With a general election looming, the Millennial generation looks set to be even further divided, even among ourselves. How different from the days when the vast majority of Baby Boomers leaned Left as least as far as prime minister Harold Wilson’s Labour government; and everyone and their Mum bought the latest Beatles’ record.
If the Beatles were the absolute epitome of then, what single thing could possibly be counted as the very definition of now?
We are the generation subdivided into a thousand tribes, right? Each to their own playlist…
Wrong. There really is something which does it for today’s teen-decade just as A Hard Day’s Night did it for the 1960s. It’s an album, and that album is AM by Arctic Monkeys.
There, I’ve said it; and now I’ve said it, I know I’m going to have to back it up. So here goes.
We should look first at the singles from AM: ‘R U Mine?’, ‘Do I Wanna Know?’, ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’, ‘One For The Road’, ‘Arabella’ and ‘Snap Out Of It’. The first thing they show is uncertainty; all these songs pose questions relating to relationships – very pertinent to a generation that doesn’t seem to know how (phones and apps were meant to make this easier, but they only seem to have made relationships more fraught).
This angst-ridden agonising is just for little boys lost, I hear you say. But no, it wasn’t just for them. The first three single releases all made it into the Top 10 – even House Party was playing them.
The album as a whole moulds together two quite different things which are both extremely popular among Millennials: retromania, and hip hop. You thought this was only rock’n’roll? But during the making of AM, Monkeys’ lead singer Alex Turner famously described the album as “like a Dr. Dre beat, but we’ve given it an Ike Turner bowl-cut and sent it galloping across the desert on a Stratocaster.”
The hip hop influences were made even more explicit in an interview with NME : “That particular bit is like the thing Lil Wayne and Drake do. We’ve been listening to a lot of their stuff recently. I like that thing they do where they talk about something backwards, so they talk about it but then say what it actually is on the next line. It’s hard to explain but I guess it’s a little nod to that idea. So I say, ‘I’m a puppet on a string’, just before mentioning Tracy Island. That’s what it’s about – uncertainty.”. The Monkeys covered ‘Hold On We’re Going Home’ live on Radio 1 around the time of the album’s release.
The retromania on the record is obvious: the riff from ‘Arabella’ sounds almost identical to that of Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’, and for the album’s closer Turner borrowed the words and title from mate Dr John Cooper-Clarke’s poem, ‘I Wanna Be Yours’.
Turner’s new look as the self-consciously stereotypical rock star with greased quiff, leather jacket and sunglasses, and a voice combining Sheffield lad with David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane, suggested he was playing with the idea of stardom/celebrity in a way that all Millennials could relate to.
Live on the AM tour, the audience’s screams could be heard over the band (the Feeling Far Away live bootleg has a crowd-sound reminiscent of a Beatles gig). I saw the band on that tour in Bremen, and all through the gig the crowd was shouting for ‘R U Mine?’, and when it came round they played it twice without stopping. Accolades kept rolling in for the album: a month after its release the NME placed it in the top 500 albums of all time, and the band became the first act on an indie label to have their first five albums debut at No 1 on the UK Albums chart.
Perhaps the clearest evidence of AM as a generation-defining album is the Monkeys’ appearance at the BRIT Awards. This event is usually seen as a ‘safe seat’ for pop music, but the Monkeys rocked the boat by taking both Best British Group and Best British Album. They even got away with performing ‘R U Mine?’ in front of a burning sculpture of the album title’s two letters. Anyone else and it would have looked like something out of Spinal Tap, but at that moment the Monkeys’ star had shot so far into the ascendant that they could take themselves seriously and take the P out of themselves at the same time; an exceedingly rare combination which hardly anyone else has achieved since….the Beatles.
Which is where I came in: the Millennial Generation does have a definitive document to match the Beatles’ oeuvre. It’s only got two letters and neither of them is French.