Gateways: How Arctic Monkeys Playing “A Certain Romance” on SNL Changed Everything for Me

Welcome to our Gateways column, where Paste writers and editors explore the taste-defining albums, artists, songs or shows that proved to be personal “gateways” into a broader genre, music scene or an artist’s catalogue at-large—for better or worse. Explore them all here.

Taken completely out of context, “That man just yawned!” is a peculiar, if not completely random, four-word phrase to have made a seismic impact on my life. On its face, I guess it’s just a normal sentence—I mean, we all yawn, after all, and it is contagious, so they say.

But when Alex Turner exclaimed, “That man just yawned!” on Saturday Night Live just before blowing up “A Certain Romance” for its thrilling conclusion, a 15-year-old me was spellbound. Here, you had four British dudes—not particularly stylish, but also not not, either—playing the hell out of, at that point in my life (and maybe still), the best song I had ever heard.

They taunted the audience. Jamie Cook destroyed his guitar. They left the stage right in front of the camera, laughing as they did so. But they also had acne. They kind of looked like people I knew.

Growing up in a Bay Area suburb in the mid-2000s, I was too young for The Strokes or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and I didn’t have a cool older sibling to introduce me to the likes of Radiohead or Pavement. Jack Johnson was our style icon—cargo shorts and Rainbow flip-flops were a must in Northern California at the time—and you were infinitely more likely to hear Sublime, Slightly Stoopid or Dispatch in the high school parking lot than LCD Soundsystem or Interpol.

Conveniently enough, my curfew at this point was sometime between 11 and 11:30 p.m. on Saturdays to watch SNL. My family would gather around the TV to watch, though I’d typically be the only one to make it past Weekend Update, and someone would inevitably complain that the TV was on too loud when everyone else left to go to sleep.

I was introduced to a ton of pop culture through SNL, be it through the hosts, the things the show parodied or the musical acts. Sure, you could find some of this stuff on NBC’s website the next morning, though it never worked that well and you had to wait an eternity for it to buffer. Keep in mind, this is just before YouTube really took off, and music discovery was much tougher in the pre-streaming era (Kazaa destroyed our computer).

But on March 11, 2006, I was introduced to a completely new world of music. I remember sprinting to my computer right after Arctic Monkeys jumped offstage after “A Certain Romance” to download their debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, then only about three weeks old, on iTunes. It was all I listened to for at least a month.

I felt as if I learned a new language after memorizing all of its lyrics, British slang and all. Police cars became riot vans, tracksuit pants became tracky bottoms. Trilbies, scummy men, mardy …

When not much was happening in my boring 16,000-person suburban town (read: basically always), I’d daydream about being in those bars they sang about, hanging out with the boys in bands and dodging the kids who like to scrap with pool cues in their hands. I knew Sheffield wasn’t the coolest city in the world, but it seemed as if it was brimming with the life my small town desperately lacked.

After I wore that out, I started going backwards, discovering the likes of Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, The Libertines, Oasis, Blur, The Stone Roses, The Smiths and everything in between. All I wanted for Hanukkah that year was a subscription to NME, so I could pretend that I was at those small, sweaty London venues that filled up their pages. When I first went to London when I was 17, I felt like I knew the city already, making a point to walk by the 100 Club and KOKO just to make sure they were real.

Around that time, I started going to shows and religiously reading music blogs, including this one. Soon, the walls of my bedroom would be covered in band posters, and I’d spend hours every day scrolling through the U.K. iTunes charts to find new bands, including Glasvegas, Foals and Metronomy. Music took over my life.

And that passion never let up. By the time I left for college, I became a college radio DJ at UC Berkeley’s KALX, where I had access to about 100,000 physical albums dating back to when the station opened in 1962. It was an endless goldmine of music discovery, and I’d spend hours down there every week, trying to soak as much of it in as I could. Arctic Monkeys started me on this journey, and now I was delving deep into Motown, Afropop, Brazilian folk and jazz, but I still always bookended my sets with Oasis’ “Fuckin’ in the Bushes” and Blur’s “No Distance Left to Run,” two songs I first heard within a month or so of Alex Turner and co.’s SNL performance.

Within a year of graduating from Berkeley, I moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue a career in politics—and I was miserable. But a chance encounter at a bar one night led me to being connected to a friend of a friend who ran a local music blog. I absolutely fell in love with music journalism, and a couple years later, I was writing for the publications that helped fuel my music obsession, sometimes even interviewing the artists—including Turner for this very outlet—who started it all for me. I may not write about music all that much these days, but I still work in journalism, a career I never expected I’d end up in, and one entirely kick-started by music.

That said, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say there’s a throughline from watching Arctic Monkeys play in Studio 8H on TV that night to my current job. Hell, you could even go as far to say that single performance changed the course of my life. A little hyperbole, sure, and maybe some other song or album could’ve done the trick, too, but there’s more truth to it than you’d think.

Fifteen is the typical age when pop-culture touchstones start to cement. Yes, there’s loads of cringey stuff from our high school years that we’d love to forget or pretend we never liked, but some of the albums and songs that came out back then are the ones that stick with us for the rest of our lives (just ask my dad, who saw Led Zeppelin around this time).

To say Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not—and this SNL performance in particular—hit me like a pile of bricks is an understatement. It’s what made me, well, me. And with Arctic Monkeys, a band I’ve grown up with and aged alongside ever since, returning with their seventh album, The Car, it’s nice to hear some old friends again. And what can I say, I’ve known ‘em for a long, long time …

Steven Edelstone is the former album reviews editor at Paste and has written for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and more. All he wants is to get a shot and beer combo once this all blows over. You can follow him on Twitter.

Listen to a 2014 talk with Alex Turner from the Paste archives below.