Just like Jimmy Eat World, The Strokes got their album messed with by the events which escalated the war on terror to the front page of everything for the following decades. Is This It is no doubt and brilliant record. I can’t help but think we got it better in the UK than they did in the bands own NYC.
First of all there is the sleeve. A Smell The Glove tribute and a real life Spinal Tap moment before they’ve even got the cellophane off. A naked woman, leather glove placed on her butt. Admittedly it does look to be her own hand. This was too hot for Hot Topic to handle. Too hot for Walmart to carry (we didn’t have Walmart in the UK back then, or if we did it was in disguise) Andy’s Records, HMV, Woolworths and Our Price were fine with it over here (of those mega chains only HMV remains in any capacity in 2021). So the album sleeve was redesigned for the US. A fractal pattern in blue and yellow replaced the black and white snippet of Helmut Newton-esque kink. It is quite a nice sleeve but the post ironic ‘what’s wrong with being sexy?’ one is the icon.
The album opens languidly with the title track. A rock band who sound like they are bored by the idea of rocking. It’s cool in that rude, can’t be bothered with you kinda way that many a New York band has perfected over the years. Think Richard Hell fronting Wire from a phone-booth in the foyer of the Chelsea Hotel. They were an instant smash in the UK. We were frothing at the mouth for something new and cool. The Modern Age EP had taken the UK rock press to fever pitch excitement. Last Night was too much (we still play the weird dash board clapping game along tot he drum track when it comes on the radio 20 years later). The NME were spaffing at the idea of being in on the ground floor for the next grunge. So The New Rock Revolution™ had it’s leaders. By the time the debut album had run through it’s 11 tracks the US pressing had been altered further.
The track we celebrate today New York City Cops had been pulled by a nervous record company and replaced with When It Started. They were tender times and a song criticizing the public servants of NYC seemed like a terrible idea if you were going mainstream.
Again in the UK the record went unchanged. And it sold in bucket loads. So did leather jackets, skinny jeans and converse hi-tops.
“Here in the streets so mechanized, Rise to the bottom of the meaning of life, Studied all the rules and didn’t want no part, But I let you in just to break this heart, Even though it was only one night, it was fucking strange”
I always thought New York City Cops was the best song on the album. It fuzzes and brims with urgency and has that irony drenched intro with all the “Woah, I mean, Ahh, No I didn’t mean that at all” stuff in it. The band have something to say on this track. They’re clearly singing from personal experience. The time changes and high fretted bass line walk the dog briskly round a couple of blocks. I don’t know if these (rumoured to be) rich kids playing at being punk ever really did have run ins with “The Man” or not but the characters in the song ring true. It sounds authentically Brooklyn.
“Nina’s in the bedroom, She said, “Time to go now”, But leavin’ it ain’t easy, I got to let go, oh, I got to let go and the hours they ran slow, I said, every night, she just can’t stop”
The February before this album was released the guys in the print factory and I all had tickets to go and see The Strokes play in London. A sold out show at (where else?) The Astoria. It was genuinely one of the single most thrilling gigs I’ve ever witnessed. The band didn’t do anything other than play these songs to a room electrified with energy to hear it and see them. They looked fucking cool. I’ll give then that. They were tight. Really tight. Like a machine. What it was that made them so very exciting to so many was kind of intangible though. The years that followed saw record labels scramble to find another Strokes. The Hives, The Datsuns, The D4, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Vines. All decent enough bands I supposed, but not The Strokes. The rock scene was saved for another few years thanks to Julian, Nick, Albert, Nikolai and Fabrizio.
We saw them headline some of the biggest festivals in the UK the following summer on the strength of one album in the world. They weren’t quite ready for that but the pressure of the press had rock journalists in full denial as if they were witnessing Dylan plug in at the Free Trade Hall. Reading Festival on a Friday Night needed a mega headline act. The Strokes did a decent set but they needed Pulp & Jane’s Addiction to not be under them. I’m all for sweeping reform, The new bands on the bill that weekend showed the rejuvenation of the scene was well underway. Despite the limited repertoire, they went down a storm anyway. The new kings had loyal disciples.
“Well, kill me now ’cause I let you down, I swear one day I’m gonna leave this town, Stop! Yes, I’m leaving, ’cause it just won’t work and they act like Romans, but they dress like Turks, some time in your prime, See me, I like the summertime”
If Is This It was a question the answer appeared to be “Yes, yes it is”.