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Is This It?

(Subtitled What Is This Shit?)

It was those opening words of his review that got Greil Marcus fired from Rolling Stone magazine in 1970 following his slaying of Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait. A hotchpotch of bewildering cover versions, syrupy reworkings of his own back catalogue and bizarre odds ‘n sodds so far removed from the Bob of 2/3/4 years earlier as to place the 1970s Bob firmly in the ‘has-been’ category, we can, with the benefit of hindsight apprecaite Marcus’ review for what it really was – a passionate attack on an act once so revered and vital but now finding themselves in the midst of creative meltdown. If you’ve ever experienced the disappointment of your favourite band so spectacularly failing to deliver, you should take the time to read it.

the strokes

And so to The Strokes. Is This It came out 11 and a half years ago (the day of the 9/11 bombings, same day as the Zim’s Love And Theft, if I remember correctly) and was a perfect summation of everything The Strokes had worked to by that point. NYC rich kids, a contradiction of expensive continental schooling and extensive dress-down grooming, they took the blueprint of all that was great with mid 70s Noo Yoik noo wave and ran with it in a scramble of battered Converse and 28″ waists. A garage band, a proper we-can-play-our-chops garage band, they burned their way through a handful of lean, mean, rattlin’ and rollin’ tracks, every one more vital than the previous one. Their look, their sound was nothing new. It was nothing clever. But it was terrific. Last Nite was my favourite.

Last Nite (from debut The Modern Age ep):

Last Nite came complete with the sound a million bands who’ve ever played live in front of a ghetto blaster set to ‘record’ will recognise – that of the sound of the snare drum rattling from the vibrations from the ambience in the room. It takes me right back to ear-splitting band rehearsals at Shabby Road even as I type. With doe-eyed Julian and his Benylin-through-a-bullhorn vocal and fab drummer Fab Moretti about to embark on a relationship with A-lister Drew Barrymore, they fairly set the loins alight of many an impressionable female. They had the licks. They had the looks. They had it all and the world was their oyster.


Fast forward to 2013. The Strokes’ 5th album, Comedown Machine, has just been released. I’ve lived with it since the end of March and, well, Letdown Machine would perhaps have been a more appropriate title. It’s not exactly a surprise – the last couple of albums have been nothing but weak filler propped up by the occasional FM-shiny belter, but Comedown Machine has no redeemable features. None at all. Leaving behind the myriad of 70s influences that made The Strokes what they are, they seem to have discovered the 80s. And not an 80s where demi Gods such as John McGeoch and Julian Cope and Ian Curtis and (insert your own idol here) provided a real alternative to the rubbish filling the airwaves, but an 80s of Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine and Linn drums and Rubik’s Cubes and shitty day-glo socks. It wasn’t very good then and it isn’t very good now.  In short, it’s a horrible car crash of electro bleeps and synthesized drums (synthesized drums! Poor Fab – whatever happened to the Clem Burkeisms he was so good at?)

the strokes 2013

Looking at this, whatever you’re thinking, I’m thinking it too.

Before any singing starts, the opening track sounds like a demo of Beyonce’s Bootylicious, all pitter pattering drum machines, jerky Super Mario melodies and FX heavy guitars. On paper, that might sound interesting. Good, even. It’s not. Lead single One Way Trigger shamelessly appropriates the hook from A-Ha’s Take On Me and petres out in a cascade of falsetto singing and electro handclaps. Gads. Throughout, you’ll hear the sound of a band as bloated and insignificant as Duran Duran, playing Strokes by numbers with diminishing returns. I’ve tried hard to like it, I really have. But, nah, The Strokes have lost it. The most interesting track 50/50, with its backwards effects and repetitive computerised guitar parts sounds an awful lot like Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s Music For A Found Harmonium. Penguin! Cafe! Orchestra! Now there’s something you never thought you’d read. What is this shit indeed.

Contrast & Compare:

Music For  A Found Harmonium:



4 thoughts on “Is This It?”

  1. the strokes never had it. I remember being vaguely into is this it when it was released (in july 2001, not 9/11, by the way). I thought it was certainly derivative, but hey, I love the velvet underground and the ramones, and the strokes sounded like okay players, so why not?

    well, that question was answered for me when I saw them play SNL in january 02, at the very minute they walked out on stage. up to that point, I had been unaware that they were a well-packaged indie boyband, each member’s appearance carefully crafted to represent various cliches of indie rock over the years–the new romantic guy, the 60s garage rock guy, the “sonic youth” guy, etc. etc. never again. suddenly the derivative aspects became their overwhelming definitive element and I sold the CD on ebay.

  2. Thanks for the comments.

    The album came out on 9/11, but you’re right, The Modern Age ep was out before then. I disagree with you when you say The Strokes never had it. They did! They could play, had the tunes and alongside the White Stripes and maybe even Kings Of Leon (they burned bright for about 10 mins), arrived on the crest of a cool wave of US guitar bands. I like your point about each member being carefully crafted to represent the cliches of indie rock. I’d never thought of that before, but you’re spot on.

    Anyway, first album = terrific, latest album = horrific.


  3. I got a promo for is this it through my school’s radio station in july that year; coupled with hearing about the strokes touring australia in support of it around that time, I’d always assumed that the record was officially released that month. it was, but only down there.

    as it turns out, it was released on 8/27 in the UK, and on the uncannily late date of 10/9 (postponed from 9/25) over here. this comes from NME and spin archives. no mention of a 9/11 release anywhere.

    I gave it a listen this morning on spotify–first time I’ve heard it in ten years. if anything, it seems even more corporate and privileged in retrospect, kind of like what you would imagine adult contemporary punk to sound like. I just can’t handle the inauthenticity.

  4. I’m not sure of the release date but NYC Cops was supposed to be on ITI and they felt compelled to take it off. I saw them in Milwaukee in 2002 or 2003 and they rocked it pretty good, but they were certainly nothing new just a derivative band with 11 or 12 really good songs. As you all pointed out, downhill since…

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