In the end of the summer/early fall of 2001 I immersed myself with Radiohead. Having just seen them live for the first time at Grant Park in Chicago, I lived and breathed Kid A and the still new to my ears Amnesiac. I was still coming off of a jamband drip thanks to Phish’s first hiatus and had quickly realized that many of the indie bands that filled my hard drive were broken up, never to practice or perform together in person ever again (<- Lies, I saw Pavement and Neutral Milk Hotel many years later) – so I injected Thom Yorke, the Greenwoods and the rest of Radiohead into my veins.
I distinctly remember moving into my third floor apartment (the one I never slept at) on Bernard Ct. in Madison at 10 o’clock on the Sunday night before classes started my first semester at UW. My Honda Accord parked in the alley, doors wide open and blaaaaarrring “Idioteque” at volume levels that I assumed a neighborhood at one of the top party schools in the nation would applaud…when from the stairwell I noticed that the sound had ceased. I came outside and found one of roommates (the one I barely knew) stepping out of my car after turning the radio down and shutting all of my doors.
“Think we’re all done here, dude.”
If you didn’t already get the idea – Radiohead was my jam. And if my countless hours spent listening didn’t make it so – the IT hours clocked removing malware from campus computers thanks to me illegally downloading every b-side, remix and live performance definitely did.
I loosened the tie and pulled out the needle one day I noticed an electric buzz flowing through the bus on the way to class one morning – a journalistic hypnosis that had the whole bus wide-eyed and drooling. It was either like an electric current or a scene from a movie where a packed educational transportation vehicle full of zombies had their faces buried in the Arts section of the school paper (really whichever image works better for you).
Naturally, there was an abandoned copy of the school newspaper, bent up and seemingly weeks old next to me after half the kids rushed off at Union South. I quickly flipped past the unfinished crossword and ads for drink specials, used books, and legal versions of otherwise illegal stimulants (with every intention of going back to check them out) so I could find out what the hell all of the zombies were drooling about.
As it turned out, a short paragraph informed me that there was a band called The Strokes that had just played one of their first live shows in New York the previous weekend. No. They didn’t have an album out yet. It wasn’t coming out until October. This article was pointing to the fact that they played a show. In New York.
So why did the hip kids belonging to Madison’s zombie army give a shit about this NOW, months before full length release? Well, I would later find out when Is This It hit shelves and quickly found its way into my ‘too big to fit in any pocket’ Sony Discman.
Upon pressing play and hearing the first notes of “Is This It” I was sucked into a sound that mimicked everything that was going on around me. College. Highs. Lows. Victories. Defeats. Is This It? was loud, gray, fuzzy, and cocky while also managing to inflect a tremendous amount of uncertainty. It was fast paced and modern. Aggressive and abrupt. Loud and lazy. Vocal phrasing came from a voice that sounded just as good when the words were screamed or sung softly. Songs like “Last Night” and the track stripped from the US version of the album post 9/11, “New York City Cops,” invoked attitude and a turned up lip of Billy Idol proportions. Others like “Someday” and “Hard to Explain” hit on the confusion and inexplicable.
Is This It is unforgettable for the feeling that it induced and also for the movement of music that it seemed to launch. Soon after, the world was treated to fantastic debut albums from bands that even if they weren’t trying to top The Strokes first offering, it will forever seem like they were. Simply because everything post-Is This It? was offered to me in a comparison. “Have you heard Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights? It’s a darker version of The Strokes. What about Black Rebel Motorcycle Club? Similar vibe.” Or even when a friend called me out of the blue the following summer to see if I’d heard of Kings of Leon. When he heard that I hadn’t, he said “Dude, they’re like the southern version of The Strokes. But maybe better.” And while Turn on the Bright Lights and the first couple of Kings of Leon records are phenomenal, they’re no match for the sounds that Julian and Co. produced on record 1.
Because of all that – I will forever be indebted to The Strokes for creating an amazing debut record that paralleled and soundtracked a monumental year of my life. Everything about it made sense. Musically, I prefer their second, Room on Fire, over Is This It? but I’m probably in a vast minority there. I suppose I also owe them a hardy thanks for helping me temporarily shelve my Radiohead addiction- I was slowly turning into an android.
Thanks for reading!