No great band is born without a struggle and no great records are born in a vacuum. For every artist whose ideas make your wig spin there are a huge pile of influences – from specks of colour to swathes of sound – that delivered them to that point. And this is where The Roots Of… comes in. Each week we’ll take a band, pull apart the threads that make them who they are and build a Spotify playlist from those influences…
This week, The Strokes.
How can you not love a band that picked up the final piece of their jigsaw at an exclusive Swiss boarding school? As far as fairy-tale beginnings go, that’s up there with the very best of them. Julian Casablancas already knew Nikolai Fraiture, Nick Valensi and Fabrizio Moretti from school in New York, in fact they’d even played together a little, but it was Dirty Harry fan Albert Hammond Jr. who completed the picture. “My intention was always to take undergroundish, cool music and make it mainstream,” Julian said in 2009. “We haven’t achieved that”, but there’s so much they have achieved. Once described as having, “an indefinable quality of togetherness”, The Strokes redefined the idea of the gang, that indivisible unit with a look and a creative aesthetic so well honed it would shame AC/DC. It was Albert who said, “our music is beautiful anger”, and that’s as good a description of their needle-sharp looseness that you’re ever likely to hear. But what got them there in the first place?
As teenagers Julian and Nikolai were huge fans of LA scuzz-rockers Jane’s Addiction – legend has it there’s a live video of the band from 1997 that both are visible in. Julian was a huge fan of Pearl Jam and Nirvana while away at school, while he would later say the gift of a Doors tape from his step-dad would, “change his life. I had a sense I could do something like that.” Among Fabrizio’s first loves was Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, he considered the drums on ‘Billie Jean’ were among, “the greatest sounds ever recorded”, while Nick was all about Guns N’ Roses – another classic band-as-gang. Elder statesmen of Pop fans will note that the first record Albert ever bought was Billy Joel’s 1989 hit, ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’. Hmmm.
The Ramones: the ultimate gang, beautifully ugly, masters of melodic dissonance. Blondie: Super-bright pop genius. The Velvet Underground: Nikolai and Julian’s teenage heroes. Talking Heads: their debut album, ’77’, was a sonic touchstone for ‘Room On Fire’. What’s remarkable about The Strokes is how quickly they became an integral part of the fabric of their city’s musical life.
All Mixed Up
“Between the five of us there’s this weird medley of influences,” Julian said a decade ago. He went on to mention Dayton, Ohio hyper-productive garage heroes Guided By Voices, Minneapolis, Minnesota’s awesome Replacements and another New Yorker, early-80s mega-pop titan, Cyndi Lauper. Triangulated somewhere in the middle – and to the left – of those three is Sonic Youth, whose 1994 single ‘Bull In The Heather’ directly influenced The Strokes’ 2003 single ’12:51′ (in fact, “I’m totally ripping it off,” Julian would later admit).
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You’d have to have especially well-tuned ears to hear Bob Marley in The Strokes, but Julian always considered him a better chronicler of the human condition than even Bob Dylan. In the very late 70s and early 80s Boston’s new-wave crew The Cars nailed a particularly spindly-legged pop-punk whose echoes would crop up throughout The Strokes’ records, but can you hear the hits Albert’s dad wrote for Julio Iglesias or The Hollies? No? Are you sure…
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