The Strokes' Is This It at 20: Nudes, booze and 9/11

By Paul Glynn
Entertainment & arts reporter

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image source, Legacy Content Development
image captionThe Strokes are (left to right) Nick Valensi, Fabrizio Moretti, Albert Hammond Jr, Julian Casablancas and Nikolai Fraiture

Twenty years ago today, The Strokes first put out their game-changing debut album, Is This It.

The record was the catalyst for a new rock revolution throughout the noughties, sending hip skinny jeans, (p)leather jackets and Converse trainers into the mainstream in the process.

It also helped to make their native New York cool again during a tumultuous time for the city.

Here's 20 things you may not know about the LP, or may have forgotten in the haze of a hundred wild indie nights...

image source, Getty Images
image captionThe Strokes played songs from Is This IT at MTV2's $2 Bill gig at the Hollywood Center Studios in Los Angeles in 2002

1. Is This It was recorded between March and April 2001 at Transporterraum, producer Gordon Raphael's basement studio in Alphabet City, in the bohemian East Village.

2. Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas wasn't a fan of his now signature distorted vocals at first.

When producing their proto album EP, The Modern Age, which dropped at the start of 2001, Raphael wanted to impress some new electronic "industrial music recording techniques" on the young band. Indie music wasn't cool anymore and venues in the city had been closing down.

"When I first played them the distorted vocals, Julian said, 'That is the ugliest sound I've ever heard, please don't do that'," the producer told BBC Radio 6 Music's Chris Hawkins this week.

"Because I had put it on 10 - nuclear devastation - he listened for a moment, and said, 'What if you dial that back a little bit?'"

They settled on number four instead, and The Strokes' early sound was born.

3. In true post-punk garage revival style, its 11 tracks are done and dusted in just over 36 minutes. Roughly the time it takes to cook and eat Thai prawn noodles.

image source, Legacy Content Development
image captionThe album's three singles were Last Nite, Hard to Explain and Someday

4. Speaking to The Guardian in 2003, Casablancas admitted some of Nikolai Fraiture's bass lines on the record were "100% ripped off" from UK indie-goth kings The Cure.

"We were worried about putting out the album, because we thought we'd get busted," he said.

5. The album title, taken from the name of the languid opening track, is generally considered to be a question - as posed by five coolly detached upstarts.

But keen-eyed fans will have noticed the lack of a question mark therein. The lads decided to drop the '?' for aesthetic reasons.

"When we were trying to find titles for the record it could've been called [raucous album closer] Take It Or Leave It, or any of them, but I thought it sounded cool in more ways than one," Casablancas told the NME.

"It's deep without being pretentious."

6. The Strokes may have looked like five modern beatniks with holes in their jeans, but they were actually fairly well educated and all took music lessons.

Guitar teacher JP Bowersock is credited (in the liner notes as "guru") with helping guitarist Nick Valensi and co to come up with some of those killer solos.

7. While the album was released on 30 July 2001 in Australia, it didn't actually arrive in the UK until late the following month (this was pre-streaming, remember) and went to number two in the chart.

It was kept off top spot by Slipknot's Iowa.

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image captionCasablancas and Hammond Jr have both released solo material in-between Strokes albums

8. The subsequent US release, which peaked at only number 33, was an even more complicated affair. Not least because the vinyl edition dropped first on 9/11 - the date of the 11 September terror attacks on New York City.

As a result, their riotous anti-establishment anthem New York City Cops, about the fun-spoiling police, was omitted from the subsequent October US CD release out of respect for the officers who helped with the immediate aftermath of the attacks, which killed almost 3,000 people.

The band practised that night in Manhattan as usual. Lizzy Goodman, who wrote the book Meet Me in the Bathroom, about the rebirth of the New York rock scene, told the BBC in 2019 the catastrophic event provided a "violent, destructive and traumatic" backdrop to all the urgent music-making and hedonism that followed.

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9. Is This It helped to kick open the door for other new American bands, including fellow New York-based acts Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and LCD Soundsystem, as well as out-of-towners Kings of Leon and The Killers.

On hearing the album, Killers singer and lyricist Brandon Flowers decided to throw out all of his songs (bar one, luckily) as he knew they weren't up to par.

"I genuinely felt depressed for months" he admitted to Goodman.

"The only song that we kept was Mr Brightside. Everything else that we had we knew wasn't good enough. So we started building again. The Strokes helped me realise that I wasn't good enough yet."

The outcome was the Vegas band's own debut album, Hot Fuss, which went one better than Is This It by topping the UK chart.

10. That influence extended to the UK too. Oasis chief Noel Gallagher recently told Later... with Jools Holland that from the release of The Strokes' EP - which had an early version of the album's big hit Last Nite - they had instantly "taken guitar music somewhere else".

"The whole period after that with The Libertines and Kasabian and the Arctic Monkeys was probably the last great British period for guitar music," he said.

"And for that couple of years when they first came to England, we went everywhere to see them, we used to go festivals just to see them, and they were brilliant," he continued. "They looked great, and they seemed to herald a new spirit in guitar music."

