The Anniversary

Is This It Turns 20

RCA/Rough Trade
RCA/Rough Trade

My hair has rarely been longer than it was on my Ohio University student ID. I’m not sure it ever reached proper mullet length, if only because it mainly grew outward. Reasoning that the Strokes all looked extremely cool, I’d spent most of my senior year of high school letting it expand into a dark, wavy poof under the specious premise that I, too, would look cool despite continuing to rock jeans purchased by my mom at Kohl’s. Never before had a band inspired me to alter my hairstyle, but this one had completely enraptured me. Like so many who’d been swept up in the clamor surrounding the Strokes in those days, I was trying too hard to be like them.

People who experienced the Strokes’ rise in real time and those who discovered them years later have this much in common: They know what it’s like to hear Is This It through a deafening roar of hype. The band’s full-length debut dropped 20 years ago today in Australia and began sweeping across the globe. It arrived in the UK a month later and finally landed stateside in October following some hasty post-9/11 edits. (More on that later.) In the two decades since, it has built up a reputation as one of the greatest, most influential rock albums in history — a reputation it very much deserves, and one that makes it all but impossible to approach Is This It without monumental expectations. But this was equally true in the summer of 2001, when I first went trawling for Strokes MP3s on Napster, having caught wind of this buzzy new rock band out of New York.

“Trying Your Luck” was the first song I found. So many deceptively simple flourishes on that one! Instead of the expected four-chord vamp, the band throws a fifth chord into the sequence, an unexpected twist that sends you off balance at first and ends up making perfect sense within the song’s logic. The hook is little more than a monotonously droning high-pitched octave, tweaked downward at strategic moments like a skateboarder easing around a turn. The rhythm section rolls along briskly then breaks wide open at the appointed time without losing its momentum; Fab Moretti’s drum fill after the first chorus is especially slick. Over top it all, Julian Casablancas growls and croons with a passion that feels perversely detached. “Well, I am your one,” he beckons. “Believe me, this is a chance.” I believed him. This was a magnificent song, a song most bands would kill to write. Imagine my surprise when I learned it was just a deep cut.

Soon I’d download more Strokes songs, each one further piquing my interest. One especially memorable track traded out the refined glide of “Trying Your Luck” for bashed-out recklessness and the feeling of a breathless car chase through Manhattan. “New York City cops,” Casablancas repeated with the directness of a nursery rhyme. “They ain’t too smart!” These were pop songs that rocked, rock songs that popped, meticulous little machines scuffed up as if discovered in a thrift store. In hindsight, they were playing the part of the rambunctious young New York rock band a little too well, but I was ready and willing to buy into the shtick of any group whose guitars so spectacularly interlocked. This was an extremely tight-knit crew at the time, and they played like it, conveying the kind of youthful cocksure camaraderie you can’t fake.

Because file sharing quite often led to purchases in those days, I soon acquired the Strokes’ The Modern Age EP, the glorified demo collection that made them instant stars in the UK (where NME, in search of a new rock ‘n’ roll messiah, put them on the cover twice in three months in the lead-up to Is This It, culminating in a rave 10/10 review by John Robinson) and set off a ruthless bidding war back home. I can’t say whether those roughshod recordings of “The Modern Age,” “Last Nite,” and “Barely Legal” would have caught my attention when the Strokes were an anonymous local band honing their craft at Mercury Lounge, but by the time I heard the EP I had secured my seat on the hype train and was more than happy to spin inferior recordings of the precious few Strokes songs available for public consumption. I began eagerly anticipating Sept. 25, the day I could properly consecrate my new musical obsession by purchasing a copy of Is This It.

Then, a couple weeks before the album was supposed to hit US stores, some terrorists flew a plane into the World Trade Center, creating an entirely new context for the music industry’s Strokes frenzy. The release was pushed back two weeks so the suddenly radioactive “New York City Cops” could be subbed out for the deeply average would-be B-side “When It Started.” I always thought 9/11 had occasioned the switch from the salacious image of photographer Colin Lane’s ex-girlfriend, leather glove perched on her naked butt, to a closeup of subatomic particle tracks in a bubble chamber. But according to Lane, Casablancas had already requested the change upon discovering “something even cooler than the ass picture.” Those of us in the States would have to wait a little longer and settle for an imperfect version of the LP. (Thank God for CD burners because if you’re listening to Is This It without “New York City Cops,” you’re doing it wrong.)

