PHOTO CREDIT: Phil Knott
2001, The Strokes and the Rock Revolution: Has It Ended?
I recently read an article that documents…
IN THIS PHOTO: Julian Casablancas at the soundcheck at Radio City/PHOTO CREDIT: Colin Lane
the rise and decline of New York’s The Strokes. You can read it here – but is taken from Lizzy Goodman’s book, Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City, 2001–2011. LCD Soundsystem lead, James Murphy, when talking about The Strokes’ seminal album, Is This It, had this to say:
“Is This It was my record of the decade. Whenever people pooh-pooh it, I’m like, “You’re saying that now, but I guarantee you you’re going to have a barbecue in ten years, play that shit, and say, ‘I love this record.’ ”
In 1998, five friends – Julian Casablancas and Albert Hammond Jr.; Fariizio Moretti, Nick Valensi and Nikolai Fraiture – formed The Strokes. To me, and many who were really looking out for hot albums in 2001, were a bit dumb-struck by the debut from the boys. There had been, in the years preceding that, nothing as direct raw and flawless. Even the ‘British Strokes’, The Libertines, could not match the same songwriting genius and energy on Up the Bracket. To me, 2001 was a year that saw some of the best music from the past, say, twenty years. I want to look at The Strokes’ debut and its impact; the music that was happening at the same time and whether the band’s decline parallels a downturn in Rock fortunes. First, let me introduce that sixteen-year-old record and how pivotal it is.
One can hardly see a leather jacket-clad, The Strokes-wannabe group and not think of that album. It not only kick-started an amazing band’s career but inspired a legion of Rock hopefuls.
In 2009, NME ranked it as their Album of the Decade – Rolling Stone put it at number two (Radiohead’s Kid A grabbed the honours). Recorded at Transporterraum (not easy to type!) with producer Gordon Raphael; it was released on July 30th, 2001 – RCA Records the primary label promoting it in Australia. With singles Hard to Explain, Someday – and the peerless – Last Nite released as single: small wonder the album was an instant success and talked about in hushed tones.
IN THIS PHOTO: The Strokes and The White Stripes share the stage/PHOTO CREDIT: Colin Lane
The boys, unlike many of their peers, were not concerned with gloss, studio finery and replicating what was popular in the charts. Against the grain of clean and well-dressed Rock boys – those generic, processed riffs and goody-goody attitudes – here was a genuine Rock band that recalled the Punk energy of the Ramones and Sex Pistols. Like our very own Libertines; the guys were tight, brotherly and in pursuit of music’s tail – that desire to get their leg over and give Rock a proper seeing-to. No vulgarity and lewdness lingered in Is This It. With no question mark in that album title, there was less a curious nature and more a definitive statement. That sense of exhaustion and haughty exasperation could be found throughout the record. The tightness, immediacy and unburdened nature of the album’s tracks were not instantly realised when the New York band stepped into the studio. The guys, building off their E.P., The Modern Age, collated live takes in the studio and wanted their debut album to have that fresh and uncluttered sound – appropriately backing songs that looked at modern youth, city existence and uncertain relationships.
Songwriter Casablancas documented a youth that had its fair share of heartache, sexual excitement and self-discovery.
Although the album cover courted controversy – sexually-suggestive and quite evocative – it was indicative of an album that had its trousers unzipped but never swung ‘it’ in one’s face. Reviewers were full of praise for The Strokes’ skilful charisma and rhythms – recalling the finest Garage-Rock work of the 1970s. In spite of the wonderful finished product; early work with Pixies producer Gil Norton reached a plateau. The boys felt the results of the sessions were too clean and pretentious. The three songs they recorded with Norton were scrapped and Raphael was drafted in. Down in that East Village studio – poor infrastructure and crap lighting – the guys had an edgy and authentic New York space with modern Pro Tools hardware at their fingertips.
