The Strokes – Is This It
Released July 30th, 2001 on RCA Records
Produced by Gordon Raphael
Peaked at #2 U.K., #33 U.S.
“Hard To Explain” (#16 U.K., #27 U.S. Alt)
“Last Nite” (#5 U.S. Alt, #14 U.K.)
“Someday” (#17 U.S. Alt, #27 U.K.)
The first time I saw the video for “Last Nite” it was over for me. I’d already purchased the album – the third week of September, maybe ten days or so after 9/11. A trip to the local mall with people I’d known for three weeks, a strange encounter with people I went to high school with that were oddly an hour and a half away from home, and then onto the music store. This was a vital stop in any good shopping trip at that time, since getting music on the internet was still a dicey proposition. Napster was around, but it was still easier to just buy an album you wanted to listen to. I’d gotten into Blender at the time, like any good freshman who was also into Maxim. I actually miss Blender quite a bit; you’ll notice that the length of the typical reviews I post in the round-ups approximates the length of Blender reviews. Anyway, Blender in September of 2001 – other outlets, of course, but especially Blender – was hyping a little band out of New York City called The Strokes. The articles made them seem like a revelation, and so buying the CD seemed like a natural thing to do. It was gripping right from the beginning – “like Iggy Pop fronting the Ramones” I said at the time, because I hadn’t been properly introduced to either Television or the Velvet Underground. My roommate immediately marked out the basslines on the songs as being particularly great; I was more into the casual, seemingly effortless way the singer seemed to exude cool, attitude, and awkwardness all at the same time. I had spent my last year of high school more or less living in a punk house in rural Ontario and these sorts of things were important to me. When I saw the video, this extreme level of coolness was confirmed. Partway through Julian Casablancas knocks the mic over and keeps singing, and you realize that the whole thing is done live which is atypical for videos, especially in the charmlessly professional days of the early 00s. At the time it seemed real as fuck.
Would Is This It have made it quite as big if it weren’t for the times? I think they didn’t hurt. Grunge had petered out long before and post-grunge was already selling large and losing whatever edge it might have had. Nu metal had made the end of the 90s a chore and people that weren’t bald dudes with sunglasses and wrestling habits were pretty much sick of the whole deal. Hip hop was enjoying its ascendency. More importantly for their massive U.K. success, Britpop had lost its luster after Oasis bombed with Be Here Now and Blur went global with satirical American grunge. The coolest thing in mainstream rock was Radiohead, who had turned their sound and their fandom on its ear by taking lessons from Aphex Twin. The ground was swept and ready for something new to captivate jaded suburban audiences, and the release of strong albums by four key bands led to something of a revolution in 2001. The other three were the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells, The Hives’ Veni Vidi Vicious (which was released in April 2000 but picked up steam in the fall of 2001 after the release of “Main Offender” as a single) and the Vines’ Highly Evolved, which came out the following spring. Aside from a certain rejection of slick, soulless corporate rock sounds, the four albums have little in common. Three of them could be classified as one form of punk or another but White Blood Cells was deeply rooted in blues rock; Veni Vidi Vicious was more alt-centric, and Highly Evolved skronkier. Is This It, rooted in Television, the VU, and the aesthetics of the LES, was the one that lit a fire under a lot of underground rock scenes that were poised on the cusp of getting big.
Clearly something started happening after the album blew up. British indie rock bands started incorporating the sound in a big way. The Strokes hit the UK like a bomb, leaving piles of hyped-up indie bands in their wake. Imagine the Libertines without the Strokes, or Razorlight, the Cribs, the 22-20s, Franz Ferdinand, the Kaiser Chiefs, the Futureheads, etc etc. The Arctic Monkeys originally owed an obvious debt to Is This It as well, before they found their own footing on their third record. Over in North America it was a bit more obscure. Sure, all the hipsters had heard of the band but they were overwhelmed by the massive, inexplicable audience for metalcore, nu metal, and post-grunge. You have to remember that Staind was big business in 2001, as were shit rockers like Creed and Godsmack. I went to a battle of the bands once with my girlfriend and her best friend my ex-girlfriend. My ex’s friends were one of the bands playing and they were called (if I recall correctly) something like The White Lights. The event was pretty mixed as far as genres go, and so before the White Lights took the stage I had to suffer through two bands that were pretty much just dead ringers for Avenged Sevenfold. Afterwards, the White Lights started playing. Two songs in and I was pretty sure they’d spent a great deal of time with Is This It. I enjoyed it thoroughly, having fallen pretty hard for the album in the fall. My ex thought they were good but was suspicious of the Strokes; she was the first person to point out to me that the intro to “Last Nite” was basically just Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” My girlfriend at the time was confused about the noise; to her, Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open” and Aerosmith’s saccharine “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” were the pinnacle of contemporary music. I’m pretty sure the idea of breaking up with me started rolling through her head after I decided I wanted to start a punk rock band.
Anyway, after those first two songs one of the guys who were with one of the metalcore clone bands shouted out a homophobic slur aimed at the guys on stage, which shows you what general audiences thought of that sort of thing.
One last personal anecdote: in Canada we like to put disgusting and shocking pictures of medical trauma on cigarette packages. In 2001-2002 one of them had the accompanying caption “Cigarettes cause strokes.” I would find something good to write with and scrawl in one word that changed it’s entire meaning: “Cigarettes cause The Strokes.”
Two decades later it’s hard to separate the album from the bands it spawned. It took until Franz Ferdinand and the Killers got big for North America to properly catch up (2004 or so) but I gather in the UK it was a much faster thing: a Pixies-level event. These days there are more bands who have their roots in the Strokes than songs the band ever put out. Their post-Is This It albums have not fared nearly as well as their debut, although there’s some good stuff here and there. Their most recent record, 2020’s The New Abnormal, was probably the best thing they’d done since this highwater mark. None of them (or, for that matter, few records by other artists) have come close to replicating the world-shaking white heat of Is This It.