The world of music is full of tales of dream-induced creativity. The Beatles found many of their greatest songs without even opening their eyes. John Lennon, for example, picked up ‘Dream #9’ after hearing the chorus bouncing around his head, while Paul McCartney was inspired to write both ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Yesterday’ after experiencing strange, potentially cheese-laced dreams. That’s to say nothing of Jimi Hendrix’ Purple Haze’, The Rolling Stones’ ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, or The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’ – all of which were conjured up in a reverie. As a result of the sheer ubiquity of dream-inspired songs in the canon of popular music, the whole concept has become something of a cliche in recent years, exactly the kind that a band like The Strokes were keen to avoid.
It must have come as something of a shock, then, when Julian Casablancas found himself the possessor of a hit song written entirely in his sleep. His faint embarrassment is clear from an interview with GQ in 2014, in which he explains the origins of ‘Ask Me Anything’ from The Strokes’ 2005 album First Impressions of Earth. ‘”It’s funny: This is one of that cheesy songwriter ‘I dreamt it’ stories, but I dreamt it was a Scissor Sisters song. And there was just a chorus where they kept saying, ‘I’ve got nothing to say’, and it was so hypnotic and weird and f–ked with my head. I woke up thinking it was a real song. And then I realized: ‘Oh, wait, I made that up in a dream, so I can just do it and I’m not plagiarising.'”
As songwriters so often are, Casablancas was asked to explain the deeper meaning behind that central lyric: “I’ve got nothing to say.” Convinced that it reflected some deep-rooted sense of self-doubt, fans were surprised to hear that the phrase was just as superficial and meaningless as it sounds: “I just think it’s interesting,” Casablancas began, “because there’s something so vain about being in a band and being a singer. So to say ‘I have nothing to say’ seemed like a cool, refreshing kind of concept.”
More than anything, ‘Ask Me Anything’ was a statement of intent. As drummer Fabrizio Moretti told Clash in 2006, “That whole song is like where we confess that we’re just going to do our thing and we’re going to be a band and live by our own integrity and never compromise,” he said, adding: “The music industry is like any other business. It’s about trade-offs. And very often when you don’t give what people are expecting of you – you know, the powers that be that decide how successful you’re going to be – they’ll f–k you in the ass. I’m not going to name any names but a lot of times we haven’t done things because we feel like we’d be embarrassed to do them and that’s cut off our road with certain people.”
It’s a recurring theme: dream-inspired songs tend to hold a unique shape. Because they germinated in a state of fluid inhibition, songs like ‘Dream Number #9’, ‘Purple haze’ and ‘Ask Me Anything’ don’t adhere to typical structures – rather, they are innately unwieldy and leftfield. Perhaps this allowed The Strokes the courage to assert their pwn creative will, to stand up and declare that they had no intention of being the band the industry wanted them to be.