I almost saw The Strokes in concert in the summer of 2002 when they were touring with Weezer. I had recently become a Weezer fan thanks to my friend Tim with whom I had worked at a coffee shop. Tim and I had seen Weezer with Tenacious D the previous December, and I was impressed. But I was now a major Strokes fan and had listened to Is This It probably a few hundred times by the time they were headed for Cleveland with Weezer.
Tim and I brought along Andrea, a girl who also worked at the coffee shop (I had been fired about five months earlier, but they were still employed there). She was alright, but acted like she was too cool for school that day as she lit cigarette after cigarette. She and Tim were maybe 18 at the time. As we walked into Blossom Museum Center we saw signs announcing that The Strokes would not be performing due to some sort of injury Julian Casablancas had suffered; we thought that was code for rehab. I was extremely disappointed, and though I liked Weezer very much I had already seen them and was all up into The Strokes. Foo Fighters were my number one fave rave, of course, but The Strokes were really hot at that time and I thought their first full-length album was amazing.
So I never got to see them. But I still played Is This It a million times. Listening to it now takes me back to that time when I first heard it, and I totally understand why it was appealing. I had become quite the student of punk by 2002, and by punk I am referring to the roots of punk, not the hybrids that are equally important and cool; the garage bands that played just a few chords and did not have your typically smooth pop star voices. I’m talking about The Ramones and Richard Hell and Jonathan Richman. Not that The Strokes were any sort of imitation, of course, but their simplicity and lyrical poetry are the same. The Strokes brought garage music into the mainstream in 2001.
“Last Night” is especially Jonathan Richman-y. Julian’s voice has that sort of bored, jaded tone that Jonathan has, and I mean that in a good way! It goes perfectly with the under-produced sound of the album; it sounds almost like when you were a kid (people my age and older will understand this) and recorded songs off the radio, and you pick up a few outside noises but you do get the song in an imperfect format for free. The Strokes were not a band to do multiple takes of a song, preferring to capture the rawness of a first take. That’s how I usually write, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not that editing cannot improve a piece, whether it’s a song, a poem, or a blog, but I have always loved the Jack Kerouac first thought, best thought ideal for creating. Foo Fighters recorded directly to tape for their Wasting Light album, and you can tell it’s a different sound from everything else that’s out there. In 2001 when Is This It was released it stood out in amongst the hyper-produced bullshit that dominated the charts. It was rock and roll in a world gone mad with pop and hip-hop. Nothing against those types of music, because there is plenty from those genres that I enjoy, but The Strokes were different, and I am always interested in something that’s different.
“Is This It,” the album’s opening track, is a slow and Quaalude-y song that brings you closer and closer to the band with little hesitation. It has a little Oasis tribute with the drums in the first few seconds, and then Julian starts his yawning-style of singing that I just adore. This is another great Jonathan Richman-type song, the way Julian phrases things and sort of says the words almost without meaning.
Can’t you see I’m trying, I don’t even like it
I just lied to get to your apartment
Now I’m staying there just for a while
I can’t think ’cause I’m just way too tired
Is this it?
Is this it?
Is this it?
There is a vague meaning to the lyrics, but who cares? Not every song has to have layers to it. Sometimes words are just words.
“The Modern Age” reminds me of The Velvet Underground, and Julian does a great Lou Reed impression with his go go go go go go go in the chorus. “Soma” is a lovely tribute to the muscle relaxant, and why not?
“Barely Legal” has some Velvet Underground mixed with early 80s pop and new wave. I love the way Julian sings words like beginnin’ in “Together again, like the beginnin’,” because it does not flow easily when you sing along, yet he lets it go so naturally. There are a few more instances of difficult words like that, and it really is cool how he makes them work. The song itself, as you might have guessed, is about a guy who is trying to make it with a girl who just turned 18.
I wanna steal your innocence
To me my life, it don’t make any sense
These strange manners, I loved ’em so
Why won’t you wear your new trench coat?
Oh so Velvety.
“Last Nite” was the biggest song on this album. It has a very Tom Petty guitar opening, and they have admitted to stealing “American Girl.” Tom Petty was cool about it, though, and even invited The Strokes to open for him in 2006. Just like Oasis always admitted when they ripped off people’s songs (even though they like to boast that their versions are far superior to the originals, even The Beatles), as long as an artist doesn’t try to Vanilla Ice it up when they do it I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. The Beatles stole a lot from Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. Yes, there’s a fine line between being inspired by someone and just flat out stealing their sound, but as long as you acknowledge it, what’s wrong with it?
Anyway, “Last Nite” will fucking blow you away. It’s a heavy guitar song, and it stays that way from start to finish. There are also a few old school rock and roll guitar riffs in the middle of it. This is also the song where I can say that Julian actually sings more than talks the words. He’s almost crooning some of the lyrics, which describe a guy listening to his girlfriend who is complaining that she feels left out of his life.
Last night, she said
“Oh, baby, I feel so down
Oh it turns me off
When I feel left out”
So I, turned ’round
“Oh, baby, don’t care no more
I know this for sure
I’m walkin’ out that door”
Well, I’ve been in town for just about fifteen minutes now
And baby, I feel so down
And I don’t know why
I keep walkin’ for miles
See, people they don’t understand
No, girlfriends, they can’t understand
Your grandsons, they won’t understand
On top of this, I ain’t ever gonna understand
He’s depressed, he’s over it, he doesn’t know why, and he wants to leave. Maybe his girlfriend is an obnoxious bitch who wants to be all up in his business all the time. Maybe she’s too dramatic and clingy. Maybe he just wanted a fuck buddy and she doesn’t realize that’s all she is. Nobody understands this guy—he doesn’t even understand himself—and he wants nothing more than to leave. So he does.
And that’s it. That’s the song. A very simple and very relatable story set to very catchy music. It’s the most pop song on this album. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And not that that means it is typical of its time, because as I mentioned earlier The Strokes’ sound was very much atypical when it was released. The Hives and The Vines were also doing sort of garage punk-roots music around the time, so there was some great shit out there. But as popular as it was in some circles, it was never the dominant musical force of the early 2000s.
Not that it matters. Good music is good music whether millions of people buy it or not. Millions did buy The Strokes, but they did not create enough of a wave to knock J Lo and Destiny’s Child and Shaggy out of the Billboard Top 10. Is This It peaked at number 33 in America, though it was far more popular overseas. All I care about is that I loved it then, I love it now, and it’s great fucking rock and roll.