At the time, Casablancas claimed he wrote songs to touch people. So many formulaic and predictable songwriters remained: he was the antidote that offered more personalisation, physicality and originality. The Strokes wanted to make a record that was modern and geared for demands of the new century but harked back to the 1970s and a golden time for Rock/Punk. More studied and meticulous than their E.P.; The Strokes’ six-week period in the studio placed emphasis on that gritty sound and raw efficiency – capturing the feeling of improvisation and live performances but possessing discipline and a sense of structure.
The band label and promoters felt Is This It lacked a professional sound – translate: not glossy and commercial enough – and were placated when they were played the album through a boom-box.
The Strokes showed how professional and sharp they were and not a band that were in it for the money. All the songs on Is This It were mixed using eleven audio tracks or fewer. The title track was an attempt at a ballad while The Modern Age included a contemporary guitar line; Barely Legal is softer and takes from the melodies of Britpop. There were some 1980s drum sounds and a decades-splice that thrilled young and experienced audiences upon its release. Upon its release, the album was a commercial success in the U.K. but only made it so number seventy-one on the charts – perhaps indicating how unreliable they were/are. Despite slow sales figures and meagre chart positions (in the U.S., too) the band’s performances on T.V. and increased publicity pushed up sales and, by 2004, saw it certified Platinum in Canada. Is This It, perhaps, picked up new relevance following the terrorist attacks of 11th September – a need to rally together and stand tall – but its arrival coincided with one of the most anxious and unsure times in America’s history.
PHOTO CREDIT: Stewart Isbell
Following its release, critics proclaimed it a modern masterpiece. Noting its fresh sound and punchy beats; the grooves and swaggering vocals: a record that got into the brain and filled the body with every sinew of its nuanced existence. It was a record that had not been heard for many years and thrilled audiences. The Punk and Rock spirit remained and that confidence impressed critics.
The Strokes drew inspiration from ‘70s bands like The Velvet Underground but, rather than replicate it, merely nodded to it.
Looking at it sixteen years down the line: it still sounds intoxicating and timeless. Is This It is as relevant and needed now as it was back in 2001 – perhaps more, I would say. I have alluded to that book that recalls the start and downward shift of one of music’s Rock innovators. Suroosh Alvi (co-founder of Vice Media), in the book, looked back and recalled the impact of The Strokes debut:
“For all the talk about the Strokes, how they fucked it up, that their records suck now, there is still no one cooler. They are still the last imprint of that particular brand of rock cool. They are the last real rock stars. And live, they’re still so spectacular. They don’t do anything, they just stand up there and kill it. I saw them at Coachella right before that MSG show and Julian was like, “I just flew in, I don’t know what the fuck is going on, I just got on my gold-plated jet.” Such a bored rock star. And then he gets onstage and doesn’t do anything but kill it”.
I will come to look at the albums that were in competition with Is This It in 2001 but, looking at the band’s decline and cracks; Casablancas had a theory:
“My biggest regret in general is that I drank so much. I warded off any kind of intense introspection”.
Perhaps some bad influence hanging with the band – Albert Hammond Jr. recalls how Ryan Adams brought heroin to the band’s apartments and created a sense of baggage – but there was a feeling of success getting to the head, perhaps. Maybe that critical attention and expectation was too pressurising for a band who wanted to make honest and simple music. In a sense, that pressure is their own fault for being so good – one can sympathise with a group who wanted to remain grounded and pure but had that acclaim and spotlight in their face.
IN THIS PHOTO: Jack White, Nick Valensi and Nikolai Fraiture at a soundcheck/PHOTO CREDIT: Colin Lane
To me, Is This Is, is an album that should act as a blueprint for all modern music – I will come to that in a bit. I wanted to highlight 2001 because, like other years in music, it is defined by a monumental quality and variation. Sure, each year unveils some terrific albums but 2001 saw some of modern music’s most influential records come to the surface. In that one year alone, we were treated to Radiohead’s Amnesiac; Björk’sVespertine and Basement Jaxx’s Rooty. Throw in Missy Elliott’s E… So Addictive and you have an incredible year for music. Perhaps that turn-of-the-century curiosity and energy led to that explosion and quality. To me, Rock showed how inspiring and strong it was. Radiohead’s Amnesiac was less experimental and electronic than predecessor Kid A. Muse released the mighty Origins of Symmetry and proving themselves to be one of the strongest and exceptional groups in Britain.
