Assorted Left Bank indie brats and visiting Brits flock into the confines of the Zénith for the first stage of tonight’s Northern invasion – for the opening slot is filled by none other than fellow Brits The Coral, now five-year scene veterans in contrast to the still relatively fresh-faced stars they are here to support. The Sheffield/Liverpool contrast in terms of musical heritage is fairly clear from the outset – firmly grounded in the Scouse culture of mystic merseybeat and lolloping, dope-laced psychedelia, The Coral’s set provides a much-appreciated gentle start to the evening’s proceedings and as second fiddle tonight they duly trot out their not inconsiderable list of hits to a grateful crowd. Still looking very much the gaggle of skunk-stewed 6th formers that they were when they first rose to prominence, you easily forget that they’ve been pretty much a constant feature in the charts since their emergence in 2002 and their prolific output since then has fleshed out their live act to make it seem like they’ve been on the circuit for even longer than that. Mop-topped vocalist James Skelly monkeywalks his way through a series of hits including the immortal ‘Dreaming of you’ and the increasingly mesmeric ‘Don’t think you’re the first’, and they finish with a new number which suggests that their best years may indeed lie before them.
The mellow start to the evening is probably a good thing, as most of the pent-up energy in the room has yet to disperse by the time the lights go down after a long pause between sets, by which time the crowd are more than ready to go seriously bananas for tonight’s simian superstars. A well-documented meteoric rise to the top coupled with two rock-solid albums and a string of classic singles which successfully combine witty lyricism with punk-rock bludgeon has made the Arctic Monkeys the ideal concert draw – the excitement built up by the surrounding hype coupled with the taught, jarring dynamics of the music we’re about to hear sends ripples through the assembled throng (featuring some seriously young bucks clearly terribly excited over what may well be their first ever gig) and by the time the opening couplet of ‘A view from the afternoon’ and ‘Brianstorm’ pops out in a matter of minutes, the crowd has transformed into one Taz-style whirlwind of skinny arms and legs. Dropping the first tracks from both your albums as an introduction may seem arrogant, but the Monkeys have never claimed to be anything other than boldly confident and unconcerned with noses put out of joint by their performances. Indeed, stage banter is kept to a strict minimum tonight and there’s none of the shape-throwing normally associated with rock spectacles of this size – instead the band just plough straight into their faultless set-list and let the crowd do the rest. The throng prangs and pogos at the drop of every wiry guitar riff and percussive rattle – whilst the band don’t move around on stage much, they gel together with such airtight precision that the sound produced is more than enough on its own (particularly perma-grinning drummer Matt Helders, who punishes his kit with the zeal of a black-clad Duracell bunny and even manages to lose his grip on a drumstick mid-song to send it flying right across the stage towards an unsuspecting roadie).
The lion’s share of both albums is duly dispatched, as well as ‘Leave before the lights come on’ – no surprises, but then again nobody was really expecting any and the non-stop barrage of instantly recognisable classics leaves the crowd with little room to draw breath. Indeed, the Monkeys’ headline quality tonight is most obvious in the fact that they just haven’t penned any weak tracks yet – whilst The Coral’s set selected their most successful hit singles from the past few years, the Monkeys sound like they’re playing a greatest hits set composed predominantly of album tracks. Given the correct release campaign, there’s little doubt that anything they play tonight would have trouble crash-landing the top of the charts as a stand-alone single release. Not that we should underestimate the potency of their faultless run of singles, and the opening bars of ‘I bet you look good on the dancefloor’ ignite the sort of crowd bedlam normally associated with tattooed Motörhead fans pummelling each other to the tune of ‘Ace of Spades’. The only regret is that they have to choose between album closers to finish up and therefore the poignant ‘A certain romance’ nudges out the equally memorable ‘505’ from what would otherwise have been a faultless setlist. Having said that though, the lack of encore is all for the best in the long run – after one hour twenty of relentless frontal assault, there’s really nothing more the band could throw out to the exhausted crowd and their succinct, no-nonsense showmanship means that the spectacle is over as quickly as it started. The Monkeys’ strength can be seen in their reluctance to indulge in rock star pretensions – throughout tonight’s set, it feels like they’re playing a particularly large club gig rather than a massive arena and at no point does their tightly-strapped poetic punk ever attempt to ascend into the spheres of rock deity. There’s not a trace of pretentiousness here tonight, just straight-up solid delivery of their faultless back catalogue – the critics will continue to weave webs of convoluted twaddle about how they’ve nailed the cultural zeitgeist or revolutionised music publicity but the Monkeys stand for something a lot simpler than all that : a great rock show.