The Strokes return to Reading and Leeds next weekend after a nine-year leave of absence. A lot has changed in the music world since then. The last time The Strokes headlined they were playing above the long forgotten legends Pulp and Jane’s Addiction, while Muse, The Streets and The Offspring took prominent positions on the….oh, well, you know what they say, the more things change, the more things stay the same.
One thing that certainly hasn’t changed is the importance of Is This It. The debut album that catapulted The Strokes to an elusive headline slot and won them every major accolade that’s worth winning in process. Ten year’s after its release and Is This It’s appeal continues to endure. NME routinely give up entire issues to reflect on its considerable achievements while every critic, from the conservatives at Rolling Stone, to the hipsters at Pitchfork, and the big wigs at the Guardian, consider it one of the most important releases of the last decade.
The Strokes have had considerable success in the years following Is This It’s 2001 release, and there’s no doubting the role “Reptilia”, “Juicebox”, and “Under Cover Of Darkness” have played a in maintaining the New York five piece’s headline status, but when it comes down to it, The Strokes house was built on Is This It, and a band simply couldn’t ask for a stronger foundation.
Why Is This It Is So Special?
What Came Before
The “music is (was) dead” narrative that NME have attempted to profligate is a ridiculous exaggeration and devaluation of the creative output of the late 90s, but it nevertheless rings true on the surface level. What were the coolest Indie records in the year 2000? Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump, Modest Mouse’s The Moon And Antarctica, and of course Radiohead’s Kid A.
They all have one thing in common; they were commercially unsuccessful and anti-mainstream. Modest Mouse’s brilliant career defining opus never reached the heights that Embrace were scaling, Grandaddy were confined to outsider status, and Radiohead practically threw their hands up, declared the indie rock of the 90s dead, and moved on sonically, leaving the mainstream behind.
So if the best records were made on or at the fringe; then who were the faces and what was the sound of indie? (Prepare yourself) Travis, Embrace, Gomez, Beck, Idlewild, Badly Drawn Boy, Supergrass, and Gay Dad.
Now before anyone gets up in arms, some of those bands released tremendous records, but even the most ardent fan would struggle to label mainstream indie at the start of the 2000s exciting, innovative, or culturally relevant (Beck excluded). Well meaning, badly dressed, down beat mopes might be a cruel depiction, but it’s what the general public (and myself as a teenager) saw.
It may have been just two year’s since the release of The Dismemberment Plan’s Emergency & I, but to young people up and down the country, indie had become the soft rock that you’re mum and dad enjoyed.
When The Strokes burst onto the scene in 2001 they seemed like a dream. Their style was impeccable; ragged yet sculpted bed-head hair, rough around the edges leather jackets, tight jeans, converse trainers, and a nonchalant, dismissive New York demeanor married to a deer in the headlights awkward kids’ charm. It’s no wonder the magazines and the press fell in love with them, they appeared cryptic and unexpressive, and they looked like they’d just stumbled off the set of a fashion shoot.
The threat of The Ramones, the intelligence of The Velvet Underground, and left of centre curiosity of Television; it all seemed so exciting then. Today The Strokes look and demeanor has not only been pillaged by every wannabe indie band in existence, but by every high street retailer too. People wanted to look and sound like The Strokes. Baggy Californian outsider chic, gone, nu-metal fake dreads, gone, laddy post-Brit Pop anti-fashion, gone, gone, gone; it was a revolution in the way people dressed. To this day, when you walk down high streets in London, especially in Camden, Hoxton and Brick Lane, you walking into a post-Strokes world. It’s as if you’ve jumped in a time machine and wound up in 1970s New York.
Why is all this fashion so important? Because it struck a chord with people on a subconscious level. Is This It sold just over a million copies, but it influenced penetrated everything and everyone. It wasn’t direct, but whether you walked down the high street, tuned into the radio, or read a magazine, you were seeing and hearing an echo of The Strokes.
It is so important to stress, because it is so easily forgotten; that what is now the norm, was very much the exception in 2001. When we think post-Strokes we think The Libertines, Kings Of Leon, Arctic Monkeys, and a million other bands that never amounted to quite so much, but we should think about the way we dress, what bands look like, their artistic ethos, and who they sound like, and who they don’t.
The Strokes took Britain by storm. If Is This It was a tightly packaged, slice of immaculate apathetic perfectionism, then The Modern Age EP was all that brilliance condensed down into an even tastier morsel. Rather than having eleven tracks to obsess over there were just three, and those three songs (“The Modern Age”, “Last Night” and “Barely Legal”) started a landslide of hype and a record label bidding war.
