Arctic Monkeys, The Ritz, Manchester <br/> Hard-Fi, Electric Ballroom, London

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The Independent Culture

If you switch on Radio 1 at around 6.55pm this evening, it's odds on that you will hear confirmation that Arctic Monkeys have gone straight in at No 1 with their new single, "I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor".

This will be the latest peak in the rapid and seemingly unstoppable rise of this Sheffield band. Arctic Monkeys were the surprise success of the Reading Festival, and last week headlined the London Astoria having released just one limited-edition single (the last band to do that was The Darkness). There's no question about it: at this rate, Arctic Monkeys are gonna clean up in 2006. Ker-chinggg!

So, it's the mother of all hype-jobs, right? Well, no. The Monkeys' rise has been a word-of-mouth phenomenon, with MP3s and recommendations swapped feverishly online over many months, with their rabid hardcore fans, the 853 Kamikaze Stage Diving Division, at the centre. Arctic Monkeys will, it seems, become rock's first internet-born superstars. But why them? There is nothing extraordinary about Arctic Monkeys; they seem to have been elevated almost at random.

Arctic Monkeys are part of the rise of the "ordinary boys" (of whom Morrissey admiringly sang), although they are, thank heavens, a lot better than The Ordinary Boys. Chavs? Not exactly: three whippets and a token chubby lad on bass. Not particularly pretty, not super-stylish.

Ironically, of course, this downhome-ness (their debut single "Fake Tales of San Francisco" sneers at showbiz excess) may evaporate as soon as the first big pay cheque rolls in. A touchy subject, since Arctic Monkeys are wary of being seen to be flash. The Daily Star recently printed a story about the Monkeys signing a £1m publishing deal with EMI, which prompted a "get your facts right" rebuke on the band's official website.

Another factor may be regional pride. Their anthem is a song called "Mardy Bum", and chants of "Yorkshire! Yorkshire!" erupt from the crowd intermittently. There seems to be a hunger for a Northern Libertines, and "Scummy Man" is blatantly their "What A Waster".

Tonight's opener, and this week's probable chart-topper, is a sarcy dig at someone "dancing to electro-pop like a robot from 1984". Which gets my back up, because that's pretty much all my favourite music, right there (several of those futurist pioneers, of course, hail from Sheffield). I wonder whether it's any worse than dancing to beat music like a swinging groover from 1963, but I'm overruled by the majority.

Arctic Monkeys are, you see, essentially a rhythm and blues-based Northern beat combo like they've been makin' em since 1958. Their lyrics are at least half-decent, spinning tales about nights on the Smirnoff Ice and credit card fraud, and they have mildly diverting titles like "Vampires Is A Bit Strong, But...". After three songs of this undemanding stuff, the sound cuts out. It's hard to remain cool and nonchalant when you're forced to stand in silence for five minutes, but singer Alex Turner carries it off. "We're not professionals," he shrugs, before prophetically adding "the sooner people realise that, the better."

Arctic Monkeys are not (Baby)shambolic, but nor are they ultra-proficient either. Whatever the reason for the adulation, the crowd crammed into this charming dancehall absolutely carries them. Without it, Arctic Monkeys would be a dog with three legs.

"Who's from Staines?" asks Richard Archer, the Handsome Eyebrow Boy of a singer with Hard-Fi - another bunch of Ordinary Boys on the rise - and half the Electric Ballroom's hands go up. "You can't all be from Staines", he protests.

The Surrey dormitory town of Staines has, of course, already been turned into a cheap gag by Ali G. Hard-Fi are in on the joke, speaking of selling "Freedom For Staines" T-shirts. Perhaps, however, Staines isn't a place so much as a state of mind. Likewise Feltham, the town which is "singing out" on the track from Hard-Fi's Mercury-nominated debut, Stars of CCTV: it's a prison, and not only in the literal sense of the young offenders' institution to which it is home.

Hard-Fi, who play serviceable Brit-rock with a touch of Two Tone about it, are not the most eloquent of bands, and their depictions of small-town life do not possess the poetry of, say, Mike Skinner, but a sensation of trapped-ness pervades their music, so near yet so far from the glamour of the big city.

Their logo, one of the craftiest ever, does half the work for them: a black-on-yellow symbol of a security camera. It also makes a statement: if you see us on TV, it's going be on Crimewatch (one member of the band has "previous" for a drugs conviction).

Their authenticity might be compromised by the fact that, for all his onstage aitch-dropping, Archer has quite a posh accent when interviewed, like the young Mick Jagger - but this in itself is indicative of the contradictions of the region.

Hard-Fi are not a band I could ever love, although their dub-ska cover of The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" is almost inspired as The Flaming Lips' siren-wailing version. And they do have something about them.

That something is one song, "Hard To Beat". I'd call it Single of the Year, if I couldn't rattle off about 15 slightly superior ones (2005 has been fantastic). Essentially a handbag house tune played on indie guitars, it sweetly tells the tale of falling for a local girl-next-door ("You had a dirty look, you caught me on your hook"), and it's every bit as euphoric and moving as, say, Daft Punk's sublime "One More Time".

s.price@independent.co.uk

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