Hamish Macbain celebrates how five boys from New York shaped the way indie looked and sounded over the past 10 years.
Bands and artists who graced the cover of NME during the first year of the millennium: Embrace, Coldplay, Stereophonics, Doves, Travis, Fatboy Slim, Radiohead, Moby, Badly Drawn Boy. Metal types like Slipknot, Marilyn Manson, Limp Bizkit and Amen are also on it, as are AC/DC, Macca, Ken Livingstone and David Bowie.
Bottom line: not a vintage 12 months for people who like their rock’n’roll stars young and beautiful. The following year continues in much the same fashion: smile for the camera, Starsailor, Mogwai and Basement Jaxx!
Even the Manics, by Nicky Wire’s admission, “look like shit” on their March cover, with clothes that see this once self-proclaimed “mess of eyeliner and spraypaint” dubbed ‘C&A Street Preachers’ by some fans.
And then… well, you know what happens next.
‘The Modern Age’ EP, released on January 29, 2001, contains three songs (the title track is the Velvets’ ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, ‘Last Nite’ is Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl’ and ‘Barely Legal’ – lyrically and musically – is a sleazy, close cousin of something off Iggy’s ‘Lust For Life’).
It sounds fresh, sexy, youthful, dirty, effortless, thrilling. The black and white photo on the band’s first NME cover in June, meanwhile, depicts what looks like a fantasy CBGB band from times past. But they aren’t from times past. The Strokes are here in the UK – at the Oxford Zodiac, in fact (and so is most of London).
The tour hits Heaven in the capital a week later, and the venue is as full of kids in skinny jeans and ties and tight blazers as it is chin-stroking hype-investigators. Next thing you know, this look is everywhere, at previously drab, flared jean-infested indie discos and tiny debut UK gigs by The White Stripes, Kings Of Leon, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, ARE Weapons, The Hives and a seemingly endless stream of garage-rock influenced bands.
The Libertines’ ‘Up The Bracket’ arrives in 2002, and with it an Englishified take on this look. Celebrated fashion designer Hedi Slimane shows up at NME’s Cool List 2004 shoot and becomes bewitched by the band, and in particular, one Pete Doherty. He takes his look to the catwalk.
Soon it’s ridiculous: on prime-time TV, in high-street clothes shops and bars, in celeb mags, everywhere you look are folk dressed like slightly tidied up members of Television (who, bizarrely, everyone now seems to have been into “for ages”).
Most of them look like total dicks, but the point is that they look entirely different to the total dicks who cottoned on late to the fact that having a Beatles haircut and wearing a knee-length parka was a good way of getting oneself laid a while back.
The western world has moved on, and is now swinging to the tune of ‘Is This It’.
Given that they also provided the noughties with one of its finest albums, to say The Strokes’ lasting legacy is that they gave indie a nice makeover might seem harsh. But it was WAY more important than that. Mirroring the mid-’70s, rock’n’roll post-‘Kid A’ had become awash with seriousness and everyone believing that the future, post-Britpop, was anti-image, anti-nostalgia.
Some criticised The Strokes for being ‘style over substance’ (perhaps true) or plundering the sounds of the past too much (also fair – as a gloriously shameless plagiarist Julian C was up there with Noel G). But if you were even thinking about what was ‘wrong’ with them, you were missing the point entirely and more importantly, missing out. Certainly, The Strokes were not always perfect: their interviews were often boring as fuck, their second album was flawed.
But what they encapsulated and gave back to us for that first amazing couple of years was that sense of rock’n’roll being a 24-7, living-for-the-moment lifestyle choice comprised of clothes, fucking, snorting, drinking, dancing and great records in equal measure. To stand in an indie disco around that time, surrounded by folk who all looked as fabulous as you did, all singing the “Alone we stand/Together we fall apart” line from ‘Someday’ was truly joyous.
It meant something, and something that was to loom large over the whole decade. That so many of these people went on to form bands – Arctic Monkeys and The Libertines to name but two – is proof positive that it wasn’t all about the cut of the cloth. The Strokes’ gift to the world was to make it fall in love with rock’n’roll once again, in all its ridiculous glory.
Weirdly, in 2009, the landscape looks startlingly similar to how it did back then just before their arrival. In ‘Merriweather Post Pavillion’, Animal Collective have made what many consider to be the album of the year, lauded for its lack of obvious reference points, and its bold sense of adventure.
This is a perfectly valid reaction to the legions of bandwagon-jumping ‘Is This It’ copyists that immediately preceded it, who were far more about just wearing a tight-fitting pair of slacks and not a lot else.
What needs to happen now is for a band to come along and react against both of these things. Just in the same way that The Strokes rejected the both the ‘Kid A’ mindset AND an infatuation with The Beatles/Stones/Kinks school of cool, they need to eschew the supposed need of Animal Collective and their ilk to make ‘intelligent’ music, but to go back to a set of base influences that are not the Velvets, Modern Lovers, Television et al.
Then young people can start having fun again, and the new generation can get on with being defined, just like the one before, and the one before that, and the one before that…
Any takers out there?