Strokes of genius New York rockers true to their city's soul


October 5, 2001



Great rock 'n' roll can be amazingly effective at evoking the look, the feel, the rhythm, and even the smell of a place. Who can hear the Beach Boys or the Mamas and the Papas without thinking of sunny California? John Mellencamp summons images of Indiana the same way that Gloria Estefan conjures Miami and Chuck Berry says St. Louis. And there has never been a better musical depiction of driving down Lake Shore Drive than the Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight, Tonight" (and don't dare mention that lame song by Aliotta, Haynes, and Jeremiah!).

Similarly, "Is This It?," the much-hyped debut by the New York quintet the Strokes, is an album that embodies the experience of walking the streets of Manhattan--with all of the attendant edginess, electricity, and sensory overload--more convincingly than any music since the finest efforts by the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls and the Ramones (all of whom were obvious influences, especially the Velvets).

Whether the tragic circumstances of Sept. 11 have made such a thoroughly "New York" rock album more or less vital and appropriate now is a question of debate. I agree with my colleague Richard Roeper, who pointed out the absurdity of scouring all of popular culture for references that someone might find offensive when he wrote about the STARZ network subbing "Trading Places" for "Passenger 57," only to find that the climactic scene of the former takes place outside the World Trade Center.

The Strokes have already suffered a bit from such thinking: the release of the album was delayed a week in order to remove the song "NYC Cops," which is mildly critical of that city's finest--even though I've never met a New Yorker who isn't critical of everything about New York. But make no mistake: The same over-the-top energy and in-your-face attitude that makes the Strokes great is what's giving New Yorkers the strength to rebuild.

"If you listen to the album, the influences are very wide," drummer Fabrizio Moretti said, back before the events of mid-September. "I can't say that it's always justified, the comparisons [to bands like the Velvets]. I think it's just that when you come from the city, there's a certain vibe that comes across in your music. It's not necessarily in the notes that you play and the lyrics that you sing--it's just a little bit of the energy. You've got a bunch of people stacked all on top of each other here, so there's gonna be that little taste of New York in the music."

"It wasn't like we sat down and said, 'Let's shoot for this [sound],' " added guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr. "It was the opposite--like, 'Gimmicks don't last. They're great to boost you up fast, but then they go away.' Pretty much it was just [singer-songwriter] Julian [Casablancas] trying to write good melodies, but with [guts], and it just so happens that those songs remind people of the '70s. Stuff like Limp Bizkit and Korn--that's not [guts] to me. That's fake, like putting steroids in your body."

The question of "real" versus "fake" is one that has plagued the Strokes in their always-cynical hometown. Doubters attack them for being a group of "spoiled rich kids" who've benefited from a series of unbelievably lucky breaks and a tidal wave of hype. But there are some problems with this critique.

First, though all but one of the five musicians are indeed children of privilege (Casablancas' father, John, is the founder of the famous modeling agency and chain of modeling schools), that didn't make them immune from the universal experiences of teenage alienation and unrequited love/romantic misery, the major themes of the album.

Second, the Strokes are far from being an overnight success. They spent countless hours woodshedding in a cramped rehearsal space and played plenty of awful Tuesday night gigs for three years before England's Rough Trade Records heard a demo and decided to release an E.P. "The Modern Life" whet the appetites of the press and fans in America and the U.K., and the Strokes made true believers of both on a series of hard-hitting tours. Eventually, it all led to an American deal and the RCA debut.

Finally, and most importantly, hype is irrelevant when the music is good--and the Strokes are very, very good indeed. Even if there is nothing earthshakingly original in the subway-train rhythms, monotone vocals, and frantic guitars of tunes such as "Someday," "Last Nite" and "Barely Legal," the band expertly synthesizes its influences.

"Julian is able to take some influences, listen to something, take what's good from it, and leave behind what's bad," said guitarist Nick Valensi. "He can listen to the Beach Boys and leave behind the wimpy stuff and only take these cool chord progressions or unheard-of melodies. He can listen to Freddy King and take all the [guts] and aggression that you get from it but leave behind the standard blues progressions."

At its best, the Strokes' music is energizing, urgent, infectious, and darn near impossible to ignore--much like the city that inspired it. And where does this raw and raucous band fit among twentysomething peers like Britney Spears and Fred Durst, 'N Sync and Eminem?

"I really don't worry about it," Casablancas said. "Maybe we're somewhere in the middle--somewhere between hardcore and the cheesy, commercial, melodic stuff. And that's somewhere I want to be, I think--all the really good artists were like halfway between commercial and intellectual.

"I just want it to be good," he continued. "I'm one of those guys that thinks music is more objective than subjective. There's sort of like a quality in music that you can't pin down--whether it's a Bob Marley song or an old man humming out of key. I can say that the Bob Marley song is beautiful, but you might like the old man better."

Me, I think I'll stick with "Is This It?"