I’ve been planning to write about The Strokes for a while and now seems a more ample time than ever following the release of ‘Comedown Machine’. The Strokes hold a large amount of relevance for me personally because I grew up with this band’s music, they were my first idols, the first band whose music I would seek out at all costs, the first prized poster on the wall. Yet a decade later my relationship with their music has changed and they now represent an end point for me musically and also an interesting story that I feel is important to document. I’ll split it into 3 parts, here we’ll deal with that infamous debut Is This It.
It was my sister who picked up the CD (Is This It) and asked ‘have you heard this?’, using the sort of tone where you feel you should be saying yes, yet honesty prevailed and I said no. My sister having taken it upon herself to direct me musically (my taste was intrinsically linked with the top 40, not a good thing round the turn of the millennium) , strode to the HMV counter and a couple of hours later my Strokes love affair had commenced.
For me at 10/11 it was a perfect record, one I could play from start to finish. Even the fairly weary eponymous opener was an instant classic for me…(the bassline was one I would steal for my own band a few years later). Though, frankly I had no idea what Julian Casablancas was talking about. Partially because I didn’t care/understand and partially because his vocals sound like they were recorded through an amplified ashtray, I just knew they were excellent for picturing oneself fronting a cool band in a leather jacket…a satisfying image for a 10 year old from Blackpool. The fact that The Strokes could appeal to someone who had grown up predominantly on chart music like The Spice Girls shows how accessible this record was. Their image was also fantastic, I remember opening up the sleeve notes and seeing the band with their slightly disheveled elegance, cigarettes in mouth…willfully rebellious like the racey cover itself. It was one of those instances where a band could be adopted to flaunt your own rebellion and your own chic pretences and I, like many others, did so with vigour.
In retrospect this was a truly great debut, a consistent record that illustrated ‘the rock and roll condition’ so perfectly, hectic lives, romance, booze…beautiful people playing dirty music. It also appeared at the perfect time, music had become fairly sterile around the Millenium, there was still interesting experimentation (look no further than Radiohead) but alternative music was really pining for a poster guitar band. The media wanted somebody they could get behind. Who could fit the bill more perfectly than The Strokes? Indeed The Strokes (along with the White Stripes’) rise to fame was really a microcosm of Punk’s emergence out of prog/glam rock, the rise of visceral and direct music over the abstract and obscure.
The treatment by the media of this record was in the end a poison pill, placing this record on a podium that the band themselves could never again reach. Something not entirely helped by its unfortunate title. In fact the issue with creating a record with 11 consistent and fantastic tracks is most people then expect a catalogue of exactly the same, it soon became clear that this was something that the Strokes couldn’t and didn’t particularly want to do. They were described as messiahs, saviours and bastions of hope meaning, as pointed out by Ryan Schreiber, there was nowhere for the band to go but down. They truly were victims of a hype hungry media machine. In the same article Schreiber explains why they cannot be compared to the Rolling Stones etc as rock and roll legends. Though I agree to an extent I believe there was something truly brilliant about ‘Is this it’ and that was how it made guitar music cool again. The Rolling Stones operated in a time when guitar music was dominant…6 strings were in fashion. The Strokes on the other hand were a band out of context, manufactured pop was in the ascendancy.This is why ‘Is This It’ is worthy of praise, because it demonstrated why guitar music is cool in effortless fashion and made it centrally relevant when guitar music had already had its era.
A habit of journalists in retrospective and often critical reviews of ‘Is This it’ is to give a great deal of attention of the wealthy privileged background of the band. What is more rare is for the journalist to explain what effect or relevance this has upon the music (John Doran’s NME article is one of the few that actually tries). Even so, said privilege does not permeate through this album nor does it explain its success. They were rich kids slumming it, but there was no pretence to some sort of working class authenticity. Is This It was an exciting, straightforward record for a lot of people and for me personally an excellent gateway into rock and roll in general. Indeed one need go no further than an arsey review of Is This It to find a lowdown of the who’s who of rock and roll and why The Strokes are inferior to them.
Each track on Is This It features the same four instruments and the same stripped back production…it is simple, energetic guitar music. There is no attempt to cut to the heart of what it is to be human, or the awfulness of modernity, rather it described what it was to be The Strokes or Julian Casablancas. Yet without even really trying Casablancas could encapsulate things we could all relate to, hence the success of lastnite. Its not only an excellently structured pop song but through the shouted delivery of one word Casablancas tapped into the collective feeling of regret and recollection of a thousand boozy nights caused and solved with alcohol… He thereby wrote the first guitar-driven dancefloor essential of the millennium. Is This It is a brash,gutter recording seemingly making it the antithesis of the slick pop sound but it retains those pop sensible melodies which the recording quality stand in contradiction to. Whether this is merely coincidental or deliberate I think remains unclear, but it is this combination which made it my record of choice. I guess what is saddest about Is This It and is something which as their career continues permeates every listen, is that it sets a high point for the band that they would never again reach.