loses the queer eccentricities and finds whisky soaked abstractions, telling tales of seeking and rejection over distorted doo wops. Turner’s in Los Angeles on a conveyer belt of cocktail parties and love affairs. Leather jacket. Sunglasses indoors. ‘suddenly it hit me it’s a year ago since I drank miniature whiskey and we shared your Coke/ Said, ain’t it just like you to kiss me and then hit the road?’. I’m in sixth form screaming ‘one for the road’ getting tinnies from off licences on Putney Highstreet before taking buses to Kingston for 18th’s. ‘so we all go back to yours and you sit and talk to me on the floor’. With AM Turner offers the best pictures of a self-deprecating over boozed and oversexed creative confidently asserting talent while fully aware of his faults. Turner ends the album with a cover of John Cooper Clarke’s I Wanna Be Yours.

Then came the great pause. The Arctic Monkey’s left us for 5 years – the time when life changed beyond belief. Brexit. Trump. Trauma. Destruction. Turner quits the Elvis persona adopting the style of Robert De Niro in the opening scenes of Deer Hunter. Globalisation’s being rejected. Turner’s been in isolation with a Steinway creating Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino, an American trip that combines the tackiness of Trump Tower and the Taj Mahal Casino with the interior designed by an acid soaked Hunter S Thompson. Jesus’s in the Day Spa. Trump’s walking around in golden wrestlers’ underpants. The Arctic Monkeys play as a cover band in the bar that looks like one found in Star Wars A New Hope. These are the last days of the American Empire. Hendrix plays the national anthem to an emptied Woodstock littered with tablets and ponchos. The band missed the last helicopter out of Saigon – in truth they never even bothered to get on it. Now, Chandler from Friends, Peter Thiel, Buzz Aldrin, John Cena, Louis Farrakhan and Sarah Palin drink Cosmopolitans as Turner asks, ‘Who remembers this one?’. The audience stops talking. Turner starts to sing Cornerstone the American exiles continue in hushed conversation. Western Liberalism’s sweetest son, the rock and roll star, maybe the last of his kind, sings us out of hegemony:

‘just as the apocalypse finally gets prioritised/ And you cried some of the hottest tears you ever cried/multiplied by five/ I suppose the singer must die’

It’s the death of the ‘60’s reimagined for the end of the Western hegemony.

The boy wonder sporting baggy jeans and an Adidas zip up explained the idiosyncrasies of British life in the early 2000’s better than a generation had thought of. Turner took us from a reality where ‘there’s only music so that there’s new ringtones’ to ‘the exotic sound of data storage’. From the exuberance of millennial youth to the foyer of a decaying superpower. He went from Girls Aloud to John Cooper Clarke to Josh Homme to Richard Ayoade and Miles Kane. And now he sits on his own in isolation at the piano ‘Perhaps it’s time that you went for a walk/ And dress like a fictional character/ From a place they called America/ In the golden age.

In contribution to my use of the English Language, Turner rests with George Orwell, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. In Rock and Roll terms he is the only frontman worthy of comparison to Elvis, Lennon, Jagger and Bowie.