North London, Saturday, June 17. In a stadium packed to the rafters with adoring fans, the extravagantly coiffured singer raises his arms to the sky, his spindly frame silhouetted by the flashes of a thousand camera phones.
But enough about Harry Styles, playing his fourth consecutive sold-out show down the road at Wembley Stadium tonight. Because here, night two for Arctic Monkeys at the Emirates, capacity a cool 60,700, we are gathered to pay homage to Alex Turner, perhaps the last great rock star.
It’s been nine long years since Turner’s eloquent summation of rock ’n’ roll’s enduring appeal at the 2014 Brit Awards, and while the cynics scoffed, the singer — essentially the rock yang to Styles' pop yin — and his band have let the music do the talking, challenging their audience to follow them along a progressive musical path mirroring their own journey into middle-youth and beyond.
Accordingly, while the Monkeys’ mid-noughties peers have either fallen by the wayside (Zutons, Fratellis), drifted onto the nostalgia circuit (Razorlight) or become hit-chasing embarrassments (Kaiser Chiefs), the Monkeys have moved seamlessly into rock’s higher echelons. This stadium tour, staged in the wake of sell-out stints in Europe, Australia, Asia and South America, will see the Sheffield quartet play to half-a-million fans across 15 dates, one of which happens to be Friday night's Glastonbury headline slot.
The singer’s fundamentalist message has also chimed with a new generation of music fans for whom authenticity is everything: in the heaving corridors of the Emirates, teenage girls and 20-something woman seem to outnumber the bulked-out thirty-something blokes in AM T-shirts by three to one.
The band's cross-generational appeal is reflected in the carefully-curated intro music — Barry White, The Streets, Thin Lizzy — and made manifest by the band’s arrival on stage at 8.50pm sharp.
An opening Brianstorm sees plastic pint glasses arc-ing through the air, and there’s fever-pitch intensity to the evening’s first half, Turner driving the band through choice cuts from the band’s early years, among them Don’t Sit Down Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair, Crying Lightning, Teddy Picker, The View From The Afternoon). For an atmospheric Cornerstone the Emirates is transformed into a glittering canopy, camera lights twinkling like fireflies, acknowledged by Turner with a heartfelt, “Beautiful… thank you!”
It’s the AM material which truly sets the Emirates alight, however. Why Do You Only Call Me When You’re High? sizzles with intent, the darkening sky matching the nocturnal mood, while Arabella remains the greatest rock song of the century to date, Matt Helders and Nick O’Malley’s sledgehammer rhythm providing the backdrop for Jamie Cook’s Sabbath-style riffing.
It’s unquestionably Turner’s show, however. Dressed in a tailored lounge suit, luscious mane accessorised by aviators, he is a living embodiment of rock history, channelling everyone from Elvis to Link Wray to Serge Gainsbourg as the mood requires. It’s a stylistic perfectionism to rival Bowie in his ’70s pomp, the singer’s obsessive nature dealt with head-on in a haunting Perfect Sense, delivered with the world-weary panache of Jacques Dutronc.
For Turner, compromise simply isn’t an option. Obvious crowd-pleasers like Knee Socks are notable by their absence, Turner preferring to indulge in Groundhogs-style heavy riffing whenever possible. With the minimalist stage set bathed in blood-red lights, a brooding Pretty Visitors is the antithesis of — say — Foo Fighters’ affable bar-room boogie, while a final Body Paint comes with a synapse-shredding extended coda which even Led Zeppelin at their most grandiose might have considered de trop.
If an encore rendition of I Wanna Be Yours feels like a further comment on the bilateral nature of the relationship between star and audience, blitzkrieg renditions of I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor and R U Mine cause the Emirates to rock on its foundations in a manner not seen since Reiss Nelson's last-second winner against Bournemouth.
Ignore those who say that rock’s Golden Age is over. With Alex Turner on this kind of form, Arctic Monkeys remain the brightest stars in the pop firmament — living proof that “that rock ’n’ roll” is alive and kicking.
Roll on Glastonbury.