Flashback Friday: The Strokes rescued more than just rock and roll with ‘Is This It’

I’ll always listen to The Strokes and immediately think of my friends. Of the countless house parties spent stomping around on rickety old Queenslander house wooden floors to immortal songs like Reptilia, Juicebox or You Only Live Once. Played over our shitty stereo speakers at such an ear-rattling volume that we’d have police on the premises taking names within minutes and filthy looks from the neighbours for the next week. We didn’t give a shit. We knew that those were some of the best moments of our lives and always would be.

I didn’t always have my friends though, and rock and roll didn’t always have The Strokes.

Cut back to 2001, where you’d find ‘rock and roll’ now, for inexplicable and horrifying reasons, in the bumbling caretaker hands of artists like Lifehouse, Train, Staind, (the level of utter disregard for the English language contained in that name still rankles me to no end), 3 Doors Down and fucking Creed. This truly was the darkest timeline. Rock wasn’t just dead, it was decomposing fast, buried six feet underneath a mess of drop D tuning and depressing, mumbled lyrics.

Seriously, look at the rock acts in the charts for the period from 2000 to mid 2001 and try not to weep uncontrollably or violently shudder from all the Scott Stapp-induced douche chills.

For fuck sake…

Enter The Strokes.

Already comprised of vocalist Julian Casablancas, guitarist Nick Valensi, bassist Nikolai Fraiture and drummer Fabrizio Moretti in 1997, the quartet were soon joined by second guitarist and art school contemporary, Albert Hammond Jr. (his father of the same name a famous singer-songwriter in his own right). Together they worked tirelessly, practicing and playing several nights a week around Manhattan and crafting a sound that railed against damn near everything rock and roll had become. A throwback to the simplicity that first made rock and roll catch on like wildfire, steeped in the grittiness of New York City and its luminaries like The Ramones and The Velvet Underground.

The end result was Is This It, a debut album that sparked a revival.

It sounded like a band from the sixties had stumbled upon time travel and found themselves in the new millennium playing as though they’d been there all along. Gone was the lame, squeaky clean precision and robotic, wholly inorganic feel dominating modern rock. The Strokes did most songs in a single take and recorded them using some incredibly basic equipment, including running Casablancas’ vocals through a shitty old Peavey amp to really nail that lo-fi sound.

It was instantly better than anything anyone else was doing at the time. Right from the title track that kicks it off, it’s almost as if Casablancas and co. are ripping the needle off of the miserable record that rock and roll had become and replacing it with their own 12 inches of awesome. Is This It the song is a mellow, minimalistic introductory track with a Pixies-esque clean guitar riff and a simple backbeat to ease the listener into the thrill of what is to come.

Second track The Modern Age and its staccato riff is the first taste of what became that classic Strokes sound. Casablancas’ vocals sound like they were recorded in a tin can and you can almost hear the shuffling of the band’s feet over a rug in their garage. The sound is so authentic and so raw.

The Strokes also had an innate understanding of pop hooks, abundant on tracks like Soma and the surfy, barely contained sexuality of Barely Legal, all of it bereft of the stuffy seriousness and the perfectionism ruining modern rock and starching it to within an inch of its life. This was an unwashed, well-worn t-shirt of an album, one that slips on so comfortably and one that you wear with pride despite all the holes and stains.

Almost immediately upon first listen to Is This It, you feel as though you might as well have been sitting in on the recording session yourself, an experience the band intentionally tried to convey.

The unforgettable riff of the nostalgia-tripping failed love story of Someday will jangle in your head for weeks on end, the song progressing absolutely beautifully and Casablancas at his storytelling lyrical best throughout. Like every other song on the album, it’s so simple that you just wonder how nobody else thought to do it. A lot of the greatest ideas are.

The down and dirty, overdrive riffs of Alone, Together bridge the divide between Someday and what would be The Strokes’ catapult into the rock and roll stratosphere, the timeless Last Nite.

I don’t think I’ve been out yet to any of my usual haunts where this song hasn’t played. If you don’t find yourself dancing uncontrollably no matter the circumstances or situation to this the first time you heard it then you are a soulless monster. It encapsulated an outrageous night out damn near perfectly in a tidy 3:13. The impact it had on rock music following can’t be that simply measured, Last Nite was the game changing avatar of this entire album.

The drum-machine sounding beat and the warped out guitar introducing Hard To Explain might seem out of place after everything before it, but by song’s end it is quickly a favourite. It was the lead single from the album and features a pop hook as accessible as any on the album, the guitar and vocal distortion dancing beautifully together, the complete stop-on-a-dime mid-song a wonderful touch.

New York City Cops is a violent proto-punk middle finger to its titular law-enforcing subject, with Brit-pop style guitars and a bluesy solo punctuating it. It was removed from American pressings of the album in good taste after the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

The chord progression of penultimate track Trying Your Luck is fantastic, the duelling guitars over the chorus adding a layer to the lo-fi. Take It Or Leave It finishes the album in shouty, scuzzy style, the song title almost a statement from the band to the world.

