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'Is This It' at 20: The Strokes' influence in the words of the artists they inspired

You pluck Is This It out from the shelf, marvel briefly at the classy derriere, release the vinyl from a sheath more well-thumbed than Sir David Attenborough’s passport, you lay the record down carefully like an infant in a cot, drop the needle on the groove, listen to the hissing precession imbued by a thousand overplays to the point that it now sounds like a welcome visitors car pulling onto a gravel driveway, and there it is…you hear the fizzing out guitar followed by the defibrillation of Fabrizio Moretti’s daringly simple drumbeat and your youth washes back over you in a wave of nostalgia whether you’re 96 or still 16.

Over the course of the next 36 minutes and 28 seconds, there is not one single thought of skipping a beat of the sonic ecstasy unspooling from the spinning grooves. There are, however, thoughts of skipping work, town, or country in a great come-up of musical liberation. In truth, the reason for this is still fairly unclear 20 years later. The effect of the record goes beyond anything that can be clearly identified and put to print. The depth to the album is not in the lyrics, subject matters, or any profound innovation; it lingers in the obfuscated sonic reaches of energy and atmosphere. The closest you can come is to say that it sounds like a band seizing the zeitgeist in some weird spiritual sense like indie alchemists. New York has a history of doing this. 

And yet, rarely is New York the actual source of the innovation itself. When it was a jazz hub for the beat generation, most of the prominent players had been drawn magnetically from the South, forming a hive of diabolic dive-bar genies. Then there was the Greenwich Village folk revival, which by its very definition was rooted in distant pasts and faraway lands. Granted, the Velvet Underground were a Promethean force in many ways, but their reinventions were subtle. Likewise, with punk, it wasn’t so much born in New York; it’s just that its journey happened to culminate there. Undoubtedly, however, it is one of, if not the most important music city in the world, and with their debut, The Stokes joined a coterie of cool cat natives who have pushed the envelope of art.

The reason for this is elucidated by punk forefather Johnny Thunders of The New York Dolls, with his iconic comment: “The Dolls were an attitude. If nothing else, they were a great attitude.” In short, the New York scene has always seemed to recognise that having something to say, and shouting it with style, was more important than proficiency. On Is This It, the band dole out the primordial vigour of youthfulness in a casual maelstrom of attitude and pomp. With it, they saved rock ‘n’ roll, or at least that’s what every single publication said shortly after its release. 

In truth, when rock ‘n’ roll seems to be clinging to the cliff, it’s more like the ending of a Netflix movie holding out for the sequel. It’s a genre that has more lives than a feline James Bond, and the fact that many of the bands inspired by Is This It in the comments below are currently reviving it from its deathbed once more is testimony to its timeless appeal. But that still didn’t make championing The Strokes debut as a saviour anything approaching trite. They blessed the world with a new infusion of ideas plucked straight from the New York ether and filtered in the hue of juvenile fucklessness that forbade anything jejune from coming within touching distance. Most importantly, in a revival sense, they were something different and ineffably cool

Although their sound and style undoubtedly recalled The Velvet Underground of old, and the euphonic guitars coax up a Marquee Moon soundscape, they were profoundly original in this recognition of legacy. The Strokes were the perfect tonic to enliven a hungover music scene in a swaggering declaration that the hair of the dog is always the best cure, in a fizzing renaissance of all that was best about the night before. 

The bands and artists who it inspired in the collated comments below we’re not only stirred up by it, but, like the rest of us, continue to bask in the sanguine glow of youth and adrenalised euphoria that emanates from every one of the gilded melodies. It traverses the highs and lows of coming-of-age in the city in an amorphous splurge that disavows the woes in drunken realist exultation and rollicks through the highs throughout. It’s not that the 21st century peaked too soon, a glut of great records have followed Is This It, but none have better it.

The influence of Is This It:

Jungle

Jungle’s Tom McFarland remembers how Is This It indoctrinated him into the grimy world of rock ‘n’ roll, and for the first time in his life, he felt like he was part of a club.

“You know what I will always take away from that album is the baseline on ‘Is This It’, you know when that comes in? That record for me, and Josh was one of those albums where it was probably the first time I’d ever bought a pair of Converse, some skinny jeans, and that album was one of the first records that made me feel like I belong somewhere.”

“I think whenever I listen to that record, it’s that beautiful, nostalgic feeling of being really young, innocent, carefree and finding you’re feet as a person within society, and sort of understanding that your grasp on culture was something that was positive and fun, and that other people shared with you.”

