There is something to be said about a band that has the power to alter mainstream media. I would imagine that to single handedly change the landscape of what is currently popular is no easy task. But to snap the public consciousness back to what should be considered good music (and ultimately take over the world for a short time) is something else entirely. How many musicians have done this? Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Nirvana, Radiohead, and The Strokes. Those are the artists that come to my mind. These groups would be considered “band’s bands,” what other successful artists can look up to and hope to become. What you have to ask yourself is this: “How many of these bands are undeserving of the fame they’ve received?”
At the most, some would say Nirvana or Bruce is overrated, but nobody in their right mind would come to challenge what the world has collectively deemed “good music.” People nowadays say they ‘don’t like the Beatles’ mainly to gain attention or flaunt an opposing view, but nobody I’ve met that has ever said this has actually gone and listened to the entire work of the Fab Four. That also goes for any of the previously mentioned bands. They usually have heard one or two songs, found them trite or possibly annoying, and made their opinion based upon that. This method is no way to judge an artist or group, and especially not one which is world-renowned.
Of course, there is always the hype that comes with being in a band. The image, the ideals, the lyrical topics, the antics, and the personalities all feed this devilish beast that is mass media. For now, all eyes are on poppy princesses like Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus, but that’s really a different category altogether. There have always been the divas (Madonna, Britney) and hip hop superstars of the world. They’ll always have a place in the mainstream, consistently “creating” “music” that people will find outdated in ten years (and will then only listen to for pure nostalgia in front of close friends). Who still listens to N’Sync? What about WHAM? I heard they were good, right? No, they aren’t. Anybody can put a silly melody over a thumping backbeat and have a “hit single.” They can even rap about how much money they make over that same beat, and have it lead to a different “hit single.” There is more to that in the world of rock and roll.
Now, this isn’t saying this cookie cutter practice doesn’t tread into the world of rock, not by a long shot. Just as the divas and pretty faces will always have a place, so will adult alternative rock. There will always be a Nickelback or a Daughtry to lull the masses with shitty “hard rock” about missing their “baby” and wanting to “go home.” This is inevitable, for it’s far too easy to steal a chord progression (which at this point isn’t considered stealing, as every possible combination has its own flagship hit) and right some cheesy lyrics over it that are vague enough to find an audience of soccer moms. This simple fact accounts for most silly hair bands of the past, which in turn leads up to our latter-day “hard rock” acts as well. While I’d probably punch myself in the face if I let this happen to myself, it is hard to fault the logic that instant fame might be appealing to a group of people that don’t care about the work they leave behind.
This is the reason that bands are constructed by companies and television channels. They appeal to a mass audience who will eat up their pop hit and make somebody money. That is the basis of why I am thankful the music industry has pretty much completely failed. Now songwriters with actual talent can finally step out from behind the hacks and play their music to the world. Great artists like Butch Walker now have a reason to show the world just how good they are, and they are more and more likely to be noticed thanks to the prevalence of the Internet. To that I say “Hallelujah.”
Anyway, this piece isn’t about the music industry and I apologize for the digression, even though it was primarily for set up purposes. What you’re reading now is purely about the Strokes, who rode that wave of hype to its highest level and recorded an album that eclipsed a decade in its shadow. This is about why you’re a dolt if you think they didn’t deserve it.
Here is the main list of gripes with every person who doesn’t appreciate the Strokes:
- They were rich trust fund kids who used money to obtain their goals.
- They copied other artists.
- They used their “image” to gain fame.
- Their songs are simple and don’t require thought.
- Their music is boring and not creative.
- First Impressions of Earth sucked.
This list isn’t counting people just hating the band for the fact that they are famous. People, especially trendy people (read: hipsters), are quick to throw out accusations of selling out to any band that has left a garage and gained more than thirty fans. I, on the other hand, applaud a band for getting out of their garage and gaining more than thirty fans, because that’s really not the easiest thing to do. There’s a mark of talent right there, if you want to start counting.
