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The legacy that The Strokes has left to history is immense - Is This It is generally considered one of the most influential albums of all time | Photo: Matt from Orlando, USA (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The legacy that The Strokes has left to history is immense - Is This It is generally considered one of the most influential albums of all time | Photo: Matt from Orlando, USA (CC BY-SA 2.0)
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Milestones in Music History #19: The Strokes, a New Indie Era

Noise Music; Barret; Suicide; Velvet Underground; Desert Rock; the history of music is a perilous and yet appeasing path to walk. It has been, since the very beginning of times, this powerful gift, and music is possibly the most evolving and sophisticated form of art, which has affected culture, lifestyle, society, and history itself. The purpose of the Insounder series "Milestones in Music History" is to delight you with some of the pivotal moments in music, some acts, facts, and records that delineated and shaped music for years to come (actually as far as this series could go on). I have selected a few, based on my personal path through music culture and based on the fact that I firmly believe these moments radically changed everything.

The impact that hard-glam rock had on the music panorama—as we saw in the previous episode—was without precedents: the innovations in music style, and more importantly, in stage behaviour and the single individualities of each member of the band. At the end of the 90s, a new need emerged among musicians and bands, as the music industry became an empire and major labels patronised the market. When music becomes business, it is difficult for a band to maintain integrity and to keep it real. Economic interests, as we have seen in many episodes of Milestones, often undermine relationships within the band, and in some cases, alter the whole evolutional arch of a musician. Artists took a new approach, inspired by grunge and post-rock, by expressing their emotions, their true selves, in the most authentic way and without being piloted by mindless wallet holders. A new revolution began and the people who carried the flag were the group known as The Strokes.

Indie rock is a relatively new concept, but "indie" was born much earlier. This term was used to designate independent record labels already back in the 70s, in the US, UK and New Zealand. Since musicians coming from other scenes (such as alternative rock or pop rock) did not have a chance to take part in the big music market a new path had to be paved. And punk rock proved to be crucial for letting this happen. The BBC documentary from 2015, Music for Misfits: The Story of Indie, established the starting point of indie in the year 1977, the same year in which punk was supposedly born, with the Buzzcocks' EP Spiral Scratch. So, in the 80s "indie" started to describe a music style that was close to punk and post-punk. There is a cassette from 1986, the C86, which is an NME compilation that introduced bands like Primal ScreamThe Pastels and The Wedding Present; basically, the UK indie scene. In England, indie grew significantly, with artists coming from Postcard records, such as Josef K and Orange Juice, considered precursors of indie pop, and great independent labels such as CreationSubway and GlassThe Jesus and Mary Chain and New Order are probably the most notable groups that came out of this process in the 80s.

But in the 90s, as some alternative genres became mainstream—for example, the grunge phenomenon and the punk revival—the term indie began to indicate groups who produced music underground and published it independently. During the asphyxiating grunge trend, however, there appeared some interesting acts, especially riot grrrl music, a feminist-oriented movement with punk and punk rock influences, and represented by bands like Bikini KillBratmobile7 Year Bitch and Huggy Bear.

Indie in the 90s evolved. The whole alternative indie subculture gave birth to many forms of indie music and developed new characteristics. The lo-fi element became essential, as it emphasised the fact that the artists were self-produced. It was independent and underground, but unlike punk and punk rock, indie emerged lighter, softer and more naïve. At the end of the decade, the indie movement took an important turn and this was solely thanks to the birth of revolutionaries of the genre, who perfectly embodied the true indie spirit.

In 1977 Julian Fernando Casablancas (lead singer and songwriter), Nick Valensi (guitar) and Fabrizio Moretti (drums) formed a band during high school. Eventually, Nikolai Fraiture (bass) and Albert Hammond Jr. were added to the formation. They started rehearsing relentlessly in New York, and they had their first show as The Strokes at The Spiral, on September 14, 1999. They released the EP The Modern Age, in 2001, but later that year, they rerecorded all the tracks and some more for their debut and now legendary album Is This It. It had a provocative and captivating cover, showing a gloved hand on a woman's naked backside, not to mention its provocative songs and lyrics. For example, the track "New York City Cops," featuring the chorus "New York City Cops, they ain't too smart," was removed from the album and replaced with "When It Started."

The whole album is, in my opinion, the greatest example of indie music, as we mean it today. The opening track, "Is This It," features a very simple drum line, which more or less follows for the rest of the record. Simple guitar riffs, no solos, a soft honest voice and no apparent desire to impress—it is a genuine and minimal circle of compositions, which according to Valensi ("no gimmicks, no tricks") do not intend to deceive the listener. The whole album shows the inner nature of the band and its members, without hyperbole or exaggeration. And at the same time, it's a complex album. You can find elements of post-punk, rockabilly, melodic ballads, garage rock, shoegaze and pop. This could really have been IT. Also, the success and acclamation the record generated was huge. All critics positively received the album, and the band started touring worldwide immediately after the release, even opening for The Rolling Stones.

From there on, The Strokes continued to impress, with their following albums Room On Fire (2003) and First Impressions of Earth (2005). After a long hiatus—during which Julian Casablancas started his own solo project, called The Voidzthe band got together again to record Angles in 2011 and Comedown Machine in 2013. In 2016, the EP Future Present Past was released, which used an interesting concept where three songs appear, representing the future ("Drag Queen"), the present ("Oblivius") and the past ("Threat of Joy").

With their latest work The New Abnormal (2020) the band sounds as fresh as in their beginning. At the same time, however, they look more mature and connected with actual historical and political facts. It is still considered an indie rock album, with elements of new wave and electronic music, but also 80s pop music, dream pop and glam rock. The Strokes never changed, and yet at the same time, they have changed a lot.

The legacy that Julian Casablancas and The Strokes left to history is immense. Is This It is generally considered one of the most influential albums of all time; LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy defined it as the record of the decade and The Killers’ Brandon Flowers stately claimed it to be a perfect album. Alex Turner, in the very first lyric of "Star Treatment," the opening track of Arctic Monkeys’ Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, states "I just wanted to be one of The Strokes." Bands like The White StripesFranz FerdinandKaiser ChiefsLibertines (and many others) clearly took inspiration from them. The Strokes drew a line which separates the old and the new and they started a phenomenon that will shape contemporary music forever. Musically quite far from them, but probably with similar intentions, are the compositions of Alva Noto, which we will talk about in our next episode of Milestones.

Has indie rock evolved today? In the digital era, with music spreading widely via streaming on digital platforms, is it still possible for independent labels to survive? In which way can music express politics nowadays? Will indie develop into any new forms, or, Is This (Really) It? 

Leave us your opinion below in the comments!

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I am a musician and music journalist based in Prague. 42 is also the name of my project founded in 2008, experimental Dada music with a touch of noise. My latest album,…