When Strokesmania erupted it felt like the entire nation was ready and waiting to anoint this rag tag band of detached New Yorkers the savior of music. To say their UK Tour was a triumph was an understatement, it wasn’t so much, what they played, or how they sounded, but who was there, who witnessed the moment, and who you rubbed shoulders with.
Whether you were Kate Moss or Kate from Shoreditch, there was a genuine sense that we were having our collective moment. This was our Beatles, our Sex Pistols, our Smiths, our Britpop, the moment and the movement that would define our era. Unlike Gay Dad, this felt legitimate, and as such, it is very hard to explain just how much The Strokes arrival meant to an entire dissatisfied generation in waiting.
Dissatisfied is the word. Detachment is another, and confused, defeatist apathy is the key. Is This It was an album for generation who had been continually underwhelmed, by love, by life, and most of all by music. Is This It was the perfect title, and the defining gesture, a frustrated sigh, and a rolling of the eyes. It sounds bleak, but it resonated by defining itself against the clichés of music.
Rather than hailing the power of love or raging against the world with spite filled vitriol, The Strokes were simply rational, and confused by a world of contradictions, finding themselves frustrated when looking for compromise and attempting to avoid confrontation (“We’re Not Enemies, We Just Disagree”).
Far from tales of sexual conquest, Is This It felt almost mechanical and frightfully honest. Working hard to secure a glance from the opposite sex, acting respectfullyrather than rolling around like a drunken yob, but lying your way into a girl’s apartment all the same, only to leave her disappointed, frustrated and argumentative.
If sex was a frustration rather than a rush, then love was a sparkles compromise. The sensational “Trying Your Luck” toes the line between romanticism and cynical depression, as Julian struggles with the contradictions that govern and control us. Rather than throwing himself forward in some grand romantic gesture, he raises an eyebrow and asks, almost impatiently, “well, am I your one?”. Admitting that he’s happier on his own, but struggling with the boredom of life, Julian doesn’t so much commit to the woman of this dreams, but throw his lot in with the woman that will simply do, trying his luck with there here and the now. An un-romantic, if not miserable, compromise.
This attitude pervades across the album, undermined and criticized, Julian finds himself tired of trying on “Someday”, deciding to give up and leave as, on reflection, the only thing keeping his relationship together was crippling dependency, leading to the wonderfully sombre realisation “alone we stand, together we fall apart”.
If the album started with the grand defeatist gesture “Is This It” then it ends with an even more poignant statement. Deferring accountability, fed up of posturing and bravado (both male and female), and consumed by a level of hype not seen in a decade, The Strokes final word is not a bold claim, but a shirking of responsibility, a simple question: “Take It Or Leave It”.
Sonically, the album was a wake up call, short (32 minutes in length), and unashamedly minimalist. The drumming is metromonic, the soloing tight, and the hooks understated. Tight is the world, Is This It is precision engineered like the great garage rock albums. It may sound like it was recorded in a skip, but the guitars are jagged, the atmosphere imposingly slight. The guitar lines plunge, counter pointed by subtle burbles of bass. When Nick and Albert do solo, it’s incredibly memorable because it breaks from the norm, a sudden burst of wild expression; the rip snorting solo on “New York City Cops”, the heartbreaking spiral on “Trying Your Luck”, and the vibrant escalation of “Alone Together”.
The Strokes never indulged themselves; they never overstay their welcome, they never self-aggrandize. Whether the mood is one of optimism, acceptance, defeatism or apathy each track lasts exactly as long as it needs to, not a second more, not a second less. If it didn’t need three solos, it didn’t have three solos. If they didn’t need a fill, there wasn’t a fill. Is This It wasn’t an exercise in exaggeration, its subject matter was low key, rational and yet incredibly frustrating, and the sound was simple, spiky and sufficient, almost, but never quite, subdued. This was the sound of real, confused, young people, not loutish lads or technical wizards, and it struck a chord with a generation.
Is This It arrived at the perfect time, flanked by The Libertines Up The Bracket, Interpol’s Turn On The Bright Lights, The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs Fever To Tell, and even The Hives’ Stooges’ inspired Veni Vidi Vicious, music was returning to rawest roots and it felt like a musical revolution was taking root, and…well…it was. The Kings Of Leon, The Killers, Arctic Monkeys, Vampire Weekend, Bloc Party, it all started a here.
In the wake of Kid A indie music found it’s voice, rediscovered it’s past, and with the help of Mike Skinner, Alex Kapranos, and James Murphy it was set to rediscover and conquer the dancefloor. From the depths of dad-rock, to pinnacle of high street dominance, in one simple step, Is This It changed everything.