THE STROKES (2001): The future, the past or just passing through?

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The Strokes: Soma (from Is This It)
THE STROKES (2001): The future, the past or just passing through?

These are indeed worrying times. Steel birds fall from the sky, tall towers tumble to earth, rumours of war is the way of it if you are an innocent citizen, and the end of the world is apparently upon us. Nostradamus warned us of these times.

Jezzus, I wished he'd warned us about the Strokes as well.

In case you've missed the current media beat-up from the UK, the Strokes -- a raggedly five-piece from New York -- are not only another Next Big Thing, but the Best Big Thing in rock‘n’roll since God pointed his finger at Mrs Presley's chubby little boy and said, ‘You!’

And the hype about the Strokes was happening before they’d even recorded their debut album, the oddly titled and poorly punctuated Is This It.

It’s an “assuredly brilliant album,” wheezed John Harris breathlessly in Q magazine.

Gee! Wow! Where can l get one?

But wait, there’s more- - as the man says when he's selling you something you might not have wanted in the first place.

The Strokes have been variously described as “the coolest band in the world” (Q again) and “the perfect balance between content and style" (Mojo).

NME has trumpeted they are, "the most exciting young rock group on Earth. That’s not hyperbole. That's fact".

Well, one man’s true fact can be another man’s toilet floater.

And while Is This It has commanded some attention round my way, it has hardly had me hauling the postman off his bike, feeding him beer'n'weed and forcing him to listen to this work of unalloyed genius, or whatever they are calling it now.

Some of Is This It -- plainly produced by Gordon Raphael (interviewed here) -- is terrific short ‘n’ sharp fun. The song NYC Cops is a blinder at big volume and elsewhere there’s lots of US proto-punk and old wave New Wave ("the other other white meat,” as Fat Bastard says). Their original Someday is a classic, but has been for about 25 years.

In the absence of a live showing, we are assured they are equally brilliant. in February, Rolling Stone's justifiably respected writer David Fricke wrote, “the Strokes are Manhattan's first big rock‘n’roll thrill of the year. I've seen them live, too – they definitely have an album of this stuff in them."

Well, now we have that album of their alleged greatness and Is This It is confident and likable enough.

And yeah, it’s okay.

But the same could be said for a lot of stuff out there right now, check the review pages in any mag should you doubt it. So what have the Strokes got going for them which has had the British press hyperventilating in a way we haven’t seen since the Oasis-Blur Wars?strokes2

First they’re from New York and, even before a large part of Lower Manhattan disappeared under dust and debris and papers from lawyers offices, for Brits the Big Apple is a much more exciting place than say Clapham Junction.

And it’s true. NYC has speedy streets infused with sleazy rock history. On any given day you can see a living Ramone at the deli buying bagels for Debbie Harry with a possibly-still-living Doll. lt has legendary rock club toilets-with-history like CBGBs, and you’re likely to bump into Lou Reed in the poetry section of Barnes & Noble.

It’s an exciting city which is awake 25 hours a day and at any moment Yoko Ono will give you a wave while you’re buying a waffle iron, and David Byrne will be shopping for Indonesian pop right next to you in the Virgin Megastore. Or at least maybe that's what you think if you are stuck in a newspaper office in Birmingham and the Strokes album comes across your desk trailing rave reviews from The Famous Rock Magazines of London.

Yes, even now the cachet of New York sells.

The Strokes, however also stand for old values like "fast songs, staccato chords, songs about trysts in small apartments," to quote the Harris review. (And did you spot the NYC cliche in there?)

In other words, the Strokes are all the things a lot of current bands are not -- but a lot of what many used to be.

Into the gap between hype, reality and hyper-reality they swagger, full of four chord strut, of suitably disheveled appearance (New Yorkers from ”small apartments” all wear Lou leathers and are punks at heart, right?) and they play short sharp old New Wave pop you can remember. They even name the songs after the chorus, which is more than can be said for difficult pricks like Radiohead, huh?

But the fact is, the Strokes are as retro as Oasis, as caught in an American time warp as the current President Bush. As Christina Rees wittingly admitted in her rave about them in New York’s influential Village Voice: “Andy Warhol is smiling down voyeuristically from his cloud, his wings flapping with miid approval at this newest incarnation of New York cool.”

In other words, the Strokes are NYC deja-vu all over again. Good, but hardly cutting edge rock of the kind we are entitled to expect in Britneyworld.

My suspicion is they've been hailed by people who grew up on Iggy and Lou albums but were too young to be there at the time.

Now these people are all growed up, have jobs in the music business (or its bastard offspring, “music journalism”) and want rock just like their big brother or uncle had. They require their own slightly watered-down Stooges. And the Strokes fit the bill. They certainly look cool enough, and that’s always important.

Okay, the Strokes aren’t bad and Is This It deserves a repeat play every now and again. But they also aren’t as good as sweaty-armpits in the British media would have you believe. What the UK press enthusiasm mostly illustrates is the yawning chasm in Britrock right now.

Think about it; Oasis conspicuously and somewhat embarrassingly failed to live up to their promise/hype, and Radiohead have effectively abdicated their market-leader position by releasing two (allegedly) difficult albums. The Bands Of Hope‘n’Hype which emerged at the same time have either broken up or been found out. No one talks much about Shed Seven, Mansun, Marion and the Longpigs anymore, do they? And are the Seahorses and the Boo Radleys still around? Hey, just askin'!

Yes, Starsailor are excellent and full of promise.