SPINN

The influence of Is This It goes beyond the wealth of artists who grew up during those heady days at the start of the millennium as Liverpool’s SPINN prove.

Is This It for me is possibly one the most important guitar records to be released in the 21st century,” the band’s Louis O’Reilly says. “In the way it set out a songwriting and production blueprint that so many great bands adopted in the years that followed, without actually being that original at all.

“Each component of every song has its own space from Julian’s oozing vocal to Albert’s hairy guitar melodies – there are no big effects or fancy production elements yet it’s such a pure and massive album. In fact, I’m fairly sure that if The Strokes rocked up on a rainy night to a bar in Milton Keynes and played the whole record with nothing but car boot sale guitars and the in-house backline, it’d still be one of the best live music spectacles you’d have ever witnessed.”

Deep Vally

Deep Vally’s latest release, the excellent American Cockroach, once more reveals their eclectic mix of influences, one of which is the Uber-cool oeuvre of The Strokes.

“Welcome to the era of cool. Dreamy heartthrobs playing absolutely hip-as-shit rock n roll. Yes please. Is this it? This is it.”

Adam Ficek of Babyshambles

Babyshambles were one of the many bands to emerge in the immediate wake of Is This It in a rebirth of scratchy guitar tones and a mix of mod and punk energies. Adam Ficek was a founding member along with Pete Doherty and co. 

“The Strokes shook us from the post Britpop lull creeping in from 97. I had slowly moved my attention to the excitement of the London Breakbeat scene, but in 2001 my love of grit and guitars came back with laser-sharp focus. The Strokes, the look, that video! It kickstarted and reinvigorated band culture.”

Joy Formidable

Joy Formidable are a Welsh alternative band formed in 2007. As youngsters, the band, like so many of us, were stirred up by The Strokes and the strange banality eviscerating hope that they emanated. 

“I remember hearing the track ‘Is This It’ for the first time in HMV in Manchester. It turned my head, which is always a good sign (apart from when the drummer is behind you). The album continued and the raw vitality and hooks struck in a way that I hadn’t felt for a while. It was a refreshing presence and a healthy reminder once more that, polish or not it is the life pushing through that’s important.”

The Sherlocks

The Sheffield indie outfit of The Sherlocks have proved with their recently announced small venue support tour that they are a band in it for the experience of music as much as anything else, tapping into that same riotous realm of The Strokes. 

“Every band has sort of that first song they play together and I’m pretty sure our first ever one was The Strokes,” they commented. “It sort of made you feel ‘yeah we can do this y’know’ and it was just a lot of fun to play. We probably didn’t sound great but it didn’t really matter. Yeah, they were a big band for us really.”

Riva Taylor

Riva Taylor is a singer-songwriter who is riding high on the success of her latest wistful record TWH.2 and like many of us, she can’t believe it’s two decades on since Is This It was released.

“Has it really been 20 years? What a record, which formed part of the soundtrack to the new millennium for me! They are a collection of songs I continue to revisit on long car journeys and dance to at the happiest of occasions. Plus, that artwork!”

Emre

With Years & Years and Exit Kid, Emre Turkmen has been propagating a mix of electronic and punky sounds borne from the same atmospheric realm of fun that Is This It heavily tapped into. 

Is This It stood out from the pack with its sharp cheekbones and NYC swagger. Dry as f**k guitars in each ear and that instantly familiar Casablancas slur. The musical equivalent of a cool pair of sunglasses.”

Overcoats

New York indie-pop duo Overcoats have released their first post-pandemic material in the form of the new EP Used To Be Scared Of The Dark

“The Strokes have been such an influential band to indie music. This album got us through our angsty years.” You’re far from the only ones there. 

Gatlin

Like many of us, dream-pop artist Gatlin is reminded of a specific chapter of her life by the joyous sonic bookmark of Is This It.

“This album reminds me of my first year of college. It’s always felt empowering and youthful and full of emotion.”

Flyte

Earlier this year, Flyte released This Is Really Going To Hurt and proved once more that ‘second album syndrome’ is nothing short of a myth. This summer looks set to be a busy one for the group as they venture to All Points East before hitting the road on a headline tour in September.

“The Strokes came about when it was all Limp Bizkit and Sum 41,” the band reminisce. “They righted every wrong for all 12-year-olds everywhere. Were they the last band to come along and change everything? I think they were.”


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