NME HQ. January 2001, mid- winter, days have shrunk to the length of a depressive sigh. In a far flung corner, a sub editor coughs blithely as she signs-off one more JJ72 spread. A list of Post-it notes frame a computer terminal – Linkin Park?? Korn? Puddle Of Mudd?!? – each crossed off in turn. On the walls, Fran Healy’s unremittingly nice face beams down from cover after cover. A clock ticks. Music gasps its last.
“Music had become basically a crime against humanity”, recalls James Oldham. He should know. Now an A & R for Universal, he was then the UN Observer presiding over the taste-massacre. Between 2000 and 2003, James was deputy editor of NME. And until one fateful day, it had all been something of a struggle.
“The only thing people seemed to be into was nu-metal. Which was all these clowns like Fred Durst and the dude from Korn in a kilt. Terrible music. Terrible ill-fitting clothes. All we had to get into was Embrace, Starsailor, JJ72 and Travis. They had good songs, but there was nothing about them that made you get excited. Which meant that, for NME, there was pretty much nothing to write about. Every week it was the same: ‘What the hell are we going to put in this magazine?’ It was a void.”
Into that eternal blackness, The Strokes‘ acetate ties and Adonis cheekbones swaggered, care of ‘The Modern Age’ EP.
“The first time I heard them, someone played them on the office stereo. I said: ‘That is amazing. That is the best piece of music I’ve heard in years.’ And things changed pretty quickly from there on in. Because people were desperate. Anyone who had any taste in music was gagging for something new to come along, so it snowballed really quickly.”
“I wrote about them straight away – did an On piece [the former name for Radar], which meant that I got Julian on the phone from New York. He was incomprehensible. He was stoned out of his mind. He could barely speak. He didn’t know what to say. And I thought: ‘What a shame. They look brilliant. They sound great. But the singer’s too baked to say anything’. Of course, he wasn’t really. He just wasn’t that confident. That was the thing about Julian – he wasn’t really that sure of himself. They all looked amazingly confident, but they were quite insecure.”
By February, a tsunami of hype had barreled them across the Atlantic and on to the stage at Camden Barfly (then the Monarch). “I was with the band beforehand. Julian was so sick, so nervous about playing London that they were onstage really late because he was downstairs throwing up. Afterwards I remember Jeff Barratt, who runs Heavenly Records, dazed, sort of out of his mind, walking around going ‘It’s Year Zero. It’s Year Zero. Nothing else matters.’ And that was it. A three-song EP. A photo. A gig in the Barfly. Everything changed.”
A casual inspection of their first NME cover from June 2001 will show that they were admittedly blocking most of a New York pavement. Sidewalk, whatever… But are NYC residents really so unhinged that an act of willful anti-pedestrianism calls for a punch-up?
“We went to do that first press trip in New York. They got into a fight straight away, while Pennie Smith was doing the photos. I think because people used to think that they were arrogant, they looked a bit weird. I know everyone looks like that now, but people didn’t really then. So I wrote about that at the start of the piece. And when they came back to the UK again, every time I went out with them, they got into a fight. All the time. From other bands, who thought it was a fucking outrage they were getting that much attention and didn’t deserve it. From people who thought they were rich kids and didn’t deserve it. From people who had read they got into fights and started fights with them.
“They turned up to the opening of a bar on Essex Road. Everyone was really excited: ‘Fucking hell, The Strokes are here…’ Within about a minute, there was a fight. Someone who was in a shit indie band had turned around to them and gone: ‘You don’t deserve to get this much attention’, and they’d turned round and gone, ‘Well, fuck you.’ And it all kicked off.”
It’s easier to imagine the backbiting when you consider how they were, for that short while, the undisputed lords of fashionable London. “It’s difficult to convey the excitement of what it was when The Strokes were in town. When people knew they were here, everyone would phone each other up and go: ‘Do you know where they’re going to be?’ Everyone was excited in a way that I’ve never known before or since. And the thing is, they actually made themselves available. They didn’t sit in their hotel rooms, they wanted to drink, take drugs, meet girls. And in the end it all got a bit out of hand, and so they sort of withdrew a bit, because everyone wanted to be with them all the time.”
For the first New York trip, James stayed another two days, hanging out with the band as they played gigs and worked on ‘Is This It’. “In fact, we were the only people who went to recording sessions for the first album.” He documented his first playback in their grimy basement studio in the ensuing feature, writing: “What rips out of the speakers over the next 30 minutes is incredible. This autumn, The Strokes will release an album on which every track is perfect.”
By year’s end, a successful NME campaign to get them moved to the main stage at Reading/Leeds followed, as did a series of breathless live reviews, and a 10/10 album. “Essentially, NME lost its mind over The Strokes. If The Strokes opened a door, there’d be a news story. I mean, after a while I sort of felt like I was stalking them.”
But for all the ra-ra-ra the press were pumping out, from the band’s side, even back then there was a whiff of the ennui that would later leave them tagged as some of rock’s most reluctant generational figures. “I remember sitting in the Heavenly Social with a printout of that first cover we did in New York, and showing it to them, and they were so excited. I’ve never seen them that excited before or since. They looked at it for about an hour. It was almost like, at that point, they’d achieved everything they ever wanted to…”
In hindsight, their subsequent lack of ambition could almost be read as a reaction against the wailing klaxons of hype. For the shy, diffident 23-year-old Casablancas, fame was never what he was after. “I think Julian found that burden of being the face of his generation, of being imbued with that much importance, quite a heavy cross to bear. I mean, who wants to be tagged as the saviours of music? I think they just felt they’d written 12 really good songs and that was it. Julian had always been around rich and successful people, he’d seen up close what it was to be famous, and he’d just thought: ‘Whatever…'”.