Beyond the practical changes, the Strokes’ stature as the hot new band out of NYC lent their album uncommon resonance after the WTC attack. “It was very much the sound of the city that fall, and the city was both devastated and united in ways that instilled deep meaning in such connections,” NYC lifer Michael Nelson once explained. “To anyone who was there around the time of its release, Is This It could not possibly have been heard without at least some of this baggage — the hype, the controversy, the raw, overwhelming emotions — informing the experience.” Some of that sentiment was felt all the way out in suburban Columbus, and it contributed to my heightened anticipation until, having received “enough publicity in 2001 to make bin Laden jealous,” the Strokes finally released their debut album in America.

Not everyone received the band as conquering heroes. All that attention made Is This It the object of heated debate. Some of the dissent revolved around the pointedly tinny and unpolished production. In a 2002 interview, producer Gordon Raphael said Casablancas had told him, “We want to sound like a band from the past that took a time trip into the future to make their record.” This led to choices that caused many at the time to recoil, including vocal processing that eschewed crystalline clarity in favor of lo-fi fuzz. According to a history of the band’s first decade published at Pitchfork in 2011, among those who objected to the treatment were Steve Ralbovsky, the A&R who signed the band to a legendarily lucrative five-album contract with RCA, and mastering engineer Greg Calbi. Raphael recalls Ralbovsky, upon hearing the final mix of “Hard To Explain,” telling the band, “Guys, this is some of the most unprofessional sounding music I have ever heard. This is not going to sell, and you are really doing damage to your career by trying to release music that sounds this way.”

Others took issue with the band’s obvious debt to NYC forebears like Lou Reed, whose voice Casablancas seemed to be channeling, and Television, whose high-wire guitar tangle echoed in Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi’s playing. They swore they’d never listened to Television but openly acknowledged the influence of Reed’s Velvet Underground, as well as the Doors and Guided By Voices. Casablancas would later reportedly admit that “Last Nite,” the album’s biggest hit, ripped off Tom Petty’s “American Girl” (another one of those genius octave riffs), while Fraiture told The Guardian in 2003 that some of the bass lines “were 100% ripped off from the Cure.” Surely, argued the skeptics, the savio(u)rs of rock ‘n’ roll would not be such an obvious retread of prior savio(u)rs?

Then there was the widespread indignation about children of wealth and privilege playacting as scuzzy Downtown rock ‘n’ rollers — Casablancas, the son of modeling agency magnate John Casablancas, famously met Hammond, the son of prolific singer-songwriter Albert Hammond, at a Swiss boarding school. He similarly knew bassist Nikolai Fraiture from the elite French immersion school they’d both attended in New York, and he formed the original core of the band with Valensi and Moretti, his classmates at an Upper West Side prep school. Since adding Hammond as the final member in late 1998 — when Casablancas, the oldest member by a hair, was just 20 — they’d worked their asses off rehearsing and gigging to get themselves to the brink of all this fame. Still, “rich kids slum it in the Bowery” wasn’t exactly the grittiest origin story, especially for those looking for a reason to sneer.

The Strokes were well aware of these critiques, and their debut addressed the backlash in perfectly droll fashion. The joke of calling the album Is This It is obvious enough, but I don’t think Casablancas has ever gotten enough credit for hilariously trolling his haters, from opening lyric “Can’t you see I’m trying?” to closing track “Take It Or Leave It.” On the overtly VU-channeling “The Modern Age,” lines like “Oh, in the sun, sun, having fun, it’s in my blood/ I just can’t help it!” and “Flying overseas, no time to feel the breeze” can easily be read as a sly self-parody of his luxurious youth. Even better: “I didn’t take no shortcuts/ I spent the money that I saved up,” he bellows on “Barely Legal” without even a wink, before encapsulating his band’s appeal in just six words: “Work hard and say it’s easy.”

Such was the trick throughout the album, pulled off again and again. Their unmistakable aesthetic parameters were broad enough to encompass both the swinging sock-hop euphoria of “Someday” and the metronomic, monolithic sweep of “Hard To Explain.” The lyrics brimmed with just the right balance of nonchalance, amusement, and perturbed impatience, exploring the messy contours of young-adult social life in vague snippets that sent the imagination reeling. This was an album with no fat on it — 11 tracks brimming with ideas but trimmed into svelte compact bangers, everything brilliantly thought through under that faux-sloppy veneer. If Casablancas wasn’t saying much of substance, he was saying it with impeccable style. If the music wasn’t exactly original, it certainly felt unique in that moment, and lord were they good at it.

