First Impressions Of Earth Turns 10
Within the the 30-day radius surrounding the release of First Impressions Of Earth — the Strokes’ third album, which turned 10 yesterday — the band was featured prominently in just about every publication that was able to score some access. They were on the covers of Spin and NME; they were on the cover of New York Magazine, accompanied by a massive profile written by Jay fucking McInerney, the author of Bright Lights, Big City. It wasn’t easy to get an interview with the Strokes in 2006, because in 2006, the Strokes were an event.
As far back as May 2001, months before the release of their first album, the Strokes-obsessed NME declared that the New York City group were “going to save rock,” that they would “change your life — forever!” And First Impressions Of Earth was the Strokes’ biggest album to date — their biggest in terms of budget, in terms of size, in terms of ambition, in terms of expectation. As The New York Times put it in their review of the LP: “The Strokes have something to prove … and they outdo themselves. First Impressions Of Earth is their most openly impassioned album.”
Ten years later, though, when I think about the legacy left behind by First Impressions Of Earth, I find myself unsuccessfully trying to pinpoint any sort of long-range, big-picture impact. Had they outdone themselves? Had they done anything?
Please understand, I’m not in any way minimizing the legacy left behind by the Strokes. That’s something else altogether. As far as I’m concerned, the Strokes are one of the three or four most important rock bands of the millennium (and that’s maybe being kinda generous to two or three other bands, frankly). And we’ll talk about that, I promise. But first and foremost, we’re here to talk about First Impressions Of Earth: an album that strangely seems almost entirely isolated from popular culture. I can’t say the album left no footprint whatsoever, but when trying to identify such a thing, I draw a blank.
Still, we’ve got plenty to talk about.
As you’re surely aware by now, the first two Strokes albums — 2001’s Is This It and 2003’s Room On Fire — are basically flawless, timeless modern classics. They also happen to sound quite similar to one another, owing in no small part to the involvement of Gordon Raphael, who produced both LPs. Is This It was received rapturously by critics, and it sold fairly well, too, achieving platinum or multi-platinum status in four regions, including the US. But Room On Fire was initially — incorrectly — perceived as something of a misstep; it was met with middling reviews and a massive 50-percent decline in sales across all markets, stalling out at no higher than gold status in all but one region (the exception being, of course, the Strokes-infatuated UK, where it went platinum, which still represented a 50-percent decline).
In the aftermath, the band seemed disillusioned and disappointed, and those feelings were apparently exacerbated by the fact that everyone operating in that same exact space at that same exact moment seemed to be enjoying incredible commercial success. In April 2003, the White Stripes released Elephant, which went platinum or multi-platinum in four regions. In June 2004, the Killers released their debut album, Hot Fuss, which went platinum or multi-platinum in six regions, including selling 3 million copies in the States. In November 2004, Kings Of Leon — who’d been opening for the Strokes only months earlier — released Aha Shake Heartbreak, which went multi-platinum in three regions. My goodness, Jet’s Get Born (released in September 2003) moved twice as many units as Room On Fire in the US alone. So too did Franz Ferdinand’s self-titled debut LP (released in February 2004).
The Strokes weren’t doing, like, terrible numbers or anything. By way of comparison, Room On Fire sold about as well as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ 2003 LP, Fever To Tell, and Interpol’s 2004 LP, Antics. But those metrics belied the bigger picture. At that time, even the bands with whom the Strokes were keeping pace appeared to be moving on an upward trajectory, while the Strokes were slowly sinking. And that arc appeared all the more concerning when viewed in the broader context: The Strokes’ steep downward slide had begun only two albums into a legendarily gigantic five-album deal with RCA — a deal that came after a hotly debated and widely criticized bidding war.
Evidence of those debates and that criticism have mostly vanished from the internet, sadly, because the great majority of that discussion occurred on the now-defunct industry-insiders message board the Velvet Rope. But I assure you, they happened. I remember! On a day-to-day basis, no other Velvet Rope threads generated as many comments as those Strokes threads, and on that board, as in real life, there were many, many people who fell into one of two camps. Camp A was exemplified by a guy who called himself “The Count,” who was (as I recall) related to the Strokes’ manager, Ryan Gentles. The Count was a big fan of the Strokes, and he was optimistic (if a little defensive) about the RCA deal. Camp B was exemplified by a guy who called himself “Dirk Belig,” who was (if memory serves) an unsigned musician and record-store employee. Dirk Belig thought the Strokes were hopelessly mediocre and derivative, and he was certain the RCA deal was based purely on undeserved hype, nepotism, and/or political patronage.
