Ten Years On: A Love Letter To The Strokes' Is This It

A decade after the release of their debut album ‘Is This It’ The Strokes are just as relevant for no greater reason than they keep banality at bay.
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A decade after the release of their debut album ‘Is This It’ The Strokes are just as relevant for no greater reason than they keep banality at bay.

In June 2001 the front page of NME screamed out; 'Why New York's finest will change your life - forever'.

It's not the kind of statement an eighteen year old should ignore. I instantly wanted to know what made this band special. As is the way with hype, I expected to listen, scoff, and dismiss. I went out and bought the single at a time when such an effort was still required to 'own' music. 'Hard to Explain' backed by 'New York City Cops'. It took two listens. One to adjust to the quick paced, scratch guitar punk with melodic beauty and attitude. The second to become accustomed to the drawl vocals of Julian Casablancas, lyrics pouring out of him with a 'couldn't give a fuck what you think' delivery.

The Strokes. I'd never heard anything like it. At that age you aren't as musically enriched as you think. The Ramones might have escaped your research, and 'Television' is only something you watch. Oasis were bloating, cocaine indulged and 'Standing on the Shoulder of Giants' with 'Little James'. The Verve had come and gone again all too quickly, whilst the same NME cover also wanted you to be excited about the new Travis album. Driftwood indeed.

The Strokes burst through the Limp Bizkit bullshit bravado to awaken music whilst Radiohead had amnesia.

They instantly mattered. They still f**kin do.

Such relevance isn't diluted by their wealthy background band and their music is no less hungry for it. Julian's father was the founder of Elite model agency, a fact repeatedly slung at the front man during early interviews. In the perfect band model, this was sighted as the chink in their armour. Working class heroes they aren't, although the silver spoon wasn't all that polished. "It's not like we were posh kids who drove fancy cars or anything. You've got to have money to live in Manhattan, but we still hung out on the street and drank 40s".

Working class heroes they aren't, although the silver spoon wasn't all that polished.

Such behaviour saw Julian "fucking up school" and he was sent away to the same private establishment that his dad had attended in Switzerland. It was "The biggest culture shock of his life", but it was also were The Strokes were conceived, with Albert Hammond Junior also in attendance due to similar discipline problems in his home town of LA.

Back in New York, both attended Dwight School on Manhattan's Upper West where they met Nick Valensi, Nikolai Fraiture and Fabrizio Moretti. The Strokes were born and during 1999 they spent six months rehearsing locked in away in a studio in the rough Manhattan district of Hells Kitchen. If they weren't rehearsing here the band would could be found in, or falling out of, their favourite bar A2, on the upper East side.

After the start out gigs to a man and his dog the band soon nailed down a regular spot at the Mercury Lounge, where they acquired a small fan base and a sixth stroke in the form of manager Ryan Gentles. Gentles sent out demos to would be suitors, which attracted the attention of Geoff Travis at Rough Trade in London, who would issue their first release and invite them over to London.

I fell for The Strokes at the same time I fell for the city that is at the heart of the band and their sound. Both enhanced my love for the other, as that summer I saw New York for the first time. I wanted to see the city this was coming from, and shortly after looking down to earth from the top of the world trade centre, I went into a record store somewhere between Wall Street and Mid-town and bought 'The Modern Age EP'. Back tracking to their first release, I found demo versions of 'The Modern Age', 'Barely Legal' and 'Last Nite'. The songs were so fantastically instant that even on first listen, you felt as though you'd heard them before. Because you'd always wanted to. The EP cemented my obsession and sparked a record label bidding war that was won by a seven-figure offer.

"We didn't sit in the meeting room and say. 'let's do this New York sound'. Little by little I've realised that the music you make is totally influenced by your surroundings. The tension in New York definitely translates into what we're doing. I love New York, but you get so fucking aggressive about everything". (Julian Casablancas, NME, May 2001).

New York makes The Strokes better. It's a city that knows it’s the centre of the earth without caring if you believe it to be true. You can feel the buzz on the streets every time you step outside, as the whole world goes on around you. That buzz is so ingrained in every Strokes record that it might as well be an instrument. Attitude drips off the New Yorker by way of self-belief, instilled by their city, and it pours out at every gig they've ever done and the countless confrontations the band encountered early on. A gang mentality grew over street brawls, fuck yous and middle fingers. Together they were conquering the world or fighting it, but they were having a time either way. The coolest new band in the world were also the best of friends, constantly hugging. It was 'fucking A'.

"We really like girls, but it's almost as if we like each other better. We'll definitely go get laid, but we won't hang out with the girl and be like 'Oh, I love you', we'll go straight back to the band. We work hard at getting along. We want to have fun and we want to be with each other much more than having fame and all the rest of that fucking bullshit."

Skinny jeans. Converse. Leather jacket. That was all them. You couldn't go to a gig without seeing five kids wearing the same Ramones t shirt, thinking they were individually cool even though they didn't know who The Ramones were and every other children's TV presenter was wearing the same. Rip your denim. The Strokes are. The band always dressed like they were on stage. Now everyone else was dressing like they were in The Strokes.

New York makes The Strokes better. It's a city that knows it’s the centre of the earth without caring if you believe it to be true.

The debut album 'Is this it' was released in the UK on August 27th, 2001. Eleven perfect garage rock and roll songs without a lull over it's thirty six minute duration. Right from the off, Julian's sounds gloriously like he's been out all night in the city that never sleeps and has the tales to back it up. You cant help but want to hear all about them.

"Can't you see I'm trying? I don't even like it. I just lied to get to your apartment."

