The Strokes in 2005
Photo: Fairfax Media via Getty Images/Fairfax Media via Getty Images via Getty Images
For the Record: How The Strokes Revived Rock For A New Millennium With 'Is This It'
If rock bands earned royalties every time someone declared "rock is dead," there would be no need to gripe about Spotify's payment structure. The claim is made. A lot.
At the dawn of the 21st century, popular music experienced yet another predictable "rock is dead" moment, the latest in a long line of allegations made by artists and the media almost since the dawn of rock and roll. That said, it was the last gasp of post-grunge, the era of Nickelback, Creed, and Three Doors Down battling nu-metal newcomers Linkin Park, P.O.D., and Crazy Town for airtime on radio and MTV. Not to mention, hip-hop was already well on its way to becoming the sound of American youth on the strength of titans such as OutKast and Jay-Z, while Beyoncé (not yet Mrs. Carter) was scoring major hits with Destiny's Child. To some, it seemed that "real" rock was finally circling the drain.
But then, in the summer of 2001, a quintet of pedigreed New York City college kids dressed in faded denim jackets, T-shirts, and Chucks, arrived like clockwork and reminded us once again why rock and roll mattered. The Strokes worshipped all the right hipster-rock bands—the Velvet Underground, Television, the Stooges—and even cribbed a riff or two from the classics (Tom Petty admitted he didn't mind them ripping off "American Girl" for "Last Nite"). They partied with Slash and Guided By Voices. They couldn't sell out because they went straight from Manhattan's Mercury Lounge to a major-label bidding war.
And just like Nirvana and the Sub Pop bands, the buzz around the Strokes mostly started overseas. The band landed the cover of UK magazine NME solely on the strength of a three-song EP, The Modern Age [Rough Trade], months before the release of their debut album, Is This It [RCA], which was released in the U.S. 20 years ago.
The first glimpse most people outside of New York and the UK saw of the Strokes was the video for "Last Nite." Shot on a faux-'70s television sound stage lit with day-bright bulbs, the band members look like they just woke up and picked up right where the party left off. Singer Julian Casablancas' thousand-yard stare and deadpan Stephen Malkmus-meets-Lou Reed delivery sound like a hangover in the best way, while the band bounces along on a jittery nicotine rush.
The Strokes' brand of rock wasn't much like the popular rock music of the era. Their guitars weren't tuned down to Z-flat, and they didn't seem angry about anything. They didn't need massive amplifiers or a DJ. Instead, they brought the lo-fi aesthetics of '90s indie rock to the mainstream. Paired with producer Gordon Raphael after early sessions with Gil Norton [Pixies, Foo Fighters] turned out too sterile, the crew laid down tracks in a DIY studio in New York. Casablancas sang through a small, overdriven Peavey practice amp to give his vocals a gritty texture.
Is This It was first released on July 30, 2001, in Australia, followed by Japan on August 22, and the UK on August 27, with cover artwork of a leather-sheathed hand resting on a woman's posterior that proved too controversial for US release. While the cover was being retooled for America, the 9/11 terrorist attacks compelled the band to remove the song "New York City Cops," as lyrics like "New York City cops … they ain't too smart" became controversial as the country rallied around its police, fire, and other emergency first responders. For the official US release, "When It Started" appeared in its place, and the album cover was replaced with a photograph of the tracks left by subatomic particles in a bubble chamber, striking neon-blue curlicues streaking across a bright-orange palette.
After lead single "Hard to Explain" started capturing alternative airplay attention in the States, "Last Nite" became the first hit of the great garage rock revival of the '00s, reaching top-five on alternative rock radio and earning platinum certification from the RIAA. And while follow-up single "Someday" rose up the charts and earned its own platinum plaque, the White Stripes, the Libertines, the Hives, and others soon emerged to share the spotlight—not to mention Kings of Leon, whose first two albums closely followed the Strokes' lo-fi blueprint.
Although Is This It is often considered the band's masterpiece, it peaked at No. 33 on the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart, while their five other albums have all since reached the top 10. Is This It was certified Gold in February 2002 and platinum in February 2011. Their follow-up, Room on Fire , also went platinum, and their third set, First Impressions of Earth , went Gold.
So, did Is This It live up to the hype? Well, the rock and roll revival it spawned was bigger than any rock movement to hit the mainstream in the intervening two decades. And while it may not fit everyone's idea of rock music, it's one of the rawest records to become a bona fide hit. Is This It not only rocks, it rawks.