And after Room On Fire, it appeared the Dirk Beligs were winning.
Frustrated, confused, and exhausted, the Strokes took some time off before reconvening to record their third album, and when they were ready to do so, they enlisted a new producer: David Kahne. There was no question about why they’d decided to change things up: The Strokes wanted to undo whatever perceived damage had been done by Room On Fire. Drummer Fabrizio Moretti said as much in a 2006 Spin interview:
This is like our second second album. It’s our chance to be born again.
They also wanted to be as big as the bands that had surpassed them. Bigger, even. The Strokes didn’t want to be on the same tier as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol anymore, and they weren’t interested in the relatively modest levels of commercial success achieved by the likes of Jet and Franz Ferdinand. They had their sights set on becoming nothing less than a household name. As guitarist Nick Valensi said of their ambitions and ideas leading up to the making of First Impressions Of Earth:
It sucks when you’re supposedly this almost mainstream band, and K-Rock is playing your song, and you’re really excited, but then Foo Fighters come on and they sound massive and you sound tiny. There were many conversations along the lines of, “I think our songs are better than ‘Mr. Brightside’ by the Killers, but how come that’s the one everybody’s listening to? They recorded it a different way. They promoted it a different way. We could be that big!”
That sort of ambition might seem gauche, but coming from the Strokes, it wasn’t unreasonable. Without the Strokes, there would be no Killers, no Kings Of Leon, no Franz Ferdinand. In a 2011 Stereogum interview, Alex Turner more or less said that without the Strokes, his own band, Arctic Monkeys, might never have come into existence:
To be honest, The Strokes were really a big deal for us. That was a gateway to a lot of other music for me. There is always that one band that comes along when you are 14 or 15 years old that manages to hit you in just the right way and changes your whole perception of things. I don’t know what band is doing that for kids right now.
In a 2011 interview with Q Magazine, Matt Berninger of the National listed a bunch of bands he considered to be influential — Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Nirvana, the Smiths — but also made special mention of the Strokes, whom he said, “have maybe influenced more bands in the last 10 years than the artists I mentioned have in the last 25.”
It went beyond music. I sincerely believe the Strokes literally singlehandedly saved the Converse sneaker company from going out of business, and I can’t even begin to quantify their influence on fashion beyond that. So if the Strokes wanted to be as big as lesser acts like the Killers — as big as the FOO FIGHTERS, even — it didn’t seem entirely unwarranted.
And Kahne was seen as holding the keys to this kingdom. He’d certainly unlocked that door for other artists! Such as? Well, he’d been behind the boards on, um, Sublime’s self-titled 1996 LP, which went 5x platinum in the US. What else? How about — hmm, let’s see here — Sugar Ray’s 1999 LP, 14:59, which went 3x platinum in the US? Outside of those commercial juggernauts, Kahne was (and remains) best-known for having produced no fewer than three Grammy-winning albums for the immortal Tony Bennett. Tony Bennett!
Initially, the plan was for Kahne to work alongside Gordon Raphael, the Strokes’ longtime producer. But that arrangement was fraught with difficulties. Raphael recounted a conversation he’d had with Strokes frontman/architect Julian Casablancas after a month in the studio with Kahne and the band:
I said, “Julian, I don’t really like this scene. I want to go.” And he said, “Please stay.” “Why? I’m not doing anything.” “Well, because if you leave, we’re going to fire Dave Kahne because we don’t know how to talk to him. But we think he’s onto something with our sound, and we need you to stay in case we need you to explain what we mean.”
However, Kahne’s account of events is a little different. As he told it:
[The band] had been making demos [with Raphael] and they were sounding like something they didn’t like. Julian is so detailed, you can end up working on a high-hat sound for four hours, which is maddening. So I think Gordon wanted help. We did a couple of songs together over about two months.
In either case — whether it was Raphael who wanted help dealing with Casablancas, or Casablancas who wanted help dealing with Kahne — after two months, two songs, and a good amount of apparent mutual dissatisfaction, Raphael was dismissed by Casablancas, who by that point felt comfortable communicating his ideas to Kahne without needing Raphael to act as intermediary. Spin talked to Raphael prior to the release of First Impressions Of Earth, and while it’s impossible to separate hurt feelings from hard analysis, the synopsis of the situation offered by Raphael in that moment feels eerily prescient in retrospect:
They wanted this record to be really serious and big and pro. They think that’s what held them back in America.
