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Monday, 23 May 2011

Arctic Monkeys - Contemporary Purveyors of the Quality B-Side.


Certain bands were masters of the art of the b-side: The Beatles, for example, and later The Jam or The Smiths. Most bands, though, just chuck any old crap on there, some live cover, maybe, or, gravest sin of all, an album track. God forbid a half-decent song should be wasted on a b-side – it’s about as likely as a band donating a good song to a charity album. Yet still flying the flag for the b-side as actually decent song is one band, Arctic Monkeys. In their six year recording career they’ve hardly released a bad b-side. Maybe in a few years they’ll release a compilation of them and sell millions, but at the moment these b-sides are a secret code, known only to the initiatived, to those who really get it, but not to the great unwashed of the music-listening world. But perhaps it’s time that all the world should know it.

It was there from the beginning: the b-side of the Monkeys’ breakthrough debut single “I Bet you Look Good on the Dancefloor” was a little ditty called “Bigger Boys and Stolen Sweethearts”, which sees a doleful Alex Turner lament that “There’s always somebody taller with more of a wit, And he’ll be quick to enthrall her and her friends think he’s fit.” It’s about the type of guy who’d “pinch your bird and probably kick your head in.” You know the type. It’s a beautifully-observed slice of teenage life, sensitive and funny. An auspicous start.

Follow up “When the Sun Goes Down” had “7”, which wasn’t half bad, either. Another of those early Monkeys songs about meeting girls in night clubs, or not meeting them in this case, because by the time our narrator gets the courage to speak, she’s gone.

Another high point was “Temptation Greets You Like a Naughty Friend”, b-side of “Brianstorm”, the first single from the band’s second album. This showed the Monkeys’ new tougher sound, and Turner’s lyrical approach, or at least the persona he adopted in his lyrics, had also changed a lot. Now he’s not worried about his bird getting pinched; he is a famous rock star, after all. Instead, it’s “I don’t ever want to hate you, So don’t show me your bed.” Dizzie Rascal also shows up mid-song for a rap. This is probably the Monkeys’ best known b-side; at least, a quick search on YouTube seemed to indicate this had more views than any other of their b-sides.

Second Favourite Worst Nightmare single "Flourescent Adolescent" was backed with “Bakery”, “Plastic Tramp”, and “Too Much to Ask”, and third single “Teddy Picker” with “Bad Woman”, “Death Ramps”, and “Nettles”. All fine tunes.

Then 2009’s Humbug, the album that somewhat put the brakes on Arctic Monkeys’ meteoric commercial rise. First single “Crying Lightning” immediately showed this was a different Arctic Monkeys. Weird, spidery riff, lyrics that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Some sweet metaphor: “My thoughts got rude as you talked and chewed on the last of your pick and mix.” Mmm-hmmm, okayy... B-side was a cover of a 1994 Nick Cave song, “Red Right Hand”, with a lyric about some sort of demonic figure with a right hand of the colour mentioned. The single also included “I haven’t got my Strange”, only 1 minute 30 seconds long. Like a lot of Monkeys’ songs from the period, it has a slightly twisted vibe and, again, lyrics that are hard to fathom.

Second single “Cornerstone” had an excellent b-side in “Catapult”. The character described in “Catapult” recalled the Brian of “Brianstorm” or the bigger boy of “Bigger Boys and Stolen Sweethearts”, maybe even the diabolic figure in “Red Right Hand”. He’s an irresistibly charming user, whose effect on the opposite sex is extraordinary: “They queue up to listen to him pissing/ And hang around to watch some poor girl blub/ And then they chase him down the avenue/ Incessantly pestering him to let them join the club.” The single also contained 2 extra tracks, no less: “Fright Lined Dining Room” and “Sketchead”, the latter lyrically close to “Catapult”, yet another portrait of a predatory male who always gets his way: “There’s poison in his spit, he’ll compliment your tits and leave you to your wits – Sketchead/ Convincingly insisting the tyres were bald when you gave him the car.” Another good song, though; you definitely got your money’s worth with this single. The final single from Humbug, “My Propellor”, was backed with “Joining the Dots”.

Arctic Monkeys have an excellent track record with b-sides, and if they ever release a compilation, which I’m sure they will, I’ll be right down to the record store with a 10-bob note in my grubby fist – till then I’ll just listen to them on YouTube. But now, with new album Suck it and See due out in a couple of weeks, is a time to look back on their catalogue and see there’s a lot of good stuff there, hidden away in dusty corners. Hopefully, the new b-sides hold up the proud tradition, and continue putting all those lazy bums with their live versions or already released b-sides to shame. Shine on, you crazy monkeys!

Full Arctic Monkeys Discography