Hiding behind a pair of big aviator shades and clutching the mike stand, Julian Casablancas can hardly tell if he’s singing or not, the monitors are so murky, and lead guitarist Nick Valensi feels like the bass is some kind of malignant force swallowing all the music; rhythm guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. is exchanging worried looks with bassist Nikolai Fraiture, and even the unflappable drummer Fab Moretti seems to lose the beat for a moment. For the five guys onstage, the performance seems to be spinning out of control. And damned if those aren’t the boys from Franz Ferdinand standing right out front witnessing this debacle.
Fifteen yards out from the edge of the stage, the drunk girl with the bleached-out Jane Fonda–in–Klute shag thinks the performance is absolutely brilliant. She waited in line for 26 hours in subfreezing weather to be one of the lucky 800 or so packed into London University’s student union to hear the band preview their new album, First Impressions of Earth. Actually, no matter what the monitors might sound like onstage, it’s a pretty tight performance, a testament to hundreds of hours of rehearsal the Strokes have put in over the last couple of months.
The Strokes first broke in the U.K., and they remain huge here, which may be one reason London gets to hear them perform the new tunes before the hometown crowd in New York does. When the band play the opening chords of “Last Nite,” that instant classic from their 2001 debut, Is This It?, the drunk girl starts screaming like it’s 1964, and I feel my scalp tingling, find myself grinning idiotically. It’s exhilarating, hearing the band perform the song in this tiny venue that’s about the size of the Mercury Lounge in New York, where I heard them in December 2000, when all their fans could fit in one medium-size room and it felt as if maybe we were experiencing a Lazarus moment in the history of rock and roll, the way a lucky few hard-core fans in Seattle might have felt hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time. For many Strokes fans, though, “Last Nite” really evokes the fall of the following year. As if she’s reading my mind, the drunk girl turns to me as the song ends. “I was in New York then,” she shouts. “You know, September 11th.” And then she hugs me—because she’d already learned I was a writer from New York—and spills her vodka-cranberry all over me.
In retrospect, it seems strange to me that an album of edgy, urban, hyperhip garage rock would have become the soundtrack of our post-traumatic distress. Released days after September 11, Is This It could have easily vanished without a trace, as many contemporary pop-cultural offerings did that fall. Instead, the Strokes’ debut album became part of the fabric of that autumn of “missing” posters and anthrax scares, when the air downtown smelled like oven cleaner, and the friend with whom you used to play tennis every week was officially missing. You’d think, in that environment, we would have all had an appetite for the familiar offerings of classic-rock radio, though, in a sense, listening to the Strokes was like listening to an underground, highly selective classic-rock station playing tunes with which you knew you were familiar but that you couldn’t quite identify. The Strokes’ sound seemed both brilliantly distinctive and hugely derivative. You couldn’t necessarily point to any one riff or vocal phrase and say, that’s the Velvet Underground, or Blondie, or the Cars, or Nirvana, or even Tom Petty. Singer Casablancas, who writes all the band’s material, seemed to have digested his influences a little more thoroughly than, say, Oasis’s Noel Gallagher.
But it was almost impossible not to feel a sense of déjà vu while listening to the Strokes. Even visually, the band seemed like a mix-and-match visual compendium of classic-rock iconography: guitarist Nick Valensi looking like a more handsome version of Dylan beneath his Keith Richards–’65 wardrobe; Afroed Albert Hammond Jr. channeling Hendrix and Mike Bloomfield; mustached drummer Fab Moretti making a fine Freddie Mercury; Nikolai Fraiture kind of Brian Jonesy; and heavy-lidded Casablancas, with his baby-suckled-on-absinthe face, looking plausibly like a young Rimbaud, which is to say, like a lead singer.
And, of course, they were a New York band—finally, after all these years—which seemed important, too, at that moment of uncharacteristic civic pride and outside sympathy. All city boys, with the exception of L.A.-born Hammond. Edgy and dark as they were—it’s always 3 a.m. in Casablancas’s voice—the Strokes were also reassuringly retro.
To many of us, anyway. Some music geeks grumbled that the band were mere copycat stylists, and certain guardians of the counterculture, abetted by rival bands, questioned whether the Strokes could claim to have any street cred, given their private-school educations and privileged backgrounds (Julian’s father, John Casablancas, founded the eponymous modeling school; Albert Hammond Sr. writes huge pop songs, like Jefferson Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” which he did with Dianne Warren). On balance, though, the rock press greeted them as the saviors of edgy guitar rock, and the band managed to reach an audience large enough to certify them as a phenomenon, but not quite so large as to alienate their core audience of urban hipsters.