First Impressions’ first single, “Juicebox,” was initially slated to come out in January 2006, but it leaked in September 2005, forcing the Strokes’ label, RCA, to push up the song’s official drop date by three months. Everything about the release was a mess. Though the track was made available for official download in early October, the CD single didn’t arrive till early December. Its video was shot during the third weekend of October, and the clip first aired during the second weekend of November.
In an interview with MTV, Strokes guitarist Valensi said of the new album’s first single:
“Juicebox” came out as a surprise to me … We’d never really done anything that intense before, so that song just seemed like an obvious candidate for first single for me, as it’s just such a departure for us.
“Departure”? Most definitely. “Obvious candidate for first single”? That’s … debatable. Immediately upon its arrival, it seemed pretty evident that “Juicebox” was the Strokes’ very worst song ever, by a factor of about 100. Even the Strokes-worshipping NME — the publication that named Is This It the very best album of the aughts and the fourth best album OF ALL TIME — seemed unusually reserved in their assessment of “Juicebox,” saying:
Once you’re past the opening riff and have worked out that the bloke singing like an American Alan Rake having his tonsils removed with a blowtorch is actually what Julian Casablancas sounds like when amplified, the Strokesian meta-brilliance of “Juicebox” burns stronger than a pile of Kate Moss modeling contracts.
“Strokesian meta-brilliance” … well, that sounds almost like praise, right? Don’t be fooled. The review concludes with this bit of vile invective:
Howly, scowly and punk-rock growly — the Yanks’ll love it.
Joke’s on them, though. We hated that shit. Why, you need look no further than this very website for evidence of that! When “Juicebox” leaked, Stereogum readers went in. As of today, that post has 311 comments. 311! (Fun fact: Kahne also produced two songs on 311’s 2004 Greatest Hits and was slated to produce their 2005 LP, Don’t Tread On Me, but bailed on that gig when he signed on to produce First Impressions Of Earth. #truth!) Here’s a small sample of those comments:
• i admire that they’re trying something different, but this is horrible.
• the strokes are my favorite band, and i absolutely hate this song.
• I think this song is AMAZING! i think it’s great that they’re trying something a bit different! and its an awesome song! Can’t wait to see them on tour
• no matter what way you look at it or try convince yrself – that song is very easily forgotten. and just average, if not really bad.
• I think this is just a bad song. Like someone said in the comments before, if the Strokes came out tomorrow and said “haha it’s a fake, shit isn’t it?” i’d breathe a huge sigh of relief and stop trying to trick myself into liking it. The production and the newer sound has got me excited about the album but this is still just a bad song.
And so on and so forth, in that vein, for pages and pages and pages. It’s worth noting that the sentiment expressed in that last comment — the suspicion/denial/dream that “Juicebox” might be a Strokesian meta-brilliant prank designed to irritate pirates and file-sharers — was curiously prevalent across the internet. Oddly, whether by coincidence or design, two days before RCA could even rush-release the sanctioned-for-purchase download of “Juicebox,” ANOTHER First Impressions track leaked. This time it was the LP’s opening cut, “You Only Live Once” — which, retrospectively, wound up being the very best song on the album, and arguably one of the five best songs in the Strokes’ entire catalog. And that comments section reads like a collective sigh of relief. One commenter in particular, though, voices another widely held conspiracy theory that was making the rounds in October 2005:
I almost wonder if someone at the label was like, “fuck, who leaked the shitty song?” and put this one out there to neutralize it.
In hindsight, we know that wasn’t the case — as Valensi said, the band viewed “Juicebox” as an “obvious candidate for first single” — but nonetheless, “You Only Live Once” did sort of quiet some of the concern that had been stoked in the preceding days.
That relative calm was short-lived. “15 Minutes Of Pain” was the third First Impressions song to leak; it arrived less than three weeks after “You Only Live Once,” and it instantly — shockingly! — usurped “Juicebox” as the Strokes’ very worst song ever. Sample comment:
WEAK WEAK WEAK!!!!
If anyone walked into a local bar and saw a band playing a song that sounded like this they would point and laugh.
Have we all been trained to accept this band as…good?
A day later, a fourth song leaked: “On The Other Side.” By this point, people were less concerned with the quality of the music than they were the apparently lax security measures in place at RCA Records. But they still hated the music! Sample comment:
Man just complete shit…really nobody should defend this crap as decent. The music sounds like a computer refil loop of “2002 nu-garage”. Truly, I would rather listen to “(Take me to) The Other Side” by Aerosmith at least that was a fucking song…not this horrid mess.
