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The Strokes
Brixton Academy, London

Yahoo Music (March 2002)

In the end, it boils down to a simple rollcall of facts. They turned up, impeccable in charity shop hand-me-downs with crumpled cool oozing from every pore, they played pretty much every tune they’ve written without fuss or deviation, and then they went away again, forty five minutes after walking out to the roar of the crowd. That’s it. Five young rough’n’tumble guys bashing out a bunch of songs.

But, oh, what songs.

The endearing things about this gig are the little quirks that you didn’t quite expect. For one, the Most Fashionable Rock’N’Roll Phenomenon On The Planet seem deeply embarrassed to be playing such a short set to such a rampantly devotional crowd. They huddle over their instruments, keeping their heads down, like they figure they’ll get away with it as long as they don’t make too much of a commotion. You’d expect runaway arrogance from a band in their position but they’re visibly humbled, encouragingly sweet.

Two, the Most Fashionable Blah De Blah Etc Etc aren’t actually that rock’n’roll. Not musically anyway. The odd stomping guitar solo and tubthumping tempo shift aside, their core values are cribbed from the earnest, heart-on-your-sleeve, big-red-guitar-in-your-hand essence of old skool indie. Forget the Television references. The perfect pop melodies and singalong choruses on “Marquee Moon” could fit onto a C2 and a half. The real forefathers of the Strokes' exciting (!) new (!) sound (!) are none other than Orange Juice.

At times, it’s uncanny. The jangle. The angular guitar style. The meandering basslines. The soulful croon. Play “Soma” alongside “Falling And Laughing” or “What Presence??” and you’ll spot the shared lineage straight away. It’s a sense of restraint, of precision, of shying away from the sloppy fuzzed-up noise of regular rock’n’roll for something rather more artistic, more rigorous even. Every note is placed in situ meticulously, every word carefully considered.

What makes The Strokes so very very much more than a simple OJ tribute band though is the feeling of rock’n’roll they exude as people. These five boys can play the least hedonistic and outrageous tune imaginable – every old skool indie cliché writ XXL – and still make it feel like rebellion. Listen closely to his lyrics and Julian Casablancas is the epitome of reasonableness (“We’re not enemies, we just disagree”), a gentlemen struggling with the ethics of sweettalking a new girlfriend into going back to her place. And yet every song feels like it’s embued with the hustle and thrum of NYC street life.

Like all the best milestones in rock history, then, The Strokes are a con trick and a magic trick combined. They sell Anglophilia back to the Brits packaged as Americana. And the assembled UK guitar massive lap it up like this is The Smiths or The Stone Roses at their peak. At times, the often hysterical (both senses) crowd are the most exciting part of this show. Two fans hold their pints up to the band in worship. A girl waves first one shoe, then both in the air. A bloke chucks his jacket to the rafters, abandoning it in the name of r’n’r. People jig and jostle, shaking their head from side to side as they try to replicate the Strokes’ itchy sound. Girls scream, guys scream, every moment is mainlined while the chance is there.

And The Strokes, hamstrung by a lack of material and tied to a gig that by its very nature has to be wholly predictable, play the songs and leave the stage. “I just can’t stop saying thank you,” declares Julian at one point. “We looked at each other before we came on and said ‘what the fuck are we doing here?’” He knows there should be more but they’re giving all they have. What more can a young guy do? “When we play here on our third album, we’ll play for four hours,” he promises. Now <I>that<I> is the show to die for. Til then, it’s just a rock’n’roll band playing a handful of songs.

But, oh, what a band. And oh, oh, oh, what songs.

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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