I still remember the first time I heard The Strokes. It wasn’t a particularly glamorous affair – I was at a listening station in the Virgin Megastore in Union Square waiting to go see a movie around the corner (The Royal Tenanbaums if memory serves) but I do remember skipping from one song to the next and by the time I got to the end I couldn’t wait to get in line and buy that thing. I listened to it pretty much non-stop for the next 6 months and at least once a week for close to a year. They already had a big buzz in New York City and the album was the first in a long time that seemed to be universally loved and completely ubiquitous. You literally couldn’t go anywhere without hearing it – from dive bar jukeboxes to big box retailers trying to be cool. For me personally, it turned me on to a rock sound that I’d largely turned my back to for the past decade as I got deeper into hip-hop and sample/beat oriented music. It also fit my lifestyle at that particular moment – 26 and living on the mythological Lower East Side of Manhattan, going out too late more nights than not, while somehow finding a way to pay for it all and still get to my temp jobs by 9AM. That was before the LES became Douchebag Central and places like Welcome to the Johnson’s still had an edge to them. I remember once sitting in 2A waiting for my buddy to arrive hating on this dirtbag rocker at the end of the bar with not one but two gorgeous girls on either side of him. When my buddy arrived his eyes went to the same scene and I asked him, “Do you believe this fucking guy?” His response, “Yeah, I would think that guy was a dick too except he’s the lead singer of The Strokes.” So we ordered a shot and a beer and gave Julian a silent toast and a pass. They were just untouchable at that point.
When the Yeah Yeah Yeahs arrived not long after they quickly built up a similar buzz feeding in part off the success of The Strokes. People just wanted more of that energy. All the sudden it seemed like something was happening in the city and we were a part of it. These weren’t some rock gods that played arenas, they were kids like us that hung out at Max Fish and lived in shoebox apartments in the same neighborhood. Karen O was sexy and intimidating. She immediately had everyone’s attention. Their debut EP turned out to be just an appetizer for their first proper album which maintained their raw urgency but also revealed new layers to the band. I’m talking specifically about “Maps” which was pretty much the perfect love song for that moment in time. I remember seeing them live at the Bowery Ballroom and being somewhat shocked to discover that the band was essentially Karen O and two nerds who then proceeded to whip that place into a frenzy. I saw them several times after that and it was always the same no matter the size of the venue. If it was a festival crowd, like Lollapalooza in 2008, she would just push her crazy that much further to get everyone where she wanted them to go. I never did get to see The Strokes live. They graduated to bigger stages almost immediately and either I didn’t want to pay the ticket prices or felt like seeing them in a place like MSG just wouldn’t be the experience I was after.
Both bands have dealt with the blessing and the curse of immediate success. For The Strokes there was no way they were going to live up to Is This It. It remains a desert island album for most people I know and an undisputed classic that still ranks among the best top to bottom rock records ever made. Every time they put out a something new people were hoping for a little more of that magic and got increasingly dissatisfied when it wasn’t there. I still think Room On Fire is a very good record that if put out by another band would have been treated much differently. It wasn’t nearly the bomb that critics tried to make it out to be, it simply wasn’t the first album. As time pressed on the following records faced similar fates but still had some great moments. Julian’s demo version for “I’ll Try Anything Once” is one of my favorite songs of all time and each record still had at least one or two of those tracks that sounded perfect at a party or BBQ. But truth be told I liked the Brazilian version of The Strokes, band drummer Fabrizio Moretti’s side project Little Joy, more than I did First Impressions of Earth. Guitarist Albert Hammond Jr.’s solo stuff always had a couple of good songs and even Julian’s largely ridiculous Phrazes for the Young had a great lead single and a couple of minor gems. When I heard the band was getting back together in 2011 I felt a cautious excitement but after seeing the cover art for Angles and later Comedown Machine I was immediately suspicious and besides “Taken for a Fool” and a few other passable tracks they’ve both been hard to defend. They’re not out and out terrible they just feel half-assed and lifeless. This is when I become thankful (with hindsight being 20/20) that a band like The Smiths never got back together to try and rekindle the fire because in the case of The Strokes they are clearly missing the spark and were probably better off leaving well enough alone.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs fared slightly better with their follow-up albums. I personally loved the stripped down Show Your Bones and the violent Is Is EP but these releases showed opposing sides of a split personality and didn’t offer up the balance of hard and soft that fans seemed to demand. Their third proper solo record It’s Blitz! was a surprising success both commercially and critically. They seemed ready to be rock stars this time around and cashed in with big room concerts and commercial endorsements. Strangely, long-term fans weren’t upset because the music was so damn good. I remember seeing them as a last minute headliner at Lollapalooza in 2010 when the Beastie Boys had to cancel and thinking they were at the top of their game. Karen O had the crowd eating out of her hand and they picked all the right highlights from their now deep catalog. They had become a big band that were still hanging onto a lot of credibility and I had to respect that. But this new record just feels like they ran out of gas. Again, it was suspect cover art that provided the first clue they might be falling off and initial listens did little to alleviate my fears. Their concepts felt forced and more than half the songs saw them falling back on a now well-developed formula with little of the same success. I never thought I’d say this about the YYY’s but this album is boring. Adding head-scratching features like Kool Keith aka Dr. Octagon only made matters worse. I’m sure they’ll haul in a good amount of money for this one and fulfill a contractual obligation but for their legacy’s sake I hope this is the last record under that band name.
Both these bands have had a great decade plus run in a fickle industry and provided me personally with many classic memories but it feels like they have to be at the end of the line. It makes me respect my heroes like James Murphy, for throwing in the towel early, or Thom Yorke for constantly trying to discover new sounds to pair with his inimitable voice. Part of it is simply growing up. When you start out young and fresh and your audience looks just like the band things are going to be different ten years later. Some of us are married, some of us have kids, most of us don’t go out as much and probably care more about what’s on our DVR than what’s happening at Le Baron or wherever else the coolest people hang out and celebrities show up. Maybe they’ll shift gears and surprise me the next time around but if not I think the time has come to retire these classic names. It’s just not the same anymore.