The next day, a fifth song leaked. Indeed, by now the leaks had grown so commonplace that Stereogum didn’t even do a standalone post for “Razorblade.” Its arrival was announced in the comments section of a post about Britney Spears’ and Kevin Federline’s son, Preston, titled “The Mystery Of The Vanishing Sean Preston Federline Photos.” What were the commenters saying about this one?
WOW! RAZORBLADE is awesome! Too bad The Strokes are ruining the photo hype. I mean, come on! Pictures of Kevin with non-douchebag clothes SHOULD by all means be forbidden.
And that was that. Over the course of one month, somebody in the Strokes’ camp had leaked five new songs. Two of them were great, three were terrible. First Impressions Of Earth was set to include 14 tracks total, and it would come in at nearly an hour long — almost equalling the total combined running time of both Is This It and Room On Fire — and its release was still more than two months away.
Needless to say, however, nobody had to wait that long. On the last day of November 2005, the album leaked in full. We could finally see for ourselves how these pieces fit together; we could finally see for ourselves what the heck was going on.
Leaving aside whatever frustration might have resulted from the first single’s unexpectedly rushed rollout — and ignoring the disappointed reaction evinced by fans in comments sections on Stereogum and elsewhere — the Strokes had plenty of real reasons to feel satisfied with the choices they made regarding “Juicebox,” and encouraged by First Impressions’ prospects.
“Juicebox” didn’t hit like “Mr. Brightside,” but it was undeniably a hit relative to everything else the Strokes had released up to that point. It peaked at #98 on the Billboard Hot 200, the only Strokes single to appear on that chart. It peaked at #4 on the UK Singles Chart — astonishingly the band’s highest position ever in that Strokes-rapturous nation (Room On Fire’s “12:51″ got to #7, and Is This It’s “Last Nite” peaked at #14).
When the album landed in stores, its commercial reception seemed to further substantiate the decisions made by the band. First Impressions Of Earth debuted at #1 in the UK — a momentous event, as both Room On Fire and Is This It never got higher than #2 in that Strokes-fevered region. It also debuted at #4 in the US — moving an impressive 88,000 units in its first week — and in the top 10 in six other markets. The Strokes had reached new heights, and they’d only released one single off First Impressions. There were still 13 more to choose from!
However, if the band felt any optimism whatsoever (and I suspect, by that point, they either knew better or had been drained of positive feeling altogether) it was misguided. When the reviews came in, they were, on balance, substantially less enthusiastic than they’d been for Room On Fire. Moreover, sales fell off a cliff after the first week. After 10 months, First Impressions had shipped only 271,000 units — less than half the total of Room On Fire’s 597,000.
The chart success attained by “Juicebox” and the first-week sales numbers achieved by First Impressions were a mirage. To be a bit more clinical about it, they appeared to be in line with a common statistical trend identified by music-chart analyst Chris Molanphy, which he calls “the AC/DC Rule,” and which he defines, in brief, as follows:
Initial sales of an album, particularly a blockbuster, are a referendum on the public’s feelings about the act’s prior album, not the current one.
I.e., people rushed out to buy “Juicebox” and First Impressions Of Earth not because they liked “Juicebox” and First Impressions Of Earth, but because they liked Room On Fire.
People did not like “Juicebox.”
People did not like First Impressions Of Earth.
Well, to be fair, some people liked First Impressions Of Earth. I mean, I liked it, anyway. I loved it, even! I did not love “Juicebox,” though. I also did not like “Juicebox.” In fact, I’ve hated that thing every day since I first heard it, and it sounds worse in 2015/2016 than it did in 2005/2006.
The latter half of that sentiment doesn’t just apply to “Juicebox,” however. It’s true of First Impressions from front to back. In a 2011 Pitchfork feature offering an overview of the Strokes career to that point, guitarist Valensi had this to say about his band’s third LP:
My worry is that the album won’t age well. You know how you listen to certain albums from the ’90s and they just sound so ’90s? That’s the problem in going with state-of-the-art, cutting-edge technology. The top of the line shit always gets dated because there’s another trick that comes out in a couple of years.
He was right to be worried; the album hasn’t aged well. In returning to First Impressions to write this story, I actually found myself astonished at how bad it sounds today — and I say this as someone who has tremendous affection for the album despite all its flaws; someone who has spent the better part of the last 10 years casually defending the album, if infrequently listening to it.