Monkeys frontman Alex Turner confirmed their influence in the opening lines of his band's most recent album, Tranquillity Base Hotel + Casino, crooning: "I just wanted to be one of The Strokes...". They covered the song Is This It in one of their first live gigs back of 2018 in NYC too.

image captionThe erotic UK album cover was considered too much for the US market

11. The album's famous cover, in the UK at least, featured an image by photographer Colin Lane of a leather-gloved hand resting on a woman's rear and hip. The model was Lane's then-girlfriend, who, fresh out of the shower, posed for pictures naked but for the glove left by a stylist.

"We did about 10 shots. There was no real inspiration, I was just trying to take a sexy picture," he told The NME.

"My ex-girlfriend was thrilled - she was a very rock 'n' roll girl so it's a big feather in her cap."

It was considered to be too racy for the US music market however and replaced with a more psychedelic and colourful image of subatomic particles in a bubble chamber.

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12. In the video for single Someday, The Strokes competed against one of their own favourite bands, Guided by Voices, in a fictional episode of the US TV game-show Family Feud.

"I would've been happy with that Guided by Voices indie level of success," Valensi recalled.

"No one at any point ever said, 'I want my song to be on the radio, or I want to sign to a major record label, I want to headline the Reading Festival."

Drummer Fabrizio Moretti remembered things differently. "We were ambitious. The several levels of Dante's inferno that we had to go through emotionally within the band to be able to stick to it, was crazy. That's ambition."

image source, Colin Lane
image captionThe Strokes have gone on to release six albums

13. Moretti fell and broke his hand following a gig in Glasgow in June 2001, shortly after the release of debut single Hard to Explain.

A couple of UK gigs were scrapped, but their friend Matt Romano flew over to replace him for the remaining few shows, including Top of the Pops. A good one for the CV.

14. The song Soma refers to the drug taken by the masses in Aldous Huxley dystopian novel Brave New World.

image source, Legacy Content Development
image captionThe New York band has never headlined Glastonbury Festival

15. One of the reasons for the rapid success of the album was the band's much-hyped sets at Reading and Leeds Festivals in August 2001, just before it hit the UK shops.

Iggy Pop and Noel Gallagher looked on approvingly from the side of the stage.

Valensi and fellow guitarist Albert Hammond Jr told Radio 1's Steve Lamacq at the end of that year that the gigs, which saw them promoted from the station's Evening Session tent to the main stage, had been "nerve-wracking".

"It's still a little unreal, at first it was a lot more dream-like, and now it's getting to the point where you're coming to terms with, 'OK we're getting popular, our band is getting popular and people are interested in us' and you start to realise that," they said. "But it's still crazy."

The five-piece returned as headliners in 2002.

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16. While Tom Petty, The Ramones, Blondie and Television have been credited as influences on their early sound, for songwriter-in-chief Casablancas it was always another NYC rock 'n' roller that his band were attempting to emulate.

"People thought we sounded like Television, because Television was a New York band influenced by the Velvet Underground," he told Goodman. "That's why we sounded like them.

"But that's not what we were listening to. I was listening to Lou Reed."

Speaking to Lamacq in February 2001, he stressed they were trying to bottle the feeling you get when you hear a good song "and it's almost crushing".

"You have that in music sometimes, very few songs like that and you try to catch that essence," he said.

image source, Colin Lane
image caption"Why don't you wear your new trench coat?"

17. The band were greeted as rock 'n' roll saviours in the UK from pretty much day one, with their initial EP, pre-album singles and smaller gigs. But they remained relatively unknown in their own country, outside New York, until after the album came out later on.

Tennis star John McEnroe was an early adopter though, and he was recently seen sporting a classic Strokes T-shirt while indulging in some baseline strokes of his own with Billie-Jean King.

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He even got to play guitar and sing on-stage with members of the band at the 2012 Petty Fest NYC.

Seriously...

image source, Getty Images

18. The Strokes own the rights to the album, which is far less common than you might expect.

The buzz around their debut EP created a bidding war for the band, between the record labels Interscope, Epic and RCA, one that manager Ryan Gentiles used to their advantage.

"I knew that I wanted to own Is This It, the first record, and I asked the three labels," he said. "Two of them said 'no' to the request and one [RCA said 'yeah'.

"We own it, we can release it if we want, anniversary editions. It's all ours, we can put it out on our own label, it belongs to us," he beamed. "Not even Elvis or The Beatles own their own records."

The Platinum record has sold more than a million copies in the US and over 600,000 in the UK.

image source, Colin Lane

19. A lot of alcohol was consumed during this period. Too much, in fact.

"They were great times, if I could remember them it would be probably better," Casablancas reflected with Radio 1's Zane Lowe in 2005.

"Drinking took away the weirdness. [But] I'm sure the next day would be worse than ever."

He later revealed to the BBC's Jo Whiley that "it came to the point where if I didn't drink I was in pain".

"I was hungover for probably over two years," said the star, on quitting the booze.

20. At the end of 2009, the NME named Is This It as the best album of the last decade, beating The Libertines' Up The Bracket and Primal Scream's XTRMNTR.

"I'm glad they thought that," the Strokes singer told Whiley, while sounding suitably underwhelmed.

The 6 Music artist's collection featuring The Strokes is available now on BBC Sounds.

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