Up on a hill, is where we begin, this little story, a long time ago…
Fourteen years ago in point of fact. Fourteen years since that laconic, juddering guitar riff first poured from the wireless to deliver a heart-stopping ketamine jolt to a nation of teenage malcontents. In the meantime they’d dub us ‘Millenials’ and define us by a slavish vogue for skinny jeans, insouciance, angst and hypochondria.
Why is it that, almost a generation later, The Strokes are seen as a band to define that age? Many have written of their capacity to speak to the era’s clustered suburban young. The argument is compelling. Julian Casablancas insouciant rock-star drawl, Nick Valensi’s showbiz cheekbones and the affable cool of Fab Moretti and Albert Hammond Jr were everything you weren’t and you loved them for it.
Others — chiefly The Libertines — were closer, dirtier, more exciting, more accessible. Others still — Jack White, Dave Grohl, Chris Martin — were sign-writing their way into music folklore.
And yet The Strokes are the ones. Always were, always will be.
In the meantime you’ll have forgotten, too, that this was a more innocent time.
‘The Modern Age’ was a time before the second Iraq war. Before 9/11 meant the Strokes had to pull a single from their debut album for suggesting that New York City Cops were anything but everyday heroes. A time when Tony Blair was the champion of working class.
The Strokes have never recovered from the success of ‘Is This It’; never recovered from being the band who were there as the world changed.
That music, though…
A friend of mine contends that they’re just songs without choruses.
He couldn’t be more wrong — they’re all chorus. All hook.
Who knows the words to the verses of ‘Last Nite’ or ‘Hard to Explain’?
But you’d all be able to hum them in a life or death scenario.
Julian Casablancas was just Britney Spears in a denim jacket; ‘Last Nite’ merely ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ post puberty. Styled to within an inch of its life but retrofitted, upcycled — vinyl pressed, shabby chic.
‘Is This It’ is an album of diamonds polished with turd.
If you listen uncharitably it barely even scrapes by being more than the sum of its influences — it’s the sound of bourgeois New York post-teens seaming together their collection of Pavement and Velvet Underground records. Peter Tosh does ersatz garage rock.
It’s the ultimate post-modern docket. A monument to a generation who didn’t need new ideas, because the old ones would do. ‘Is This It’ is the pre-cursor to that remake of your favourite cult film; the first step on David Beckham’s road to the LA Galaxy to sell Pepsi and transcend sport.
But it hates itself for it.
Consider that riff at the start of ‘The Modern Age’ again. Laconic? Juddering? It doesn’t know what the hell it is. It never gets going, and yet it’s incessant, unrelenting. It could break out at any moment and yet there it stays — poised, coiled and troubled. It’s like hearing the sound of confusion.
It’s there again is the refrain of album closer ‘The End Has No End’:
“He wants it easy; he wants it relaxed
Said I can do a lot of things, but I can’t do that
Two steps forward, then three steps back”
A finer definition of Generation Y I have never read. Harbingers of drudgery, accepting misanthropes who feel we’re owed a living for the state of the world we’ve inherited. Can’t we just, you know, get by without all this shit?
Nowhere is this duality more apparent than on ‘Someday’. Its happy go lucky riff is still enough to bring a spring to the step, but it hides a tortured core:
“In many ways, they’ll miss the good old days
That’s one of the bleakest lines ever written.
‘Hey, you’re hating this right now,’ it says ‘but it will literally never get better than this, so soak it up whilst you still can.’
Throw forward 12 months and The Strokes were headlining Reading and Leeds with a set consisting a mere 12 songs. I was at that Leeds gig. It pissed down and, despite all my adulation, they were terrible.
Fourteen years on, hindsight tells me that’s the best way to remember The Strokes.
Fourteen years on I’ve realised why their later content, despite its flashes of brilliance, remains irrelevant.
And that’s because ‘Is This It’ not only captured the spirit of its times, it also predicted them. It threw forward to the futures of all those teenage fans.
That’s why it really endures. Sure, the songs are great and that easy, unfathomable cool was bound to capture hearts. But it’s that inherited, rhetorical ennui that makes it an era defining record.
It’s there in that title — ‘Is This It’. Well, of course this is it, isn’t it? The end has no end.
We are the generation too scared to create. All we have is our nostalgia.
We’re over 30 now. We have wives, children, mortgages and salaries. And we’re all fucked. And we should have known. It was in front of us all along.
John is @epouvantail. Picture credit to Thomas Hawk.