Still, it deserves some defense. A decade later, there are five genuinely great songs on First Impressions, five songs that belong on any and every Strokes playlist: “You Only Live Once,” “Razorblade,” “Electricityscape,” “Ize Of The World,” and “Evening Sun.” If you are a Strokes fan, you CANNOT live without these songs; they are all nearly perfect and absolutely transcend the bramble in which they are mired.
Then you have five more that hint at greatness — or at least goodness — but fall short, either for being under- or over-cooked: “Heart In A Cage,” “Vision Of Division,” “Ask Me Anything,” “Fear Of Sleep,” and “Red Light.” These songs are ultimately inessential but not without their charms, occasionally intriguing if not quite gripping, and still worth a spin from time to time.
That leaves four more songs that are just malignant poison: “Juicebox,” “On The Other Side,” “Killing Lies,” and “15 Minutes.” These songs will give you nightmares for the rest of your life and slowly gnaw away your faith in humanity.
Like Valensi, when speaking to Pitchfork, the other members of the Strokes pointed squarely at the album’s sound as being its greatest misstep. Said Casablancas: “We could’ve stayed a little weirder and people would’ve come around to us, but we rushed to it by trying to sound slicker.” Said guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr.: “It’s not just about the number of songs. It’s that, when you listen to it, it feels heavy. I had never felt that with us.”
All three men are essentially right, although I’m not sure any of them captures the truth of First Impressions. Here, I think Casablancas sounds the most misguided. First Impressions is actually the weirdest album in the Strokes’ catalog by a considerable measure, and while he might be right in saying it sounds “slicker” than the first two, it doesn’t sound in any way “slick.” Steely Dan sound “slick.” Thriller sounds “slick.” E•MO•TION sounds “slick.” First Impressions Of Earth sounds like a parking lot full of wet cement.
Valensi is right about the album not aging well, but he’s wrong about the reasons why. It’s not as though First Impressions sounds stuck in 2006. Think about what 2006 sounded like. Think about some of the other rock albums released in 2006: the Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not; TV On The Radio’s Return To Cookie Mountain; the Hold Steady’s Boys And Girls In America. First Impressions Of Earth sounds nothing like any of those albums. It sounds much, much worse than all those albums.
Take it a step further; think about some of the big pop albums that came out in 2006: Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds; Beyoncé’s B-Day; Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black. First Impressions Of Earth sounds nothing like any of those albums. It sounds much, much worse than all those albums.
Hammond probably comes closest to capturing the LP’s greatest weakness in saying, “It feels heavy.” Note his phrasing here: It doesn’t sound heavy — in the way that, say, Black Sabbath or High On Fire sound heavy — it feels heavy. It sounds dense and overwrought and inert.
Blame for this is often assigned to Kahne — and even in the moment Kahne’s appointment was announced, it was received with mocking derision, not unlike the mocking derision I offered above. The world was skeptical, dismissive: Why were the Strokes working with this guy? This was the guy who produced shit like Sublime, Sugar Ray, and 311. This was the guy whose biggest hit was Tony Bennett’s MTV Unplugged, for fuck’s sake!
But this was a myopic reaction. Prior to the grunge years, Kahne had produced plenty of albums whose sleek blend of new wave, pop, and rock would have suited the Strokes beautifully. Kahne was the man behind minor masterpieces like the Outfield’s Voices Of Babylon, Romeo Void’s Instincts, and Love/Hate’s Blackout In The Red Room (that last one, in particular, is one of my own favorite “underrated” albums of all time). My god, man, Kahne produced the Bangles’ Different Light! Do you know what songs are on that album? “If She Knew What She Wants” is on that album. “Walking Down Your Street” is on that album. “Manic Monday” is on that album! Motherfucking “Walk Like An Egyptian” is on that album!
How much would you pay to hear a Strokes album that sounded like “Walk Like An Egyptian”?
I’ll save you that small fortune; I’ll save you that hopeless curiosity. Because a Strokes album that sounded like “Walk Like An Egyptian” would sound just like this:
That song, if you’re not familiar, is called “Summerboy”; it’s the last track on The Fame, the 2008 debut album from Lady Gaga. It’s a song that is never associated with the Strokes in any capacity, but it’s one of the few I can think of that seems directly influenced by First Impressions Of Earth. And even if it’s not — even if Gaga and/or her songwriting partners had never heard of the Strokes — I can’t help thinking that “Summerboy” comes closer to achieving Casablancas’ vision for First Impressions Of Earth than he was actually able to achieve with his own band.
