Subscribe

Credit: Roger Woolman

The Cover Uncovered: The story behind The Strokes' 2001 classic 'Is This It'

Is This It, is the 2001 debut album from New York rockers The Strokes. Its legendary status is unquestionable. It propelled the quintet to greatness and opened the gates for the indie/post-punk revival that would dominate culture throughout much of the noughties, killing off the ‘sad boi’ acoustic indie that had dominated charts in the latter stages of the 1990s. Is This It, is thirty-six minutes of stylish lo-fi that beautifully paints a gritty downtown New York, evoking the city’s traditional punk heroes of The Velvet Underground, Television and The Ramones.  

The album was in UK stores for weeks before it was eventually released in the US, two weeks after the epoch defining September 11th attacks. This tragedy also makes the album iconic. Much like tv show Friends, with its pre-9/11 iconography of the twin towers in the background, commanding the city’s skyline, Is This It presents a sonic reflection of the city at that time.

It captures a way of life that was soon decimated by The War on Terror, Rudy Giuliani and widespread gentrification. After the attacks, as the tectonic plates of culture started to shift, Is This It spawned countless other bands, who would capture the essence of the new society. Without whom, culture in contemporary times would not be the same. The Libertines, Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, Arctic Monkeys and Interpol — the vanguard of this new skinny-jeaned, leather-jacketed, indie revolution — would likely not exist. Furthermore, Interpol’s 2002 debut Turn on The Bright Lights can be seen as the sequel to Is This It, providing a stark and defining account of New York in the post-9/11 era.

Is This It would end up going platinum in multiple countries and was hailed for its charisma and rhythm, two dynamics The Strokes would continue to build on throughout their career. The three singles released from the album ‘Hard to Explain’, ‘Last Nite’ and ‘Someday’ are classic Strokes and are still loved by fans today. Due to the time of release and the global disaster we know was around the corner, the album’s importance only increases. 

However, it is not just the trailblazing grit or the album’s nature as a time capsule that cemented its iconic status. The international cover art also gained infamy, gaining as much shock as love from consumers. 

The cover art is a polaroid photograph by Colin Lane, featuring a woman’s rear and hip, suggestively resting a leather-gloved hand on it. The model was Lane’s girlfriend at the time, and the photo came from an impromptu shoot after she got out of the shower.

Lane recalled that a stylist from another shoot had the left the Chanel glove in his apartment, noting, “We did about 10 shots. There was no real inspiration, I was just trying to take a sexy picture”. The result was indeed sexy, and implicitly graphic, perfectly capturing the essence of The Strokes’ debut.

Like some of the greatest LPs ever released, the cover is as iconic as the music. It is constantly discussed as being one of the greatest album covers of all time, with the influence of provocative photographers Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin duly noted. In conjunction, the band dropped a question mark from the title as it didn’t look “aesthetically right”.

British retail chains HMV and Woolworths objected to the cover but stocked the album anyway. Due to the nature of the artwork, perfectly conveying the themes of the album, is perhaps why the LP has outlived both the high street and Woolworths — showing its timeless status.

Unsurprisingly though, the album cover did have to be changed for the American market. We know that European stores can get over a bit of sexual provocation if money or pure class is involved, but the same cannot be said of the conservative American chain-stores, such as Target or Walmart.

Given the Bush administration, everything that was going on surrounding America at the time, the controversy the international cover caused made the band decide to change the artwork. They feared retribution and thought it best not to provoke the chain stores or lobbyists. Subsequently, the American cover art features the psychedelic image of a subatomic particle in a bubble chamber. Part of the original image had already been used for the cover of Prince’s album Graffiti Bridge. Frontman Julian Casablancas is said to deem the US release “even cooler than the ass picture”.

However, we all know which cover truly belongs to Is This It. In a 2018 interview regarding his spontaneous masterpiece, Lane recalls that after taking the polaroid he put it in his portfolio and then thought nothing of it.

In early 2001, he got his first assignment for The Face magazine — to shoot a then little known band whose debut EP was doing the rounds in London. Initially, he was more interested in the commission from working with The Strokes than their music. However, after the shoot that evening they climbed up to a rooftop near Grand Central Terminal to do another series in the sunset, and they remained in touch.

The Strokes would go on to sign for RCA later that year. Desperately in need of an album cover, Lane was called to an old Winnebago by the band’s art director, attempting to get the band to make a final decision. They were flying to Australia the next day, and the record label’s deadline was fast approaching. Lane recalls: “Luckily, I’d brought my portfolio with me, and they asked if they could flick through. When they asked if they could use the ass shot, I couldn’t believe it.”

The rest is history. The album was everywhere. Lane’s ex was pleased too, and he has never revealed her identity — something he rightly believes is her decision to make. Looking back on those heady days he said: “That scene’s dead now. Which isn’t to say there isn’t great music being produced today, but it was a moment. For the first ten years of the millennium, that scene ruled, and I’ll never stop feeling lucky for having been a small part of it.”

Comments