Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Certain Romance

It's a truism that the British are obsessed with class.

In some ways, that's a good thing as it divides society along economic lines instead of racial ones (though obviously sometimes they are the same divide).

And by "good thing" I mean that England -- to a visitor at least -- is not as divided and overtly racist as some sections of the United States (yeah, the UK produced Enoch Powell but that's not the same as seeing the Rodney King beating on TV, is it?).

The second truism is that the British are obsessed with place and quite proud of where they are from; There are more differences between residents of Manchester and London than there are perhaps between residents of Los Angeles and Houston and yet only a few hundred miles may separate those British citizens.

Which brings us to one of the great tracks of British rock in the post-Oasis era: the Arctic Monkeys' "A Certain Romance" from their 2006 debut album.

From the album artwork, the title taken from Albert Finney dialogue in "kitchen sink" drama, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and the thick Sheffield accents of the band members, the Monkeys are clearly "of a place" and it's that specificity that makes them so uniquely British.

The very act of playing up their Yorkshire upbringing puts them in line with Oasis playing up their Manchester upbringings -- the Gallaghers' love of Man City over Man United, for example.

In America, pop acts -- apart from rappers -- do not really have things that make them uniquely a Baltimore band, for instance, as opposed to a Chicago band; there are local scenes in America but that's a bit different than what I'm getting at; here, the only accents you'll hear anymore are in country music -- maybe a few New York accents if you play your old Lou Reed and Richard Hell records.

And while I still think that "Live Forever" is one of the best singles I've ever heard from the British Isles, I also think that Oasis got lucky; compared to a carefully wrought anthem like "Common People" by Pulp or "A Design for Life" by the Manics, "Live Forever" seems a bit simple-minded and -- dare I say it? -- bombastic.

Pulp, the Manics, and now the Monkeys have managed to write songs that mock (a bit) their own milieu while at the same time praising it; All three bands in these songs manage to criticize and condemn certain elements of the masses and yet still somehow produce anthems for a mass audience -- anthems for a nation of jaded individuals rather than the bland corporate rock we hear from American bands where the goal is to appeal to the broadest, basest demographic of this country's large listening public.

Very much like the Manics in "A Design for Life", the Monkeys in "A Certain Romance" are at once criticizing lad-ism -- "footie"-culture hooliganism -- and, yet, seem to be a wee bit proud that that's the world that spawned them. They sing that "there ain't no romance around there" as if to mock those who affect to be working class and aren't -- see the rise of the mockney accent.

The Manics sing that "We only want to get drunk" and "we are not allowed to spend" in the hope that the masses will see the larger forces that are consigning them to a life of "Work, Work, Work (Pub, Club, Sleep)" -- to quote a Rakes song title -- and the Monkeys are hoping that they don't turn into the yobs that "like to fight with pool cues in their hands." The Manics sound like school teachers sometimes but the Monkeys are indistinguishable from their audience -- at least they were when this track was released.

So while the Monkeys rail against those who "had a couple cans" and think "it's alright to act like a dickhead," they cannot so quickly condemn their own circle of friends. They acknowledge that "they'd probably like to throw a punch at me" and so set themselves apart from the crowd -- like the singer of "Common People", the singer of this track is of the crowd but set apart, watching, and commenting with wry detachment.

In the end, they -- like Oasis in a dozen songs before them -- champion what may be a less than exemplary peer group: "Well over there there's friends of mine...and, yeah, they might overstep the line but I just cannot get angry in the same way" only to reaffirm: "No, not in the same way" as the guitar riff spirals up in Buzzcockian ecstasy and the drums pound away -- echoing the early Manc genius of The Stone Roses -- into a thing of joy and transcendence, the cynicism giving way to pride, the weariness into uplift in the face of futility.

I guess this is the song that convinced me that the group were one of the greats -- not a fan of everything they've released -- but they have massive potential, for sure (lead singer Alex Turner's work in The Last Shadow Puppets confirmed this as well).

If I think of how many thousands of dollars I've wasted on bands that the British music press championed, only be to be disappointed, I'd break down in tears.

But, sometimes, the hype is deserved. Sometimes, every few years, a Sundays or Stone Roses or Oasis or Arctic Monkeys delivers a stunning debut that I don't get tired of playing.

Arctic Monkeys - "A Certain Romance"

Manic Street Preachers - "A Design for Life"M