Let’s talk about “Summerboy” for a sec, because it allows us to focus on an aspect of the Strokes’ influence that is rarely, if ever, discussed. Anyone who’s heard more than a few bars of the Strokes’ oeuvre should pretty quickly recognize the ways in which the Gaga song recalls the Strokes’ signatures: the clipped, clean guitars; the brisk, robotic drums; the herky-jerky rhythm; the languid melody; the louche intonations. The similarities extend beyond those elements, though. Gaga’s lyrics here seem cribbed from Casablancas’ old notebooks. For example, when she sings, “Let’s get lost/ You can take me home,” it recalls Casablancas’ “Life seems unreal/ Can we go back to your place?” from “Alone Together,” off Is This It. Another “Summerboy” line, “You’ll wake up and I’m not around/ I’ve got to go,” echoes a lyric from Is This It’s “The Modern Age“: “Tomorrow will be different/ So this is why I’m leaving.”
Even more notable than the words themselves are the ways in which Gaga warps them in her delivery: the way she stutters that “cuh-cuh-cuh-crazy” in the first verse; the way she punctuates certain phrases with a deliciously bubbly staccato “oh-uh-oh!” Here, “Summerboy” so closely resembles “You Only Live Once” (cf. Casablancas’ “Nice-ni-ni-ni-ni-ni uh-oh!”) that the two songs could be siblings.
It’s possible this is just a coincidence. Perhaps both artists were independently drawing from a third: The Strokes were notably influenced by Blondie; meanwhile, numerous listeners have pointed out the similarities between “Summerboy” and “Heart Of Glass.” I’m sure there’s some truth to that! But I don’t think that’s the whole truth.
Consider the timing:
In September 2006, Gaga was signed to Def Jam on the strength of the electropop songs she’d been writing with producer Rob Fusari. But she was dropped by the label in January 2007, and — as the story goes — her then-management, New Heights Entertainment, asked her to expand her sound by working with other producers. She was connected with fellow New Heights clients Brian Kierulf and Josh Schwartz — dba KNS Productions — with whom she wrote a handful of tracks, only one of which saw proper release: “Summerboy.” By the time Gaga was dumped by Def Jam, First Impressions Of Earth had been out for a full year, but “You Only Live Once” had been released as a single in the US only four months earlier, in September 2006, and the song was given new life in May 2007, when the band re-released it accompanied by an extended-length second video.
It’s worth noting, too, that Gaga’s brief working relationship with KNS — and the request that she expand her sound — came about two years after Kelly Clarkson, Max Martin, and Dr. Luke had recast Strokesian “indie” rock as Mutt Lange-level monstro-pop, and in the process, created one of the young century’s biggest, most exciting, and most transcendent pop songs. That song was, of course, “Since U Been Gone,” and as Luke told Blender in 2005, its genesis came about when he and Martin were hanging out and talking about records:
We were listening to the Strokes and the Hives, some emo stuff, and we were like, “God, we love this shit. But why can’t they write a hit song?” Don’t you just wish a Strokes song went to where you wanted it to go?
Luke has long played coy about the identity of the particular track that inspired “Since U Been Gone.” In a 2010 Billboard interview, he recounted the same anecdote he’d provided to Blender half a decade earlier, this time omitting any mention of the Strokes:
We were listening to alternative and indie music and talking about some song — I don’t remember what it was. I said, “Ah, I love this song,” and Max was like, “If they would just write a damn pop chorus on it!” It was driving him nuts, because that indie song was sort of on six, going to seven, going to eight, the chorus comes … and it goes back down to five. It drove him crazy. And when he said that, it was like, lightbulb. “Why don’t we do that, but put a big chorus on it?” It worked.
For years now, pundits both amateur and professional have assumed the unidentified song in question to be “Maps,” the 2004 breakout hit by Strokes peers the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. However, that supposition seems a bit specious; those listeners were perhaps conflating Luke’s claim with the fact that, in 2005, Ted Leo did an acoustic cover of “Since U Been Gone” into which he inserted the “Maps” chorus. In reality, “Since U Been Gone” doesn’t actually sound that much like “Maps”; moreover, “Maps” reaches its climax on the chorus, building up from the verse.
It seems much more likely that the song Max and Luke were listening to was the early Strokes track “Barely Legal.” (This is high on the list of reasons why I consider the Strokes to be one of the three or four most important rock bands of the millennium.) Compare/contrast:
Not buying it? I understand — the tempos and keys are pretty dissimilar. Try this instead. Below is an instrumental version of “Barely Legal.” Press play and sing along. Start singing when the lead guitar drops out — at the same moment Casablancas starts singing on the studio version — except instead of singing the words and melody to “Barely Legal,” sing the words and melody to “Since U Been Gone.” Note the moment at which your ad-hoc mash-up is derailed. Note, too, the ways in which it’s derailed, the ways in which the two songs diverge in terms of momentum and build.
