It’s been a decade since Arctic Monkeys dramatically burst into the UK charts with the single “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor.” Then a much hyped but relatively unknown band, the first single from the Sheffield four piece’s debut album Whatever People Say I am That’s What I’m Not was a phenomenon, taking over radio and entering the charts at number 1. The album followed up on that success and is rightly regarded as one UK indie’s most iconic records of recent years. However for all the awards and acclaim, some of the Arctic Monkeys lesser known earlier songs deserve revisiting as well. These songs might not be as familiar as the big hits, but they remain some of the bands best work. There’s also a rawness and a DIY urgency to them that makes you realise why the group so quickly captured the public’s attention.
1) Bigger Boys and Stolen Sweethearts
Anyone who ever stood on the playground with their mates and looked on in helpless anger as the older lads chatted up the girl you liked can relate to this one. The song deals with the frustrations of adolescent romance, opening with Turner bemoaning that “there’s always somebody taller, with more of a wit, and he’s equipped to enthral her and her friends think he’s fit.” What’s great about this song is it how it manages to capture the mindset of a jilted teenager with equal parts genuine sadness and humour. Ten years on it remains one of the bands most well observed songs. The song appeared on the band’s first demo Beneath the Boardwalk.
2) Riot Van (Demo)
A slicker version with different lyrics appeared on the album, but this dreamy and melancholy original showcases a young Alex Turner’s lyrical skill and detached delivery. The album version is a relatively light account of teenage delinquency and winding up local police out of boredom. This version is a fair bit darker, telling the story of a doomed hooligan whose joy riding antics end in tragedy. Beneath The Boardwalk is filled with high paced, adrenalin driven numbers but this one demonstrated the band had more to them than riffs and chant-friendly choruses. Turner often shines on the more downbeat songs and Riot Van provides an early example of this. “Then up rolled the riot van, and called the fire brigade, but it was already too late;” Turner sings, “and there was no arrests to make.” The indifferent delivery only makes the last line more chilling.
3) Cigarette Smoke
All jagged guitars and aggression, this song embodies the concentrated assault of energy that typified their early music. The story of a particularly wild night out involving sex, violence and snorting coke off a stripper’s thighs, it’s the world seen through the eyes of a particularly scummy individual out on the tear. The song conjures up images of dingy provincial pubs populated by various shifty characters and an atmosphere of menacing excitement. Musically, it’s a far cry from the shiny production and more technical sound of AM today but the intensity makes it worth revisiting.
4) Settle for a Draw
Alex Turner observational abilities have been discussed enough, but he particularly excels looking at relationships. This song, the b-side to Whatever People Say’s second single When the Sun Goes Down, deals with the petty fighting and daily battle of being one half of a volatile couple. “Settle for a draw, you’re not going to get no more,” Turner pleads, imploring his audience not to engage when their other half is dangling the bait. Overshadowed by the single it appeared on, Settle for a Draw is one of the most underrated songs of AM’s early material.
5) Fake Tales of San Francisco (Demo)
In fairness Fake Tales is hardly an obscure song in AM’s catalogue. A cleaned up version appeared on Whatever People Say I Am. However this earlier recording remains a classic in it’s own right. A dryly funny study of South Yorkshire hipsters trying to imitate the US indie scene, it includes some of Turner’s most memorable lines as he takes aim at the posers; “Yeah, I’d love to tell you all my problem. you’re not from New York City you’re from Rotherham, so get off the bandwagon and put down the handbook.” No song better symbolises early AM’s spiky and confrontational streak as this one.