What Ever Happened? Celebrating 20 Years of The Strokes

Words by Jordan Scott.

It’s been 20 years since five school friends from New York City redefined cool by forming one of the most influential bands of the last two decades: The Strokes.

Julian Casablancas, Albert Hammond Jr., Nick Valensi, Fabrizio Moretti and Nikolai Fraiture came together in 1998 and began navigating their way around the Manhattan club scene, playing scruffy versions of the tracks that would soon become their era defining debut album.

When The Strokes began their ascension, they represented, and still do represent, something very real. Many bands latch onto rock clichés and try all too hard to have an edge. The Strokes tick every box you’d want with a band, they’re authentic, and in the early day’s lived the life most only pretended to. Their swagger is effortless, their apathy towards the commercial side of the music industry is genuine, and their music speaks for itself. Only the truly great bands set out a blueprint that’s followed and studied intently by the next generation, and their impact is still visible in the unsigned acts coming up today.

They spearheaded an emergence of bands out of NYC (Vampire Weekend, Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, Interpol) however, none came as slick as The Strokes. Faded jeans, ripped denim jackets, Converse trainers and skinny ties defined their look, alongside a well documented ‘rock star’ lifestyle that they embraced wholeheartedly.

Three years after they formed, the band joined record label Rough Trade after sending over their early recordings on ‘The Modern Age EP’. The EP started a bidding war amongst record labels, making The Strokes the most wanted band in the world.

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In 2001 they released their debut album ‘Is This It’ which has gone down as one of the best debut’s in history, not just in indie rock, but beyond. The album is seen by some as a masterpiece of its genre, a relentless garage/indie stormer that’s become somewhat untouchable. The record is now ingrained into our musical consciousness, and how could it not be with tracks such as ‘Someday’, ‘Hard To Explain’, ‘Take It Or Leave It’ and the iconic ‘Last Nite’.

The album received critical acclaim and gave them their first taste of commercial success. The record lead them to picking up four NME awards (best album, best new band, best international band, best band) and a Brit Award (best international breakthrough act) in 2002, all well deserved for an impeccable debut album.

After the release of ‘Is This It’ The Strokes began to catch fire all over the world, but their impact in Britain was nothing short of monumental. Their arrival was lapped up by the NME & Co who were desperate for something to be excited about after Britpop died out in the late nineties’. The influence of The Strokes on UK bands was essential. From the attitude, the playing, right down to the style of leather jacket, The Strokes left their mark.

Their effect is most evident with The Libertines and the Arctic Monkeys, who certainly wouldn’t exist in their current form without the New York pioneers. “You’re not from New York City you’re from Rotherham, so get off the bandwagon, and put down the handbook” sings Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner on ‘Fake Tales Of San Francisco’  highlighting that UK bands on the unsigned circuit were throwing up a watered down, feeble imitation of the scene in Manhattan which was led by The Strokes. The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys would go on to ignite a resurgence of British guitar music in the mid 2000’s.

After the whirlwind surrounding ‘Is This It’ took a short breather, the world waited to see what the band would do next. Many would crumble under the pressure of being dubbed the “saviours of rock ‘n’ roll” by the music press, but the band shrugged off the relentless pressure & hype and gave us ‘Room On Fire’.

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‘Room On Fire’ showed the world that The Strokes were everything that fans and critics hoped they were. Their sound was no different on their second effort, but it didn’t need to be. Nikolai Fraiture’s opening bassline accompanied by Fabrizio Moretti’s thudding drums on the irrepressible ‘Reptilia’ still makes crowds descend into chaos, whether it be at a Strokes gig or indie club nights. ‘Meet Me In The Bathroom’ gloriously reflects the debauchery of being in rock band, ’12:51′ is a colourful and melodic triumph that’s ideal for any dancefloor, whilst ‘The End Has No End’ serves up a heavier, more aggressive sound on one of the albums bolder moments. Other tracks such as ‘I Cant Win’ ‘Automatic Stop’ and ‘What Ever Happened’ are the album tracks that add to ‘Room On Fire’ to give it the legs it needs to be a great record.

 

The bands next three albums were polarizing for fans and critics alike. 2006’s First Impressions Of Earth” spawned essential songs like “You Only Live Once’ and ‘Juicebox’ but wasn’t held in such high regard as their previous two efforts. In 2011 they returned with ‘Angles’ which was widely viewed as a return to form for The Strokes. ‘Taken For A Fool’ could’ve been pulled straight from their 2001-03 era, whilst ‘Under The Cover Of Darkness’ was the ferocious track that led them back to the form that people thought they’d lost on ‘First Impressions Of Earth‘, ‘Machu Picchu’ and ‘Gratisfaction’ were further highlights on the album. Their most recent LP ‘Comedown Machine’ appeared to come out of nowhere in 2013, but didn’t quite reach the heights of their previous material, although ‘All The Time’ has every right to make a claim in their live sets. In 2016 they released their ‘Future Present Past’ EP, which got excitement circulating amongst fans once again.

One of the most celebrated aspects of The Strokes is their live performances. They have a dominant stage presence, while remaining totally nonchalant when racing through their tight, well oiled sets with a ferocious intensity. They replicate the sound of their records in near perfect fashion, being led by the commanding, distorted vocals of Julian Casablancas. Their most recent performance in the UK was at Hyde Park in London back in 2015, which was a triumphant night by all accounts, and there’s no question that if they announced a UK tour, the hype would be nothing short of colossal.

After ‘Room On Fire’ there has been a five or so year break between Strokes albums, which has been an agonising experience for the more impatient fans. However, every member of the band has worked on solo material in between records. Albert Hammond Jr has released several albums as well as producing other artists, both of which have highlighted his genius as a musician and songwriter. Julian Casablanca’s released a solo record in 2009 named ‘Phrazes For The Young’, guitarist Nick Valensi started his band ‘CRX’ which released their album ‘New Skin’ in 2016. Drummer Fabrizio Moretti and bassist Nikolai Fraiture have also both been involved projects outside the band.

After five albums, thousands of gigs and surviving in-band turmoil, The Strokes are still out there, and we wait for news on their next move. Their presence is still felt through new bands who wear their influences on their sleeve and give props to The Strokes for inspiring them. Catfish and the Bottlemen have been proudly vocal about the influence of their New York heroes, and you can certainly hear it in their music. Upcoming New York band ‘Public Access TV’ frontman John Eatherly described ‘Last Nite’ as his “gateway drug” to music.

As The Strokes turn 20, there’s no better time to play their incredible albums and spend hours sifting through live performances on YouTube, all the while pondering the question: has anyone done it better since?

Article by Jordan Scott, you can follow Jordan on twitter here

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