“Here’s the thing, we started off friends/ It was cool but it was all pretend…”
Don’t you just wish a Strokes song went to where you wanted it to go?
“Since U Been Gone” changed the direction of pop music; Max Martin himself spent the next two years fooling around with minor variables in that equation, trying to recapture its effect with artists like the Veronicas, Marion Raven, Avril Lavigne, and Pink. So it doesn’t seem hard to imagine that Gaga — devastated after being dropped by Def Jam; directed by her management to expand her sound beyond electropop; dancing at go-go bars on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which was famously known for being the Strokes’ stomping grounds — recognized how Clarkson, Martin, and Luke had adapted the Strokes sound for the pop market, heard “You Only Live Once,” and decided to put her own spin on that formula. Whatever the case, a little more than a month after the alternate video for “You Only Live Once” made its debut, “Summerboy” first appeared online, in demo form, on Gaga’s Myspace.
Listen to some of those old Bangles jams, listen to First Impressions Of Earth, listen to “Summerboy,” and then consider what Kahne said about working with Raphael and Casablancas — but this time, exclude the part about Raphael, and focus only on the part about Casablancas:
Julian is so detailed, you can end up working on a high-hat sound for four hours, which is maddening.
“Maddening” is a pretty good word for it, right?
Here’s the thing: They started off friends. And they were so cool. They were the very definition of cool! More than any other rock band of their generation, the Strokes managed to both cultivate a singular, iconic aesthetic and magnify the personality and profile of each individual band member. As evidence of the former: In 2002, Strokes lookalikes were so prevalent in New York City that Moby coined a drinking game called “Spot The Stroke,” the rules of which were described as being, “Every time you see a fop aping the New York band’s trendy shag and new wave gear you point him out and take a drink.” As evidence of the latter: In 2003, the Strokes were on the cover of Spin’s December issue, for which the magazine produced five different covers, one for each band member:
But that all-for-one-and-one-for-all image didn’t extend to the band’s creative process. Casablancas wasn’t just the Strokes’ quarterback, he was also their head coach, often portrayed as controlling, difficult, autocratic. For all intents and purposes, Casablancas was the lone songwriter on the first two Strokes LPs, crafting not just the riffs and melodies and lyrics, but also the individual instrumental performances. He’s admitted as much: “I’ve written all the Strokes’ guitar solos and a lot of the stuff, back in the day I was pretty involved on all levels.”
Remember that line from “The Modern Age”? “Tomorrow will be different/ So this is why I’m leaving”?
There were a lot of tomorrows between Is This It and First Impressions Of Earth, and a lot of things were different now. In 2004, Strokes bassist Nikolai Fraiture married Ilona Jankovich, and the couple had their first child later that year. Guitarist Valensi had met and fallen in love with British photographer Amanda De Cadenet; the pair would go on to get married later in 2006. Drummer Moretti had gotten into a serious relationship with the actress Drew Barrymore, with whom he stayed for five years, from 2002 – 2007. Guitarist Hammond had gotten engaged to the musician Catherine Pierce.
But nobody changed more than Casablancas. In 2005, the Strokes frontman married Juliet Joslin, who was the band’s assistant manager at the time. He also got sober — quite a change from the young rake and legendary hedonist behind Is This It and Room On Fire.
These new lifestyles were mentioned in nearly every feature written about the band around the release of First Impressions. And they were largely noted as positive changes, not only for the health of the individual band members, but the health of the band itself. It seemed tomorrow would be different after all! In McInerney’s New York Magazine piece, the author wrote: “Now everyone agrees that First Impressions is their most collaborative effort to date.”
That claim was backed up by quotes from the band members themselves, and largely chalked up to Casablancas’ decision to quit drinking. Said Moretti, “Julian’s become a lot more communicative since he quit drinking.” Said Valensi, “Julian quitting drinking had a big effect on the dynamic of the band. Instead of the four of us excluding Julian and getting together and venting and airing our concerns, he’s a part of it now. He’s a lot more approachable and communicative. He’s letting us know what’s on his mind.” Said Hammond, “He’s my best friend, and it’s great to see him happy and being aware of everything.”
For his part, Casablancas admitted that he was finally relinquishing some degree of control in the creative process, finally allowing his bandmates to contribute more: “I used to wait until everything was done and walk in with kind of a finished product. I used to do more on my own, [but for First Impressions] I’d bring the songs in less finished and let them brew a little bit. Let them simmer and let the other guys think about them.”