Not only were British bands making big waves in the Rock ocean but in the U.S., too. The White Stripes unveiled White Blood Cells: arguably one of their strongest albums and an incredible statement.
Like, Is This It; it relied on a certain lo-fi authenticity and need for organic and pure music. I am not sure whether The White Stripes gave The Strokes confidence to release an album like Is This It but there was definitely something in the air. Maybe it was a natural continuation from the 1990s and the consistency and innovation that defined the decade. 2001 was a big and crucial year for Rock that not only launched The Strokes to the world but proved an apex for proper, gritty guitar music. Maybe a certain hedonism and pressure caused rifts in The Strokes but, perhaps, they had reached a peak that early. I know the band have released some terrific albums since Is This It but were they born at a time when Rock/music was at its finest? Subsequent years saw changes and new demands; music was altering and the band, in a bid to remain surprising and evolving, had to push away from their debut template. They could not well replicate that debut note-for-note and expect to remain relevant and credible.
IN THIS PHOTO: The album cover to The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells
In my view, the sound of Rock music, back in 2001, was as exciting and pure as it was in the 1970s. The 1990s saw a raft of terrific guitar bands here and in the U.S. – the likes of Pavement and Supergrass – so there were doubts the start of the next decade could reach those heights. Is This It not only was the peak of 2001 but of The Strokes’ career – a watermark they could not live up to in subsequent years. Whilst the band’s changing fortunes are expertly detailed in Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City, 2001–2011 – it is clear The Strokes had formulated an alchemy that was hugely needed in 2001 – it is desperately needed in 2017. I have looked at 2001 and the background to The Strokes’ debut. Between then and now, there have been some fantastic Rock albums but, I feel, we are not taking lessons from the mantle laid down by the New York band.
I am a big fan of Royal Blood – they have just released the second single from their upcoming album, How Did We Get So Dark? – but there has been criticism levied at them.
Like The Strokes; they take inspiration from the 1970s and Punk and instilled that into their music. I have mentioned The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells: an album I can hear in a lot of Royal Blood’s songs. The problem is, there is something lacking in Royal Blood. I love them because their sound if beefy, riff-heavy and hits the spot. In sexual terms, it rips the clothes off and gets to the point – minus any seduction or sense of tease. The Strokes, and their minimalist, youthful update on the Punk template, had layers, melody and multiple layers – the equivalent of a nice dinner, a throughout foreplay workout and a much-needed hard shag. It was the complete experience: Royal Blood lack a lot of the sensibility we need to embrace in Rock.
IN THIS PHOTO: Ryan Adams, Valensi, Amanda de Cadenet; Marissa Ribisi, Beck and Jack White in The Strokes’ dressing room after Radio City show/PHOTO CREDIT: Colin Lane
I bring The White Stripes into the conversation because, like The Strokes, their albums – Is This It in the case of The Strokes – had softer moments and strayed into ballads. There were those fret-punishing jams and songs that caught you singing along. I know Royal Blood create catchy and crowd-pleasing songs but, if they are to reach the same heights as The White Stripes you have to ask where is that depth and variation? The Strokes, even on their debut, were keen to stretch their palette and created a rounded and wide-ranging record. On White Blood Cells, there were acoustic guitars, pianos and a nice blend of romantic and angered. One wonders whether we will hear any of those compositional elements in How Did We Get So Dark? If the Brighton duo simply rehashes their debut – different songs but the same basic structure – that will not wash with critics. There are criticisms the duo have not evolved sufficiently over the last few years and are making music for the big festivals and arenas. That is fine but you want to proffer a Rock band who are keen to fill a small and sweaty club underneath a railway bridge – something sweaty and exhilarating but imbued with that utilitarianism and adaptability.
