- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2006

Here we go again: A young four-piece rock band has sprung seemingly unbidden from some nowhere English town, grabbed its native land by the lapels and is poised to invade these shores.

This time they’re called the Arctic Monkeys, a brashly thrilling outfit in the mold of recent angular punk imports such as the Kaiser Chiefs and the Futureheads. Their debut album, “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not,” already a huge seller in the United Kingdom, will be released here Feb. 21 on Domino Recording Co., which helped propel trans-Atlantic Scots rockers Franz Ferdinand.

Two of the band’s singles, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” and “When the Sun Goes Down,” already have topped the British charts. And tastemaker U.K. magazine the New Musical Express recently fingered “Whatever” as the fifth-best British album of all time. (Admittedly, the list skews young: The Stone Roses take top honors, and a Beatles album doesn’t appear until No. 9.)

More than 40 years after Ed Sullivan raised the curtain on rock’s first British invasion, it’s worth examining how the U.K. hype machine works: Who initiates the buzz? Who feeds it? Why are we Yanks nearly always so ready to lap it up?

And — this is a question the Arctic Monkeys are no doubt asking themselves — does the U.K.’s talent at hyping young bands run the risk of setting them up for a fall before they’ve ever had a chance to reach their full potential?

Gennaro Castaldo, the London-based spokesman for a retail company, HMV Records, that has a particular interest in seeing bands like the Arctic Monkeys do well, says, “The problem with hype is that it can lead to what I call ‘the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome,’ where everybody falls over themselves to talk up an album or song but loses sight of the real substance that lies behind it.

“The danger,” he adds, “is that expectations can grow massively, which in turn can create huge pressures to deliver a follow-up album that is not only critically acclaimed but also commercially successful.”

Hype, for better or worse, is the lingua franca of British media, says Gareth Grundy, deputy editor of the NME. “I think it’s more a byproduct of the sheer number of bands in the U.K. and the level of competition between them. It’s more like survival of the fittest — although, granted, this doesn’t guarantee that the winner is always as good as the Arctic Monkeys.”

Are the Monkeys really this good? Are they, so to speak, the next Coldplay-Oasis-Beatles?

Does it even matter in the game of hype?

“The reason everybody is hyping a particular band isn’t necessarily to do with quality,” observes HMV’s Mr. Castaldo. “Newspapers are desperate for fresh stories; retailers want to sell more CDs or downloads; and fans just want to be cool and into the next big thing.”

Many of those next-big-thing seekers, of course, may be American, especially when music trends here seem flat, as in the Matchbox 20-dominated late-‘90s. “There are occasional periods when the U.S. music scene may, for a short time at least, lack some degree of creative energy,” says Mr. Castaldo, “which may make it more open to outside influences. Inevitably, these tend to come from the U.K., which has always enjoyed a shared musical heritage.”

On a nuts-and-bolts level, U.K. music hype starts with cutting-edge disc jockeys such as Zane Lowe and Steve Lamacq, both with the popular BBC station Radio 1, putting a band in rotation and singing their praises. Mr. Lowe’s alma mater, London-based XFM radio, also figures as an early tastemaker. Then magazines such as NME, Q and Mojo pick up the torch. An appearance at the annual Glastonbury Festival in Pilton, England, too, can help boost a band’s profile.

U.K. music hype isn’t limited to specialty press: Fleet Street tabloid newspapers such as the Daily Mirror, the Daily Star and the Sun all play a role in championing young British bands. “The week the album came out here, there were Arctic Monkeys stories everywhere,” says Mr. Grundy, “from the evening news on TV to the Sun.”

In one important respect, such a frothy media environment speaks well of the Brits. Radio stations program for markets far less segmented than they are here, and the average U.K. fan seems more open to breakout bands that don’t boast MTV airplay or major-label support.

Britons are “force-fed tons of new music constantly,” says Bill Spieler, a co-owner of and DJ at the District nightclub DC 9. “You have a better chance to be heard on the radio because they burn through so much music.”

Marshall Thompson, who owns Northwest’s District Line, a modern English fashion boutique, where sartorial trends commingle with the music industry, says, “They have incredible radio stations that are more receptive to unsigned bands. They’re really interested in pushing new bands, much more than in the U.S.”

These new bands need not be homegrown. American acts from Jimi Hendrix to the Strokes and the White Stripes have enjoyed a kind of gravitational slingshot effect by working the British music scene and returning home more popular than ever.

The build-buzz-in-Britain formula worked more recently for New York’s Scissor Sisters and Las Vegas’ the Killers, and, according to both Mr. Thompson and Mr. Spieler, it stands to pay off for We Are Scientists, a Brooklyn-based indie-rock trio that is a well-kept secret here but a hot touring commodity in Europe.

The Arctic Monkeys, meanwhile, are about to find out if we buy the hype.

Says the NME’s Mr. Grundy: “It’s a terrific album but so specifically English I think it’s possible the band could remain a cult, like the Smiths.

“That would be a shame.”

The Arctic Monkeys’ debut album “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” is, as advertised, a grabby listen. Opening track “The View From the Afternoon” kicks off with a doomsday guitar riff and then glides effortlessly into a danceable groove.

Frontman Alex Turner’s voice is slurry and thickly accented and urgently evocative. He and lead guitarist Jamie Cook play like inspired amateurs, avoiding predictable chord changes and easy post-punk imitations.

Still, at this point it would be a stretch to say any of these songs are qualitatively better than, say, the Kaiser Chiefs’ “I Predict a Riot” or Franz Ferdinand’s “This Fire.”


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