But the portrait of familial bliss offered to the public was a facade masking private discontent. In a 2014 GQ feature, discussing Tyranny, his then-forthcoming “solo” album with the Voidz, Casablancas suggested that he preferred the idea of a band to the fact of a band, saying: “I always like to create that illusion of this vague band thing.” He admitted, too, that the gap between perception and reality caused rifts within the Strokes. “It wasn’t so equal, but it was the illusion of equal, so I think it fucked with everything.”
It was all pretend.
In the 2011 Pitchfork feature, the band’s members told a very different story of the mood surrounding First Impressions than the one they’d been telling at the time of the album’s release. Moretti said it was “difficult to put on a smile everyday. It was a get-the-job-done kind of thing.” Said Valensi, “We’d write and arrange a song, call up the producer, and record it. Then he would leave for a couple of weeks and we’d start working on another song and call him back when we were ready to record again.” Per Fraiture: “The certain thing that makes bands great — the communication, the focus — was starting to recede.” Said Hammond: “Talk about not having fun — that’s the understatement of the year.”
“Tomorrow will be different/ So this is why I’m leaving.”
He really did leave. In 2009, Casablancas moved to Los Angeles and released his own debut solo album, Phrazes For The Young. Not only was it his name on the spine, but his face on the sleeve: a self-consciously solitary image of Casablancas sitting in a studio accompanied by nothing but a guitar, a phonograph, and his dog, Balki. The cover echoed the famous RCA logo, but it was hard to view it without also thinking of a classic quote, attributed to such lonely leaders as President Harry S. Truman and Gordon Gekko — bottom line-minded pragmatists who knew business and friendship could never mix.
That quote? “If you need a friend, get a dog.”
Here’s a more recent quote, courtesy of Casablancas himself:
“A band is a great way to destroy a friendship.”
Five years after being shunted aside in favor of Kahne, Raphael offered a synopsis of the Strokes’ mindset at the time: “I believe they saw all the bands that came in the door behind the first record that were selling three times more than them and were wondering if it was a production thing. At the time, they were getting married and having children and wondering how they could go higher than they did.”
Another five years later still, it bears wondering to what degree “getting married and having children” led to the Strokes’ eventual fracture. Maybe it was inevitable. Casablancas wasn’t the only Stroke to branch off after First Impressions. Moretti formed a band called Little Joy; Fraiture formed a band called Nickel Eye; Hammond started releasing solo albums. Only Valensi chose to abstain, and he admitted dissatisfaction with his bandmates’ choices to do otherwise:
I’m not a huge supporter of side/solo stuff. I’m of the opinion that you’re in a band and that’s what you do. If there’s leftover material and time, then sure, by all means. But if you’re playing material that you haven’t even shown to your main band and you’re just sort of keeping it for yourself, I’m not a big fan of that.
In a weird twist, the Phrazes track “4 Chords Of The Apocalypse” includes “chorus chord progression” co-writing credits for Moretti and Valensi — which suggests they were more involved with the writing of Casablancas’ solo debut than they were with the writing of Is This It, on which no one other than Casablancas was credited. When the Strokes returned in 2011 with their fourth album, Angles, it represented the first time Casablancas had willingly collaborated with his bandmates — an apparently miserable process that resulted in well-documented tension. By the time they got to their fifth LP, 2013’s Comedown Machine, there was no longer any documentation at all: The Strokes decided to forego doing press altogether for that album.
The mere mention of Angles and Comedown Machine here makes me realize something else: This is probably the last time you’ll read a 10-year retrospective on any Strokes release. For all its failures, noble or grotesque, First Impressions Of Earth, like the band itself in 2006, was an event. Angles and Comedown Machine were good albums — arguably better than First Impressions, in fact — but they were just albums, and by then, the Strokes were just a band.
And I think that’s kinda sad, but it’s kinda okay, too. Things change. People change. The Strokes really are just people, aren’t they? First Impressions Of Earth may not have changed the world, but it sure as hell changed the Strokes. And it was on First Impressions that the Strokes started changing: as a unit, as individuals, as artists. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to identify any sort of long-range, big-picture impact left behind by the album; maybe the only things buried in its footprint are the Strokes themselves. Maybe that’s the album’s legacy. That’s not so bad, is it? What else could you ask for, really? What more remained? After all, by that point, the whole world had been changed — irrevocably, profoundly, undeniably — by the Strokes.