I can’t tell you how big the Arctic Monkeys were in England in 2005. They were everyone’s new favorite band. They grabbed the attention of the country almost overnight through this thing called MySpace and were legitimately hyped to be the “next big thing.” And it really felt like they were. They were young, too. Alex Turner was only 19 when their first album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, came out, selling over 360,000 copies in its week of release to become the fastest-selling debut album in British music history. It’s also been near-universally praised as an all-important and all-telling snapshot of what it means to be young in early twenty-first century Britain, on a par with The Streets’ first album, Original Pirate Material. Not a bad way to spend your summer after graduating high school. This was all before he would go on to date MTV host Alexa Chung, be mates with Josh Homme, and have the London Philharmonic Orchestra play as his backing band.
Three more albums later and the Arctic Monkeys are back in Seattle touring their latest Suck It And See. It’s been reported that some U.S. supermarket chains that stock the CD have resorted to placing stickers over the seemingly offensive title, but let me assure you that this entirely innocuous and somewhat archaic phrase in England simply translates as “Give it a go!” It’s something your grandma might say. Honestly. It’s more in the vein of Jack White using “Icky Thump” as an album and song title (another expression from northern England, this time approximating to “I don’t believe it!”) because it sounds old-fashioned and oddly curious, and not because it sounds vaguely rude. Maybe.
Frenzied accelerating claps en masse and chants of “MonkeysMonkeysMonkeys” greet the band as they walk on stage to “American Woman” over the PA and waste no time in cranking out “Library Pictures,” “Brainstorm,” and “This House Is a Circus.”
Frontman Alex Turner looks surprisingly like a 50s greaser in a black T-shirt and Brylcreemed near-Elvis hair. It’s impressive that he can pull this look off.
The Arctics have always had (and still have) a very singular and straightforward rock sound on record. Tonight in the cavernous Showbox SoDo those simple guitar-and-amp sonics come across exactly the same way live. It’s this unique sound, plus the idiosyncrasy of Turner’s heavy Sheffield accent that’s equal parts warm and scorn, that make the band accessible and exciting at the same time.
The thunderous riffs continue with “Still Take You Home” and Turner finishes with “Nice to see you all again! Are you in a good mood tonight, Seattle?” and when the crowd overwhelmingly respond in the affirmative, he offers “Well let’s have some fun together then!” before the band settles in to their first single from their latest album “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair.”
Surreal and spooky, “Don’t Sit Down” could easily be a early Soundgarden song were it not for Turner’s stand-out Yorkshire brogue. And when he sings “Do the Macarena in the devil’s lair” he actually lifts his hands from his guitar to do the Macarena and then slowly wags his finger as he intones “Don’t Sit Down.” It’s more sinister than you’d think.
There’s more breathless rock ‘n’ roll as “Pretty Visitors” and “She’s Thunderstorms” stop and start with little to no introduction, Turner preferring to let the music speak for itself.
“Time for the Les Paul sound!” Alex suddenly says while hoisting a new guitar around his neck. He motions back to the drummer and facetiously says “Matt Helders, what have you got for Seattle?” and Helders responds with the drum intro to “Teddy Picker.” Turner never actually bothers to introduce his other two bandmates.
The band then run through “Brick by Brick” where Helders takes over vocal duties on the verse.
After “Potion Approaching” the Arctic Monkeys gear up to play latest single “The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala.” I was half-expecting Alex to explain how they lost all of their hard copies of the CD single to the blaze at the PIAS warehouse over the weekend during the London riots (they are now only going to offer a digital download of the single in the U.K. when it is released this Monday) and perhaps offer his own thoughts on the unrest, but none came. Maybe it’s just good common sense not to talk about riots to a room full of excitable people.
The familiar scraping of distorted muted strings starts up soon after forming the intro to “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor,” their first single and still one of their best and most energetic songs.
“Thanks for coming down!” Turner cheerfully says as the set draws to a close. “We’re going to leave you with this one.” Their three-song encore is great (which includes the jaunty saunter of “Fluorescent Adolescent” and Turner cleverly adding “Seattle!” at the end of the song to rhyme with the last line “Remember when he used to be a rascal?”) but the real highlight is before all that; the song Turner originally said his band would be leaving us with. The crowd sings every word of the calmly sung intro to “When the Sun Goes Down” and Turner builds the tension by leaving an extra couple of seconds of silence before dropping one of the biggest and simplest riffs of the last six years at the song’s breakdown. The audience go bananas, just like everyone has every time “When the Sun Goes Down” has been played loudly in nightclubs across England since 2005. It rocks magnificently.
“I don’t even know who you are!” the bro bellows next to me as The Vaccines take to the stage awash in lights and guitar feedback and start to play the haunted nursery rhyme intro of their debut single, “Blow It Up.”
And bro is right. Make no mistake, The Vaccines are huge right now in Britain but have yet to make a real dent in America’s musical consciousness. Their first album, which only came out in March this year, shot up to a peak position of 4 in the UK album chart and barely managed to even register in the U.S. album chart; the highest it ever climbed was the dizzy heights of number 197.
From the get go, lead singer Justin Young plays his guitar like a machine gun trained on the crowd.
“We are the Vaccines” Justin announces, clad in a navy blue shirt and dark gray jeans. “V-A-C-C-I-N-E-S” he adds, just in case we weren’t sure, before introducing their second single “Post Break-Up Sex.”
Young then wanders the stage, freed from guitar duties for “Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra).” He gives bass player Árni Hjörvar a sloppy hug, which quickly turns into a headlock.
The Vaccines breeze through their set of straight-up English summer singalong indie that is as well suited to being sung at full lung from a festival crowd in a field as it is emanating from the pub jukebox.
Guitarist Freddie Cowan (younger brother of Tom Cowan, he of the keys and bass in the Horrors dontcha know) sports a snug and curly hairstyle with a baggy yellow polo shirt with black trim and thin gold chain.
“If You Wanna” sees The Vaccines at their most pop and pogo, and the crowd visibly responds. If you weren’t won over at the beginning, you find yourself wholeheartedly won over now.
Even though you might be hearing the songs for the first time tonight, The Vaccines’ success secret is crafting anthemic songs that sound so instantly familiar you swear you’ve heard them before. It’s quite a skill when you consider that the band only formed in June last year. Yes that’s right, they only formed in June last year. And now they’re touring the world with the Arctic Monkeys. “Well done, lads” would be the understatement of the decade.
“It’s a pleasure to be in your city” Justin then politely says. “This is a song about the friends we left behind” as the group launches into “We’re Happening” before racing through a cover of 1960s L.A. garage rockers the Standells’ “Good Guys (Don’t Wear White)” and “Norgaard.”
The Vaccines then quickly disband from the stage. Freddie grabs the mic before leaving and says “Enjoy the Arctic Monkeys thank you” in one breath, and then they were gone.
Arctic Monkeys Setlist:
Were YOU at the Arctic Monkeys show? What did you think? Did you look good on the dancefloor? What did you expect from the Vaccines? Let KEXP know in the Comments section below!