The Strokes and Debut Living Up to the Hype
In the early hours of February 4, 1999, Amadou Diallo, a young Guinean immigrant to New York, was shot dead by four plainclothes policemen. NYPD officers claimed to open fire when they saw him grab what they believed to be a gun. It was his wallet.
The quartet was acquitted of second degree murder, much to the dismay of an audience increasingly disgusted by the incidents of police brutality and racial profiling.
One of those who was deeply moved at the time was Julian Casablancas, 20, son of Elite Models millionaire John, and the leader of a group made up of such a busy group of young people.
He directed all his fury in a new song, New York cops, and it would be one of the first tracks recorded by The Strokes for their debut album.
Listening to it now, 20 years later, his association with Diallo’s murder is tangential at best unlike, say, that of Bruce Springsteen. American skin (41 strokes). But what is much clearer is his attitude, his sneering contempt, his example that the Big Apple cops “aren’t too smart.”
New York cops came out on double side A with Difficult to explain in June 2001 and generated a frenzy of excitement – especially among the London music press. That was years before the advent of social media and the kind of viral hits that make it work.
Much of the previous century looked at how music was marketed and British weeklies such as the NME still wielded considerable influence.
They were all over The Strokes and by the summer of 2001 it really felt like the band – recently signed to seminal indie label Rough Trade – were the future. There was an almighty rush for tickets to their first Irish show – at Dublin’s Temple Bar Music Center – in June. Other New Yorkers, the Moldy Peaches, were on view that night. Their intentionally amateur indie brand went well, but the Strokes tore the joint apart.
Journalist Eoin Butler recalled a conversation he had with Casablancas after the show. “Julian was going to come home afterwards,” he tweeted in response to a question about Strokes memories posed by Tim’s Twitter Listening Party last year, “but before committing he asked:” Will there be girls and drugs there? ‘ We said our own girlfriends would be there and we could have some weed. He lost interest.
One can only imagine that the frontman may have indulged in such rockstar clichés elsewhere.
Unusually, the album was released at different times in various parts of the world. It was first released in Australia, to capitalize on the fact that the Strokes were on tour there.
Then, at the end of August, it was released in Britain and Ireland with extremely rave reviews.
It was supposed to be released in the United States on September 25, but the terrorist attacks of September 11 turned everything upside down. More, New York cops, the ninth track on the album, was not going to fly in a country where first responders – such as police, firefighters and paramedics – were hailed as heroes.
Casablancas and friends were invited to work on a new song pronto and they delivered When it started. It was a decent compromise and didn’t massively disrupt the flow of the album. They also had to change the illustration for the American public – rather than the racy image of the gloved hand on the female back, Is this this came with an abstract design on the cover.
The album was a critical sensation – and, for once, it lived up to the hype.
To take inspiration from it, The Strokes sacked the great post-punk and new wave music that had made New York the center of the cultural world in the late 1970s. Echos of Ramones, Television, Blondie and Talking Heads were in their sound, but also the influence of Suicide and Jonathan Richman and his group, the Modern Lovers, as well as Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. It was as if The Strokes had brought a time machine back to the legendary CBGBs location in the East Village and reworked it for Modern age (to quote the title of one of the best songs on the album).
Is this this was recorded in Manhattan’s small underground studio, Transporterraum, with comparative newcomer Gordon Raphael in place of producer. If ever the vibe of a studio is felt on the resulting record, it’s here. The songs are urgent and intense, frantic and claustrophobic. The rulebook isn’t being rewritten – far from it – but the songs pack punch after punch sucker. After the dying leftovers of Britpop and horrific nu-metal monstrosities like Limp Bizkit, The Strokes injected the kind of excitement into mainstream rock that had been absent for years.
There isn’t a dud among the songs – and it’s perfectly sequenced. There is such confidence from start to finish that you knew from the first listenings that The Strokes had delivered a modern classic.
In his 2019 roll call of the best albums released this century, The Guardian put Is this this at a high number two – he was only beaten by Amy Winehouse Back in black.
And it all happened so fast.
The group hadn’t been together for so long that Rough Trade founder Geoff Travis was alerted.
When I interviewed the hugely admired talent watcher two years ago, he told me about the time he saw their concert for the first time – at a dive bar in New Brunswick, New Jersey. .
“I turned to Jeanette [Lee, his partner at Rough Trade] and we just looked at each other. We couldn’t believe it [how good they were]. It was really exciting to see. They signed The Strokes on the spot.
“There’s something really exciting about the early days of a band where there’s this huge anticipation,” Travis told me.
“I clearly remember the excitement of waiting for them to take the stage at Camden Barfly [in London] and Julian having lost his courage and having to be walked around for about an hour and get him on stage. And the place was crowded and hectic, and overflowing with excitement. And of course, the old showbiz trick of leaving them waiting worked a treat.
The success of The Strokes helped shine the spotlight on New York City – and the scene was vibrant.
What was thrilling about the city in the early 2000s was the wide variety of acts making exceptional music – and none of them were Strokes clones. Garage and post-punk might have been in their DNA, but each was doing something different and refreshing.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – led by the captivating Karen O – could be furious and tender, their art-rock still convincing. The television on the radio was artful and hard-rock and managed to imbue their smart and geek indie with mystery. Interpol was clearly indebted to Joy Division, but they had the Strokes’ unwavering self-confidence. Their first Irish show – in Spirit (now the Academy) – was also one for the ages.
The Strokes, meanwhile, followed Is this this with the superb Room on fire although there were grunts on its 2003 release, that it was following the pattern of their debut a bit too closely.
Looking back, this would be Strokes’ last big album until the release of The new abnormal Last year. Older, wiser – and still producing exciting and essential rock.