The Strokes’ stripped and live-sounding debut contained few baubles and did not need to rely on bombast and volume to get critics drooling.
I fear the likes of Royal Blood are symptomatic of the way Rock music is going. I contest Rock is not dead and is constantly relevant but the quality is definitely not as high as it should be. The White Stripes impressed – for many reasons besides – because of that uniformity and streamlined approach – recording tracks on guitar and drums (with some piano here and there) on simple and basic technology. Whilst Jack White – through his solo work and side projects The Dead Weather and The Raconteurs – has not weakened as a songwriter; he has dropped that aesthetic of The White Stripes – a modern-day musician who is unafraid to add a bit of gloss to the mix.
PHOTO CREDIT: Colin Lane
I maintain Rock is in good enough state but would raise doubts when going for its annual physical. Whereas years like 2001 were notable because of the best Rock albums: now, genres like Hip-Hop, R&B and Rap are much more influential. There is no doubt the calibre of the artists is accountable for this but is there little credible opposition from the Rock community? I have highlighted bands like The Amazons and IDLES but one suspects they are in the minority. Away from the underground hopefuls and spirited newcomers; who in the mainstream is capable of producing an album as peerless and necessary as Is This It? The reason The Strokes were so celebrated on their debut album was how exciting and unexpected everything was. A new band should not be this far ahead and accomplished as this?!
Maybe technological rise and changing marketing methods mean there is a greater demand for something quite disposable and fast.
Perhaps it is hard writing something like Is This It without replicating it and sounding fraudulent. It is tricky but would not be so far-fetched to ask for a modern-day equivalent of that album. As I said, there were some other terrific Rock records in 2001 – it wasn’t all about the New York band. Today, tastes are shifting and new Rock bands like Royal Blood seem to signify a general fatigue and lack of ideas in the genre. I, as I said, love the chunky riffs and instant choruses – those boys know how to end a song, too! – but I want something I can stick on a record player and get the same feeling I did back in 2001. It was the year I started university and was starting to discover great bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes. After 1990s legends like Oasis, Pavement and Supergrass started to quiet and evolve; there was a demand for the new bred to pick up the baton and continue their legacy.
IN THIS PHOTO: Valensi, de Cadenet and Ryan Gentles/PHOTO CREDIT: Colin Lane
Think about the best Rock albums from 2014-now and which ones spring to mind? 2015 produced the mercurial brilliance of Australian Courtney Barnett – and her stunning album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit; last year gave us David Bowie’s Blackstar, whilst we have the promise of a new Queens of the Stone Age album. That is hardly a surprise given the criticism levied at Rock: it is not as productive, fertile and consistent as it should be. As I hinted; there is a division between the mainstream and expectations and the unrestricted music of the underground. Artists like Kendrick Lemar and Beyoncé have made a bigger impression than Rock’s finest. Are the best Rock artists of the underground – who, for all I know, might be creating something as fine as Is This It – seeing their music too cloistered and demure – unable to get to the mainstream because of the shift in tastes? Maybe there is a lack of faith among critics: can we really expect the next Strokes to come along and give Rock the hand-job it deserves?! Forgive my smuttiness but there is that tension and frustration that calls for a great male/female band to step up and make a mark. I have been impressed by Cherry Glazerr, Honeyblood and PINS but feel they have their own fight – the issue of sexism and being as exposed and considered as their male peers. That argument is for another time but it is clear there is a need for a revolution.
Maybe it is impossible to recreate the magic and music of 2001, but we can look back and encourage new bands and artists to learn from an album like Is This It.
Whilst its creators have seen better days and not as relevant as they once were; that is not to say their legacy has gone unnoticed. Whether they are playing in a basement in Brooklyn or noodling in a Leeds studio, I truly hope there is a band out there…
PHOTO CREDIT: Colin Lane
WHO can prove Rock still has the power to awe and innovate.