It is hard to get a handle on how many people understood that at the time. In the UK the Strokes were genuine sensations, but back home Is This It fell prey to the kinds of commercial roadblocks Ralbovsky predicted. It never charted above #33, landed no singles on the Hot 100, and wasn’t certified platinum until more than nine years after its release. They were not exactly an Eminem-level phenomenon. Although the Strokes played along with the media-constructed garage rock revolution to some extent by doing some high-profile shows with fellow anointed ones the White Stripes, their willingness to lean into that narrative was limited; they lost out on a chance to play the VMAs because they refused to share the stage with the Hives and Vines in a round robin format. And anyhow, for most people that whole movement was a blip compared to actually famous rock bands of 2001 like Creed, Dave Matthews Band, System Of A Down, and blink-182.

Yet if the Strokes resembled the Velvet Underground in sound and public stature, they also mirrored the group’s outsized influence. Despite failing to become the biggest band in the world, they became maybe the most widely imitated, launching a widespread aesthetic overhaul in 21st century rock music that extended to both sound and visual presentation. It’s become cliché to compare Is This It‘s impact to Nevermind‘s alternative rock big bang, but there are not many more fitting parallels for the shockwaves this record sent through modern rock music — to say nothing of its affect on fashion, questionable haircuts like mine included. The concept of hipster fashion as we know it can arguably be traced back to these guys; as Nelson put it, “After the Strokes, it was all skinny jeans and messy long hair and sharp blazers and $5 Wayfarers knockoffs and beat-up German army jackets.”

The Strokes were part of an explosion of cool retro-tinted New York rock bands at the time — Interpol, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the Walkmen among them — but there’s a reason the scene-defining tome Meet Me In The Bathroom was named after a Strokes song. Something about this band in particular left its imprint on a whole generation of musicians. By the time sophomore album Room On Fire dropped in 2003, an entire ecosystem of post-Strokes bands was springing up on both sides of the Atlantic, many of them far more radio-friendly than the original. The Libertines, the Killers, Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys, Bloc Party, Kings Of Leon — none of them would have existed without Is This It. There were so many more underlings and also-rans where those came from — Jet, the Fratellis, et al — each of them angling to be in the next iTunes ad. A case can be made that the proliferation of these bands helped clear the path for pop-minded underground stars like the Shins, Modest Mouse, and Death Cab For Cutie to infiltrate the mainstream as well, and for acts like Arcade Fire and Bon Iver to ascend even higher. For better or worse, they helped to shepherd in a whole indie industrial complex.

If this whole scene emerged in the wake of Is This It, the Strokes themselves also struggled to get out of their debut album’s shadow. They carried on for the next five years or so, releasing intermittently more commercial music as they reached a breaking point behind the scenes, trying and failing to keep up with the KROQ hit-makers they’d wrought. That initial joie de vivre, that sense of a young gang of buddies carousing their way across Lower Manhattan, gave way to a tortured intra-band dynamic. There were long hiatuses, strained interviews, albums that became as divisive among the fan base as Is This It had been in the broader music world. Casablancas started to seem a lot more invested in his new band the Voidz, in politics, in anything but the group that made him a star. Being a Strokes fan stopped being fun, and apparently, being in the Strokes stopped being fun too.

Yet even as a sort of malaise began to follow the band, their status as world-altering rock stars was cemented. Shia LaBeouf wore a T-shirt with their iconic logo in Transformers (the same T-shirt I bought at a Strokes show in Cleveland in 2001 after lying to my parents about where I was going — as if I was going to miss this band in their prime). More and more kids discovered the Strokes and began to worship them as modern classic rock icons. Whenever they got together, they were festival headliners by default. Even as the joy waxed and waned, the mystique persisted. Then, two decades into their career, at the dawn of a global pandemic, they returned with their most widely beloved album in years. The New Abnormal spun off the band’s biggest alternative radio hit since “Last Nite” and even won a Grammy. It was a nice victory lap for a group that had been in desperate need of one for years.

Yet none of what the Strokes have recorded since (and very little by the many bands they’ve wrought) measures up to Is This It. Sorry to disappoint the more level-headed among you, but I have no interest in tempering my teenage perspective on this album. Something incredibly rare was documented here, a synchronicity and flair that cannot be replicated. Did the hype play into my appreciation of the album? Sure. But the hype was deserved. As much as I’d like to be able to bring some kind of mythos-puncturing perspective to the Strokes’ early days, I’m still as smitten today as I was 20 years ago. As much as I’d like to mock the British music press for all that egregious hyperbole, they were right. Is This It really was that special.

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