It’s easy to forget, ten years on, quite what an impact The Strokes had when they strutted into our collective consciousness in mid-2001. The band, now a by-word for style-over-substance generic retro-rock on the constant point of collapse, branded rock’s bare behind with an indelible mark that year and would prove to be the catalyst for a seismic shift in popular music.
Whenever we deal with The Strokes, and their debut in particular, we have to peel back the baggage they come with nowadays, hose them clean of the backlash, put ‘Juicebox’ to the back of our minds, and focus on the summer of 2001. To return to that year and reappraise ‘Is This It’, you need to close your eyes and ears to the hubbub and really relive those dark days.
Any way you slice it, music was in the doldrums after the turn of the millenium. Of course the charts were full of pop shit (Shaggy and Hear’Say had the biggest selling tracks of the year) but guitar music was at a low point too. It was the year of Alien Ant Farm, Amen and Alfie, Staind, Stereophonics and Starsailor, (three of which formed that year’s NME tour with JJ72). Music was going through its ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ phase.
We put Travis on the cover in June 2001. It wasn’t much of an accolade; Badly Drawn Boy, Limp Bizkit, Kelly Jones, Ali G, Ken Livingstone and Terris (Terris!) were all gurning out from the front page in the year leading up to that point. There was literally fuck all to get excited about. Britpop had died its last gasps, Mogwai had lost their bite, Ultrasound had broken up, no-one was emerging, and we were left with Gay Dad. Nu metal and Gay Dad.
Enter The Strokes – five impeccably dressed shaggy-haired guys who looked like they’d rolled out of bed with some model, oozing cool, doing the whole talk the talk, walk the walk thing with panache but importantly bowling in with the tunes to back it up. ‘The Modern Age EP’ started popping up in record shops round the country like manna from heaven. Ears pricked. DJs, who’d been on their knees, gasping for something decent to play for months on end, were no longer an endangered species. They lapped it up like dogs in the desert and before long a wave of likeminded bands followed while gig nights and indie clubs started popping up everywhere.
And then there was the provactively-wrapped (and banned in the US) album itself. NME’s John Robinson gave ‘Is This It’ a perfect 10/10, calling it “a truly great statement of intent, one of the all-too-infrequent calls to arms that guitar music can provide, one of the best and most characterful debut albums of the last 20 years” and likening it to ‘Definitely Maybe’. He went on to declare it “a document of a group seizing a moment and making it entirely their own. Like any indispensable invention, you’re forced to wonder how you got by without it”, essentially calling it the best thing since sliced bread.
Was it new? Not really. Their love of – and repackaging of – their NYC forefathers (Television, Ramones, New York Dolls), as well as everyone from Tom Petty to Iggy Pop, is well-documented and a reliable weapon for the anti-Strokes brigade. Sure, they took bits and pieces of other bands and musicians they liked – as all groups do – but the end result was something that sounded resolutely Strokes-esque. They made it their own.
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The list of bands influenced by The Strokes is as long as it is obvious, but their legacy extends beyond copycats. By blazing a fresh (at the time) garage rock trail – and succeeding – they gave record companies, magazines, and radio playlist people confidence to seek out, invest in, and back a new wave of artists.
Are they overrated? Probably. They’re just five dudes with guitars doing their thing in a post-millenial, post-innovative decade. They’re not exactly The Beatles. While the noughties gave us innumerable bands to love, the decade has nothing on the previous five in terms of innovation. Nevertheless, it had its moments. The garage rock revival of The Strokes, the grot-punk scene that came with The Libertines, and Klaxons’ neon “new rave”. They weren’t exactly three year zeroes, but they were the closest the 00s had to any kind of musical revolutions. Love, hate, lust after or loathe The Strokes, we’re still talking about them. You don’t hear anyone eulogizing Crazy Town ten years on.