You find yourself clocking out and breathing hard after a mere 36 minutes and 28 seconds of the rawest rock and roll you will ever hear. I didn’t stop there upon first listen, I immediately turned around and dove headfirst back into the tornado of fuzzy guitars, dynamic backbeats and warped out vocals that was the debut album from The Strokes.

Flash forward to 2011, ten years after the release of Is This It and before I had ever heard it. My current existence lined up almost perfectly with that of rock and roll before The Strokes. Not only was I living in the Dark Ages and somehow still listening to most of the bands they came in and blew out of the water, my life was about as stagnant at that point as the lyrics in your average Staind song.

Four years of shitty relationships. A stint in college where I never quite fit in at all. I barely went out, I barely saw my friends I went through school with, neglecting them and all the fun I could have been having with them in the very first of my formative years post high school. I thought I’d lost them. I stayed in most weekends like a sad sack and listened to the most miserable heavy metal you could find. I dressed like a terrible haircut fell into a 2 for $25 rack at Jay-Jays.

I was a loser in short.

And then, having been kicked to the curb by the most recent girlfriend I had at the time, my friends did me the biggest solid they’ve ever done in my life and rallied around me (instead of pointing and laughing as they should have). They and their infinitely more evolved and eclectic tastes in music (and in just about everything really) ended up changing my life so much for the better.

It may have taken me 10 years to appreciate them, but I’d definitely at least heard of The Strokes before then, sure. I’d probably bitched over and over again in high school about how they were responsible for all these shitty, wussy indie bands coming out prefixed by the word ‘The’ and who wouldn’t even know how to play a proper guitar solo if it punched them in the nuts (‘Iron Maiden‘s go for minutes!’). Like every other narrow-minded metalhead teenager though, I didn’t even give The Strokes a chance before dismissing them, probably while Slipknot or Disturbed were shrieking early onset tinnitus into my earholes.

So when I first really heard The Strokes at a party I’d somehow been invited to despite being an absolute dropkick of a friend for the last four years, I was hooked. They were so much cooler than all the absolute shit I’d been listening to (sorry Cradle Of Filth, sorry Puddle Of Mudd) and that simple fact kind of hit me all of a sudden, the way it must have hit everyone not living under a rock back in 2001.

It didn’t exactly happen for me overnight, but I quickly left my old tastes gathering dust on the CD shelf (sorry Rob Zombie, sorry Murderdolls) and let The Strokes be my gateway into some amazing new music. My friends all dressed the way Casablancas and Hammond Jr. dressed, so I too ditched the baggy jeans and pulled on my first pair of skinnies and bought my first leather jacket. I started buying t-shirts that didn’t have Transformers characters or gross heavy metal bands adorning them and weren’t extra-small in size (for that maximum gun-show vision no girl on Earth wanted). I stopped getting my hair cut into an absolute punchline of a fauxhawk and grew it out. I went out on weekends, damn near every weekend actually, for the first time in my life. I met amazing new people and found myself slithering around dancefloors to songs like Last Nite and Hard To Explain or later gems from their discography like Under Cover Of Darkness every single time.

Most of all, I finally felt cool. I’d always been that one guy who was a sad and unpopular pity tagalong of friends who were infinitely more popular than I was. I was Vern Tessio to their Chris Chambers and Gordie LaChance (if you get the Stand By Me reference). I still am really, but it’s different now.

Probably one of the happiest moments of my life and the utter tipping point came when I was a part of a photo montage done by a friend of mine who is an utterly fantastic photographer. It was done to capture a group of friends and I was a part of it, without any judgement, without feeling like I didn’t fit in amongst a group of people who were all leagues cooler than me. For the first time ever, I belonged.

That photo montage ended up being set to Someday, and I still watch it all the time. In that song, Julian Casablancas starts by wistfully singing over that beautiful, jangly riff: ‘In many ways, they’ll miss the good old days. Someday. Someday’. I knew right then, as I first watched that montage brought to life, that I was living those days right now.

The Strokes released Is This It in 2001 and rescued rock and roll. The garage rock revival they sparked paved the way for hundreds of bands to strip back all the bullshit and the studio-polished sheen that was so antithetical to everything that rock and roll was originally about and just go back to being organic and real. Three honest chords and a simple backbeat still meant something if it was done the right way, didn’t matter if it sounded like it was recorded in a garage on a bunch of beat-up amps. Rock and roll was fun again.

The Strokes sound may have evolved over the course of another four albums that followed their first, but the impact their debut had on rock and roll cannot be overstated.

10 years later that album, and the friends who introduced me to it, rescued me. Gone was all the bullshit and the stagnation of self-isolation and worrying about relationships. Life was real. Life was raw and spontaneous.

Like rock and roll after The Strokes, life was fun again.