They’re young and good looking, can play, are sufficiently retro to appeal to senior rock scribes, smart enough in a post-modern way to cover a Van Morrison song which Jeff Buckley used to sing, but are sexy enough for the kids.

However, as far as being a breath of fresh air and a market leader? Maybe not.

And how many people other than the seriously disturbed rabid fan would follow the erratic careers of Ian Brown (former Stone Roses singer), guitarists Graham Coxon and Bernard Butler (Blur and Suede, respectively), or expectantly wait for a new Richard Ashcroft album. Gorillaz is great but a side project nonetheless.strokes3

Then there’s the whole new regime of Travis, Gomez, Turin Brakes, Coldplay and others, all of whom are fine but are hardly setting rock‘n'roll hearts alight. We all like them, they’re nice. But as Rees adeptly put it about those earnest Britbands when hailing the Strokes: “As we well know, being average is a far greater crime in rock than sucking."

The aforementioned are successful and pleasant, but in rock‘n’roll terms they're kinda middle class, mediocre and serious. There’s no importance in being earnest. And they are only average.

Teen girls don't and won’t wet their pants for them, and while right-thinking rock boys might respect them and their minor chords, they sensibly don't want to be them.

It means being bald, boring and eating humble pie all the time. And that ain’t rock ‘n' roll, pal.

Sure they are fine, but they aren’t in possession of exciting pop personalities. They aren't likely to capture the imagination of the kids. And actually, I blame the kids, as we should for most things. Top of the Pops is an increasingly embarrassing reflection of Britpop, with its revolving repertoire of easy-to-assemble boob tubes and boy bands. Never has the distance between people-meter pop and rock'n'roll been as vast. But for that I guess we should blame record companies and their market researchers and accountants.

But then suddenly, a month or so back, into that ruthlessly homogenised and homogenous play school that is TOTP appeared the Strokes.

They looked like suss adults hanging around the kindy swings with sweeties in the pockets of their op-shop drape jackets. They seemed mildly dangerous in the sanitised world of contemporary pop. They were also a whole lot more rock‘n’roll, and considerably more fun.

And so, it’s ... the Strokes!

Looked at in the context of all that, it was obviously really. If you want a skinny-legged rock'n’roll band you wouldn't be looking to Colchester these days, it’s probably all milked out.

Okay, there's nothing new under the sun in rock‘n'roll, but still you have to ask, “Why of all bands, the Strokes? What marketing or machine picked them out of the pack?”

Well, they arrived anointed by the UK label Rough Trade, whose boss Geoff Travis signed them - and what British rock writer would want to counter his influential opinion? In truth they play pretty familiar rock‘n'roll, but seem to have the right attitude about it. They affect a great Iggy-framed detachment, which is like just sooo New Yawk.

“The hype had nothing to do with us," organ player Albert Hammond Jnr told Q. “The press made the hype.”

True at one level, but slightly disingenuous also. Singer Julian Casablanca said recently, as if he was unfazed or untouched by the media blitz, "I really just think it's the music, you know". Ah, the music.

Maybe its time to address that one then?

Strokes drummer Fabrizio Moretti -- and what an exotic-sounding NYC name that is – has said people have had enough of Britney and Backstreet shit and now want ”a new rock'n'roll". But if thats true, then why them? The last thing you could accuse the Strokes of is being “new” in rock‘n’ roll. George Kay’s album review in Real Groove last month cited the now customary rock 'n' roll call; the Velvets, Lou, and the Stooges. And that about sums it up.gordon3

Nothing to see here folks, just move right along.

No, there's nothing wrong with wearing your art on your sleeve (incidentally the album cover is sufficiently suggestive, but not too much so), and so their appeal is very simple; it reminds older people of something they once knew, and introduces post-pop kids to their first taste of unwashed rock'n'roll in a context where the Strokes shared a TOTP dressing room and ear-space with bands called something like M-Bump Five or Kiss-N-Tell.

But listen to Is This lt. What do you get? There’s the minimalist Velvet-teen track, The Modern Age (title apologies to the Modern Lovers, guitar solo courtesy of Lou's '68 handbook): and the Petty'n' Heartbreakers manoeuvres of Last Nite (it's American Girl without any of the interesting 12-string, bass or chorus bits).

And much other rock‘n'roll retrospection, Sure this is fun, especially tracks like the genuinely exciting Hard to Explain (Bailter Space wrote it louder and longer ago I reckon) and the hilarious intro to NYC Cops (weep with laughter and it's Iggy cynicism, particularly in the light of recent events). I swear to God they’re singing, ‘New York City girls ain't too smart” actually. And I worked out the chords for Barely Legal really quickly, Yeah, all this has gotta be good. But this isn't the shock of the new. Just the feel of the familiar.

Nostradamus probably warned us of this.

So that Crucial Question again: Why the Strokes, why NYC straight outta London, and why now? Because all else around them in the mainstream -- where they wanna be, make no mistake they don’t wanna be no cult band – is boring, joyless, manufactured or downright dull, The Strokes play old time New Wave rock'n'roll and look like Blondie without the interesting sexy one. Maybe that's enough.

And like Blondie and so many other US bands of the late Seventies, these guys also wear skinny ties. Maybe there’s the clue to who they might really be?

Think about it: a New Wave American band which effected the perfect balance of style and content, melded US/UK pop-rock with humour and attitude, unleashed one pretty terrific retro-sourced debut, and played a blinder of a show at Mainstreet back at the dawn of time.

No, arousing though they might be, these New Yorkers aren't the new Velvet Underground.

Come on down the Strokes, tonight you're gone be . . . the Knack.

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