You can’t really blame a band for the amount of hype they receive. The Strokes even did things to prevent this. They didn’t talk about their crazy lifestyles, they didn’t boast like many a band does; hell, they didn’t even want to make music videos. They were forced to by label executives, and the results were videos that are pretty much just the band playing their songs. No plot lines or mini epics here, just a band and its music. The only care they have is the music. That’s what they have always been proud of, and as a result they have always supported it aggressively. This is the music that they wrote themselves and worked incredibly hard to perfect…
How hard, you ask? Julian Casablancas was a control freak early on and needed to have every little thing spot on for him to be happy. Maybe he still is, but it’s not talked about as much now. Who else were perfectionists? Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys recorded “Good Vibrations” in studios around the world to finally get the sound he wanted. Bruce Springsteen fought to find the tones he magically heard in his head for his most famous songs. What did that result in? I’m pretty sure it was only some of the best moments in rock history.
As for accusations of simplicity, the band’s harshest and mot praising critics are both right on the money. Yes, the songs are simple in the fact that they follow classic rock structure and formula, but have you really listened to some of them? Julian has always said he wanted to be a composer, and this is how he shows it. Every song has simple parts interweaving and overlapping to create something challenging and fun. The trick here is that they do make simple songs that you can easily enjoy and sing along to, all while filling them with deceivingly complicated parts.
Then there are the people who say the band is unoriginal. How many bands are world famous and completely original in every way? Hmm… my guess would be none, actually. Every artist copies things from every other artist they enjoy. That’s what rock and roll has been all along, since it was spawned from the blues in the late 1940s. It’s natural and can’t be helped, so why look down on an artist for doing it? Sure, Kings of Leon are a shell of their original selves, but thanks to U2 and the Pixies they can still write some great songs. More on that for another time, but it’s a good example of artist aping that needs to occur for originality to thrive.
Society is at the point where every genre has been covered so exhaustively that we now need to combine them to get anything remotely fresh. So, in that regard, leave the Strokes alone. The most they did was swipe the intro to Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and make a great song out of the Peter Gunn theme. Meanwhile, Kid Rock mashes together Lynyrd Skynyrd and “Werewolves of London,” then claims it as an original work. Suddenly the Strokes don’t seem like serious offenders in comparison. They haven’t taken anybody’s identity so much as they have created their own by learning from their predecessors and inspirers.
As a result of this, the Strokes have obtained what I would call their own aura. They don’t really resemble the bands that influenced them, except for maybe in their demeanor and look. They are rock stars after all, and with that fact now comes an expected image. They nailed this part and brought skinny jeans back into fashion long before the modern emo phase came into serious play. And while long hair is nothing new for people wanting to look badass, they pulled that off too. Yet who cares about fashion when there’s music to be heard? Performance-wise, to a keen observer of musical talent instead of just fashion, the band is right up there with the best of them. Here’s why…
As stated, nobody sounds like the Strokes, and they earned it. They practiced for years before even debuting their live set, and it shows. Julian Casablancas’ voice is completely unlike that of any other singer. His slick low baritone that has a common effect of jumping into a screaming rage treble is not something you hear elsewhere. Or ever, for that matter. Julian’s voice sounds like it can subdue a lion one second, and then in the next it’s a freight train going 300 miles an hour and about to round a curve. Then it rounds the god damn curve and takes everyone out with it, leaving onlookers shocked by what just happened. (Is that a good enough description? I think that’s a good description.) To make it all relative, he’s not even a great singer if you compare him to others. But with the music it just works, and that’s all that really matters. I don’t want him to sing opera, and I don’t expect him to. Maybe Alex Turner could pull it off, but not Julian. I just expect him to rock, and he does just that with incredible consistency.
Casablancas is not the only genius though. Every other member adds to the band, and what they do contribute can’t be done by anybody else. Sure, Julian mainly writes the songs and lyrics, but they wouldn’t have that drive without Fab Moretti, Nick Valensi, Nikolai Fraiture, and Albert Hammond Jr. They all take those carefully written songs and expand them to whatever size they are seeking. Now I don’t know the dynamic in which this is done, but I do know some simple facts…
The guitar tones the band uses fit perfectly with their vibe. Albert and Nick have nailed this time and time again, matching the sound of the songs to the cool feel that is Julian’s voice. They step it up when he does, and Nick even went crazy at one point to make his guitar sound like a synthesizer on “12:51.” If that isn’t passion then I don’t know what is. On top of this, what really makes the songs stand out from any other band is their guitar parts. Every solo and lead seems to be calculated and ferociously over thought, and that’s a good thing. It ultimately comes off as completely natural, and leads to every note being catchy and complementary to the melody. The solos are lyrical down to the core, and instead of relying on flashy showmanship, they simply invite the listener to sing along. I know every note of every solo as well as I know every word to every melody, and often find myself singing along to each of them as the songs flow from one part to another. (Cohesiveness is something very desirable in music, if you didn’t know…)
Then there is Nikolai, the classic “stoic bassist” that plays just enough to make a weak pre-chorus shine, but not enough to drown the song into dub-ness. He comes in at just the right moments with the ability to either intensify the moment or take it down into a groove for Julian to croon over. He is not overbearing in any way, shape, or form. In fact, none of the band members are. I’d go as far to say that the biggest talent the Strokes have is how reserved they are with their own work, especially on the first two records.
