Bands on fast track to success soon derail


The English media have anointed the Arctic Monkeys “our generation’s most important band,” declared their 20-year-old singer “the coolest man on the planet” and proclaimed their debut album the fifth-best British album of all time.

All of which means one thing: The Monkeys will probably be extinct and forgotten in two years flat.

Welcome to the dodgy world of hype, in which U.K. rock groups are pumped up like mammoth beach balls, then promptly pierced and deflated.

There are exceptions, such as Oasis and Radiohead, who are still thriving a decade after the English media first laid hype on them. But the road to stardom is littered with British acts that fizzled soon after being dubbed “the next big thing.”

Heard from the Propellerheads lately? What about Cast or Embrace or Gay Dad? And whatever happened to Sigue Sigue Sputnik?

“Britain does tend to produce these bands that are all mouth and no trousers, all attitude and nothing going on in the rhythm section,” said Simon Reynolds, a British-born music journalist and a former “cog in the hype machine.”

“But in England, hype is part of the spice of pop life, it makes things exciting. Here in America, hype is a dirty word, and people view British bands with suspicion.”

Or just confusion. One man constantly scratching his head is Brent Grulke, longtime creative director of South by Southwest, where the Arctic Monkeys performed last month.

“It still baffles me: Why does one British act find themselves in this star-making position and another act doesn’t?” Grulke asked. “British hype is an interesting phenomenon; it’s like this big train coming down the track, way off in the distance. ‘Is it bringing something good to SXSW? Or will it run you over?’ ”

In Great Britain, the train has already arrived. In January, the Monkeys’ “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” became the fastest-selling debut album in the country’s history, entering the charts at No. 1.

But in this country, Monkey mania has yet to kick in. “Whatever” debuted last month at No. 24 with sales of 34,000, one-tenth of what it sold its first week on its home shores.

American reviewers have been favorable, praising the Sheffield quartet’s wiry punk sound and lauding frontman Alex Turner’s grim portraits of pub-crawlers and prostitutes. But critics here aren’t quite drooling over the Monkeys like they are in England.

“In America, reviewers think bands gradually develop and finally mature on their fifth album, but in Britain, we think the opposite,” said Reynolds, a former NME writer who now lives in New York.

“In England, we have the tradition of the fantastic, world-changing debut album, the band of amazing prodigies that come out of nowhere, perfectly formed, like the Smiths.”

But that tradition is less grounded in reality than it is in the peculiarities of the British music scene. England is a relatively small and heavily populated country where trends spread like brush fire, and an army of delirious music writers stands ready at all times to fan the flames.

The era of hype began in the post-Beatle 1960s, as weekly music papers such as NME, Melody Maker, Sounds, Disc and Record battled each other to discover the hot pop band du jour.

Later, the warring weeklies helped ignite punk rock, gravitating toward acts with a knack for saying something ridiculous: U.S. expatriate Terence Trent D’Arby became a U.K. media sensation by claiming his 1987 debut LP was “better than `Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.'”

“You have to hit people over the head to make them notice, and I did it. I know how to play the game,” D’Arby told the Los Angeles Times in 1988.

The British press also became notorious for tearing down acts that, months earlier, they’d fawned over. NME, for example, helped catapult Sigue Sigue Sputnik to fame before trashing the band with the cover headline “Would you pay 4 million pounds for this crap?”

“I think readers enjoy the build-them-up-and-knock-them-down syndrome, but it can be a bit rough for the bands,” Reynolds said with a giggle. “It’s like, ‘Weren’t you in that band that’s been and gone?'”