"You ain't never had nothing I wanted, but I want it all"

Julian knows you'll be interested, but if you're not, well, whatever. 'Take it or leave it'. You took it of course, and played the thing again and again until you knew the songs so well that you felt apart of the crazy drunken nights being referred to.

"Even though it was only one night, it was fucking strange". The success of the album in the UK was never in doubt. We had taken to the band before the rest of the world had caught on and were well won over by the time the album came around. Recognition at home had not been so forthcoming, and as the album saw it's US release delayed from September 25th to early October as a result of September 11th, there was the understandable possibility that such an important record could vanish amongst the grief. So to avoid any possible offence, 'New York City Cops' and the cover art were replaced, as Jay Mclnerney of New York Magazine wrote in 2006, offence was certainly not taken:

"The Strokes debut album became part of the fabric of that autumn of "missing" posters and anthrax scares, when the air downtown smelled like oven cleaner".

I first saw The Strokes at Brixton in 2002. The gig was as short as the album. That's all they had. That's all they needed. When each song sees you clench your fist with life affirming tightness then 45 minutes will do nicely cheers. You scream every word, fully aware that this is it. Smiles replace speech. They took that New York buzz and set fire to it in front of your very eyes. One of those nights.

We should probably clear one thing up here; The Strokes have never released a bad album. They are all masterpieces.

The second album, 'Room on Fire' (2003), was never going to be as well received as 'Is this it'. As with each subsequent release, it became easy to dismiss the Strokes with a 'its not as good as the first album' ignorance. Fuck me - how could it be? Julian, purposely a difficult interviewee, thought the press refrained from praising the album because the band 'weren't sucking dick'. They shouldn't have had to, as songs like '12:51'. and 'Reptillia' more than speak for themselves.

There was an upside to the incorrectly perceived loss of form of which continued with the release of their third album, 'First Impressions of Earth' in 2006. It allowed The Strokes to shed their skin of hype all together. To delete from their fan base those that were only there for 'Last Nite' in the same way Kings of Leon could do with losing their 'Sex on Fire' bandwagon.  And a year or two off. Those that didn't have the patience to love 'Juicebox' or 'Red Light', it was their loss.

With each subsequent release, it became easy to dismiss the Strokes with a 'its not as good as the first album' ignorance.

The songs were heavier and darker in places. Five years of being in best band in the world and all that that brings saw cracks emerge.

"I hate them all, I hate them all. I hate myself for hating them, so I'll drink some more".

On 'Is this is it' The Strokes were "in the sun sun having fun", and now they couldn't even see it.

The habitual cliche of a drug affected rock n roll band really took hold as The Strokes disappeared. Relations frayed on the back of success-inflated egos. Julian was drinking too much, a dictator whose control was being challenged by the rest of the band who wanted their part to be more significant. The gang mentality, that vital part of the early magic, had strained. Early photos of The Strokes as five best friends, wrapped around each other were replaced by solo projects and much needed time apart.

Back in 2001, music needed The Strokes more than The Strokes needed music. These weren't poor boys singing for their supper who would have gone wanting had the band not made it, but music would have.

Inferior bands were found out. Once you've had The Strokes you aren't going to suffer Toploader and you don't give a fuck why it always rains on Travis. Sure, shit still exists, it always will do. U2 will make sure of that. But it's thanks to The Strokes that, whilst they were away, those that they inspired helped keep the likes of Hard-Fi irrelevant.

The Strokes kicked down the door for the The White Stripes, and helped Jack and Meg through it. Four bearded kids from Nashville, Tennessee, would not have broke through with 'Molly's Chambers' had it not been for 'New York's finest'. In the UK, The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys career paths were both chosen after seeing gigs of their lives:

Alex Turner: The Strokes were really a big deal for us. That was a gateway to a lot of other music for me. There is always that one band that comes along when you are 14 or 15 years old that manages to hit you in just the right way and changes your whole perception of things.”

Pete Doherty: When we saw The Strokes, it was proof that you could still do it. They looked like they were mates, they’ were enjoying it and it was just cool, you know? It seemed natural so it was proof you could still do it, you could still get away with it. You just stick together and keep going. It was inspirational."

And now they're back. Dominating festival line ups with a brand new album that it was feared might never see the light.

So what if they aren't as close off stage? People grow up, get married and grow apart.

Reading and Leeds await next month, whilst the fourth album 'Angles' arrived in March, unsurprisingly brilliant.

With the passing of a decade it has even avoided the tired comparisons to their debut. That tiredness is evident in 'Undercover of Darkness', as Julian sings "I’ve been out around this town and everybody’s been singing the same song ten years", surely in reference to 'Last Nite'.

'Machu Picchu', 'Taken for a fool' and 'Undercover of Darkness' are as good as anything from their back catalogue, and have fitted seamlessly into the greatest hits set played at festival outings already this year. The darker side of 'First impressions of Earth' seems lifted, with lyrics, such as "Oh baby don’t you be so mad because I barely remember" on 'Gratisfaction', this despite the manner in which the album was recorded.

Following the tension of their third album, 'Angles' was five years in waiting as the band struggled to find a way to work together. A far more democratic unit with songs from every corner, the album also saw Julian work separately from the rest of the band, laying his vocals down at the very end, the rest of the band liberated by his absence. However it had to be made, thank fuck it has been. The boys always worked hard at getting along. As they got older, that got harder, but the effort was still made with an innate belief that it was worth the associated bullshit.

They were the first band that made Joe Strummer smile in years when they first played LA, and ten years on The Strokes still matter.

So what if they aren't as close off stage? People grow up, get married and grow apart. They remain as tight as ever where it matters most; on stage, playing the soundtrack to your youth.

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