Nearly 20 years after its release the title of The Strokes debut album, it seems as true as it ever was. Is This It is – if anything – a more pertinent question in the bleak February of London in 2020. It’s easy to forget how incredibly fresh and different The Strokes sounded back in 2001 and how they went on to define a revival of a rock n roll sound and look that would stretch into the coming years. But that’s exactly what they did.
Re-visiting that record now I can remember exactly how – as a teenager growing up in the London suburbs – it seemed like one of the most exciting things I’d ever musically heard. It reminds me of waiting for buses, slyly smoking out of bedroom windows and – through my haze of teenage ennui – daydreaming about saving Julian Casablancas from his well dressed, long haired self. So much has changed. It was a bit of a gateway record in a way; cue time spent digging around online on a dial up internet connection looking for albums by bands like Television (who I’d seen mentioned as one of their influences in an article I’d read).
So when news hit last week that they’d be making a surprise return to the London stage, I wasn’t the only one to be gripped by a nostalgic excitement. Their choice of venue at the Roundhouse makes for a neat symmetry. After all – in many ways – Camden is where a lot of their story began.
Formed back in 1998 in New York City, The Strokes initially struggled to get recognition. But following a recording of their EP The Modern Age, the band were completely embraced by the UK’s NME and flew to the UK where they played their first UK gig at The Barfly (then called the Monarch). With other UK shows selling out before they’d even gotten to the country the band’s hype was significant. Upon returning to the US there ended up being a bidding war over who signed them.
Back then the band were heralded as the saviours of rock n roll. A group whose sound – all garage rock, lo-fi, recorded in one room vibes – was completely at odds with so much of what was going on in the mainstream. Especially as their look (which came to be how whole swathes of people dressed for years after) and off stage lifestyles were as refreshingly rock n roll too. When you think back to London in the 2000s so much of what came after seems to owe a bit of a debt to them. The scene that NME championed in those years had some cross over. Bands like The Libertines or Franz Ferdinand who held more than a passing resemblance. This was a London of sticky floor indie pubs in Camden, skinny jeans and Trash nightclub.
Some of the initial hype surrounding them naturally died down. And their other records – while still popular – never quite matching the hysteria that their debut sparked. But for all of that their popularity sustained. The fact the tickets for this week’s show sold out almost instantly are testament to the fact that Pitchfork’s 2001 proclamation that the only place left for The Stokes to go was “out of style” was anything but true.
The London that I associate with Is This It’s release seems long gone. Yet the sense of urban malaise that seems to fill it remains. And the nostalgia which was always there in it (in part due to its retro feel) seems even more heightened, more fitting now. So maybe on Wednesday a little pocket of that feeling of possibility it seemed to bring will return. Is this it for The Strokes? I don’t think so.