What is Cornerstone by Arctic Monkeys about?

16 November 2020, 20:11

We take a look at one of the Sheffield band’s most-loved tracks, and one of the biggest misconceptions about it.

Cornerstone was the second single to be taken from Arctic Monkeys' Humbug album.

Released on 16 November 2009 and made available in vinyl at Oxfam stores, the song tells a story of love lost and the desire to re-live the past. The video, directed by The IT Crowd actor Richard Ayoyade, is simplicity itself: Alex Turner is alone in a white room, wearing a very retro pair of headphones and singing the words into a microphone.

With their Josh Homme-produced Humbug album packing a serious punch, Alex Turner sought to bring something different to the record... and boy did he deliver.

Arctic Monkeys Cornerstone single artwork
Arctic Monkeys Cornerstone single artwork. Picture: Press

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True to form, Turner kept things very real as he speaks in the first person on the single, while seemingly invoking the sights of his hometown.

The opening lyrics "I thought I saw you in the Battleship / But it was only a look-a-like," sees the narrator spot what he thinks is an ex in a town centre pub before he realises it isn't her.

As we move through the track we see him come across more apparitions of his former lover, all "close enough to be (her) ghost," before realising they were just simple "vision trick(s)".

The cheeky narrator gives it a fair crack though, approaching each woman and getting further with each one until he asks if he can call them by his ex's name... Which as you can imagine, goes down like a lead balloon. 

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"She was close, close enough to be your ghost / But my chances turned to toast / When I asked her if I could call her your name"

However, the last two verses turn things up a notch- seeing the narrator bumping into his ex's sister, and getting as close to her as he possibly can. 

And, although he's been unsuccessful throughout the track, it's of course at this moment that he turns the song completely on its head, seeing his ex's sister agree to take part in his twisted fantasy.

Arctic Monkeys at MTV in August 2009
Arctic Monkeys at MTV in August 2009. Picture: Andy Willsher/Redferns/Getty Images

But what about the title of the track? Does it allude to an actual place?

It's often thought that the Cornerstone, Battleship, The Rusty Hook and The Parrot's Beak are real-life pubs in Sheffield, and evidence of Turner's real-life pub crawl.

However, a quick search confirms there are no pubs in his hometown with these names - although there has been a counselling service called Cornerstone in Sheffield since 2006.

Though some forums try to make links between his verses and real-life watering holes, such as the Ship Inn, The Milestone and The Frog & Parrot, it's probably just easier to afford the frontman with some poetic license.

Alex Turner performing with Arctic Monkeys at All Points West festival in New Jersey, 2009
Alex Turner performing with Arctic Monkeys at All Points West festival in New Jersey, 2009. Picture: Theo Wargo/WireImage/Getty Images

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With the pub names being fictional, we might assume that the story itself was simply a figment of Alex Turner's imagination.

However, it wouldn't be a stretch to think the lyrics drew in some way from his romantic life.

Speaking to Uncut about the track in 2009, he said: I wrote Cornerstone one morning, quite quickly. There’s something to be said for writing in the morning. At other points in the day you’re a bit more defensive. I saw it as a challenge to write something in a major key, but that wasn’t cheesy."

He later explained to New York magazine that he was listening to a lot of country music at the time, which "had that formula where the verses always end the same way. That happens a lot in Patsy Cline tunes.

"I started with the line ‘I smelt your scent on the seat belt.’ In reality, I was sitting in the back of a taxi and I got this scent in my nostrils of whomever I was longing for."

Turner concluded: "Not to sound like a wanker, but with that song, I had an idea and it wrote itself. I’m not sure how I ended up with the girl’s sister in the last verse, though. When I was in school, I think I probably fancied my girlfriend’s sister or something.”

A screenshot of Alex Turner in Arctic Monkeys' Cornerstone video
A screenshot of Alex Turner in Arctic Monkeys' Cornerstone video. Picture: YouTube/Domino Recordings Co.

So was the track simply a challenge for Mr. Turner, or was it a genuine tale of the morning after the night before? And has he ever gotten with an ex's sister?

While we'll probably never know the answer to these questions, one thing's for certain. The Humbug classic is one of the most-loved and revered tracks from the band's back catalogue.

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