The Arctic Monkeys’ sixth album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, released in 2018, opens with the line: “I just wanted to be one of the Strokes/Now look at the mess you made me make”. It’s a lyric that speaks directly to the impact the New York rock band had on culture in the 2000s. The Strokes were in many ways responsible for the return of faded denim, long, scruffy hair, bands in suits and soaring post-punk songs about sex and youth that could make you feel impossibly free.
When they appeared on the scene, childhood friends Julian Casablancas, Albert Hammond Junior, Nick Valensi, Nikolai Fraiture and Fabrizio Moretti were touted as a band who could take over the world. The hype grew when their debut album, Is This It, was released first in Australia, 20 years ago this month. At the time, as Pitchfork noted in its review of the band’s second record, the buzz around Is This It left “everyone forced to choose sides: ‘saviours of rock!’ or ‘everything that’s wrong with music today!’”. Whichever you take, it’s difficult to imagine what the 2000s would have looked and sounded like without
The circumstances of Is This It’s arrival were not obviously remarkable. Lizzy Goodman in her oral history of the 2000s New York rock scene, Meet Me in the Bathroom, paints the early band as a group of affluent but troubled teenage boys living in the city in the late 1990s, jaded by school and obsessed with bands such as Metallica and Nirvana. Like many before and since, they decided to start making music themselves. Initially, they could hardly play their instruments, Casablancas couldn’t sing and they all already drank too much. But they did have access to money and so they frequented bars, parties and gigs, always together. By 1998 they were the Strokes, desperately handing out flyers for their shows.
[See also: How I learned to love the Rolling Stones]
They were determined, practising day after day, aiming for perfection. Playing live, the Strokes are a well-oiled machine who seem almost bored; Casablancas slouches around the stage in mumbly chaos. (“Work hard and say it’s easy,” he offers on “The Modern Age”.) It was in part his strange charisma, along with the group’s innate chemistry, that drew people to the band, made them want to be part of the gang (in the 2004 documentary, In Transit, they all emit an irresistible goofiness). Their outfits and scrawny good looks were key – this was aesthetic as well as aural. The band’s socio-economic status played a role, too. But maybe as much as any of that, it was good timing.
By the late 1990s mainstream rock music in the US was dominated by nu-metal and pop-punk, while the popularity of alternative rock bands such as Pixies and Pavement, along with the riot grrrl scene, had faded. In the UK, nothing had filled the post-Britpop vacuum. In terms of innovative music, hip hop, R&B and dance were dominating: rock ’n’ roll was in need of something new. In January 2001 the Strokes delivered exactly that, albeit by channelling something old. The Modern Age EP cemented their sound, shedding their looser, grungier influences for slick garage rock and echoes of the Velvet Underground. There was a bidding war between record labels and then, at last, there was Is This It.
From the ringing sound before the opening bars (urban legend says it’s the song “Someday”, which appears later on the record, sped up), the album accelerates away. Refined nonchalance gives way to exhilarating melodies with simple but hefty drums; Casablancas flits between smooth, bluesy tones and scratchy yelps. Sure, the band were po-faced, but at its core this is a fun record about New York, reckless youth, parties, alcohol, drugs, sex and romance.
None of these things were even possibilities for me when I first heard it as a repressed brown kid living in rural England. I was nine years old and busy with R&B, pop and dubious rap-rock when Is This It came out. Still, I recall being drawn to that CD stacked on the shelves in Woolworths, giggling with a friend about the unforgettable black and white cover art, with a leather-gloved hand resting on a body part that could, to our eyes, have been a knee or a bum.
A few years later I would actively seek out the Strokes and become enamoured with Casablancas’ chocolatey voice, and the tautness of Fraiture’s bass, Moretti’s drums and Hammond’s guitar up against the almost masturbatory zigzagging lead guitar of Valensi. More than that, there was a yearning in the record, which made me feel like a different kind of life might be waiting for me. Embarrassingly, I would years later have a fleeting romance centred on a mutual adoration of the band, as we curled up watching YouTube videos of concerts.
There’s romance, but there’s also a casual lecherousness to Is This It that’s hard to ignore, as it harks back to the heyday of “rock ’n’ roll culture”. On “Barely Legal”, Casablancas describes his lust for someone who has just come of age (“I wanna steal your innocence”). And then there’s that cover. As Louise Benson put it in Elephant magazine: “Objectification doesn’t come much purer than the cover of Is This It.”
Certainly, the album feels like it’s from another era, right before everything changed. Between Is This It’s release in Australia and its arrival in the US in October 2001, the 9/11 attacks happened, and the cultural optimism of the year 2000 was diminishing. The track “New York City Cops”, with its refrain “New York City cops, ain’t too smart”, was, understandably, removed; the cover art was changed to account for a more puritanical American audience. Is This It marked year-zero for a rebirth of New York cool, encouraging the Arctic Monkeys and many others to make music, and allowing existing groups – Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the White Stripes, the Libertines – to come into their own, with the industry suddenly willing to get behind them. Later in the decade, it would also give rise to a somewhat cynical scene populated by British bands such as Razorlight, the Fratellis and the Kooks, retrospectively reviled as “landfill indie”.
To attribute the success of Is This It purely to timing is to do the Strokes a disservice. It came out hot, sleek and fully formed: 37 flawless minutes. It offered a statement on what the genre could be, and reminded us of the recurrent nature of the pop vs rock cycle. Of course, the Strokes didn’t “save” rock music in 2001: no band could live up to that kind of hype. But this didn’t stop them, and many others after, from trying.
This article appears in the 21 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Chinese century