Then, to round it all out, you have the one and only Fabrizio Moretti. He really doesn’t get enough credit, and I don’t believe I’m the only person who realizes this. Every beat in the band is calculated, every hi-hat hit timed to keep the drive going. Fab really carries the songs, and rarely comes out from behind stage to show just how good he is. He is pretty much what Ringo was for the Beatles; a great drummer who knows his place and doesn’t overshadow the work of his incredibly talented band mates.
So what more could you ask for? The Strokes are not the Who. They are not Phil Collins. They do not rely on stunning you with crazy, complex, squealing guitar solos or intense drum breakdowns. They don’t need to, and they don’t want to. They play and you just feel how good they are. Their cool vibe flows over their audience and then you truly understand who they are and what they can be. Of all my musical fads and phases, from ska to folk to indie rock to baroque pop, I’ve always come back to the Strokes. I’ve always felt connected to something about them. Whether it’s a feeling of being laid back or on the edge of your seat, they make one feel both. To me it just works; I love them for it.
And I am not alone. They might be few and far between, but there are others out there who share my pure passion for this band. What band has fans posting about it weekly and, until very recently, even daily? Who has fans so loyal that they dedicate time each day just trying to find new information about them? The Strokes do, and there’s another point to add to the tally.
For a few more points to count, you should ask yourself this: “Are you a fan of any rock band started in the last ten years?” Well, you can thank the Strokes for that. They invigorated a revival in rock and roll interest that not only convinced your favorite band to form, but opened the door for them to achieve a mainstream (or at least underground) level of fame. Go online and take a gander at how many bands list the Strokes as a direct influence. The band proved once again that five scrappy kids in leather and tight (and often tight leather pants) could take over the world with good music. And they did without looking like they tried to…
So where are we now, you ask? Well, we’re at the point where every major issue for you to not like this band has pretty much been resolved. Now it’s just down to personal preference. I can’t tell you to love the Strokes, and that issue of “they’re boring” is still there. Well, I remember when I thought a few of their songs were boring the first time I heard them. Even rockers like “The Modern Age” are slow at heart, but it’s all made up for with time. After initially not liking some songs, they soon found their way into my head and haven’t let go since. The band is perfect at making music that grows on you, and from where I’m at, it grows exponentially.
To cap off this rant, I’ll address this: “What about First Impressions of Earth, the Strokes luke-warmly received third record?” To this question I will say that with that album you get a classic example of a band trying to put too much into one record. The problem wasn’t the material, but the way it was put out. I did the task of going into extreme detail on this in another article called “The Strokes: Second Impressions of Earth (A Rumination),” so look it up if that’s your only qualm. You will see what I saw, and that’s something I can promise.
I’m at the point that I now feel weird if the Strokes are out of my life for more than a few days, and I don’t think I’m odd for those feelings anymore. I’ve just realized over time that this is the band for me. I don’t care how many drunken frat jocks are around me with their arms crossed waiting for “Last Nite.” I don’t care how many teen girls just went because their friends were going. I don’t care how many hipsters have their mouths agape when I tell them I listen to Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Animal Collective and the Strokes. Or Devendra Banhart, Rancid, and the Strokes. Tokyo Police Club and the Strokes. Hot Hot Heat and the Strokes. I simply do not care, because I know deep down that this is one of the only bands that matters from our generation, and the only band that truly matters to me. Their music is built to last and is a testament to our times just by the way it references so many other times itself. It is immediate and powerful, and in the end, that’s what we crave. The Strokes were and still are the best band of Generation Y, so the only real question left is this: “Does your favorite band match up?”