2001. June. London. Well, Edgware. Near enough. The northernmost point of the Northern Line. The suburbs, years before Arcade Fire made it seem cool. Sinatra said when he was 17 it was a very good year. On this Ol' Blue Eyes and young blue eyes disagree. I'm having a shit year. All that Holden Caulfield kind of crap. Young, white, privileged. It ain't easy. My first concert was Chris de Burgh at the Royal Albert Hall in '92 so my childhood hasn't been without its tough moments though. It's like The Graduate with a far worse soundtrack. Limp Bizkit, Papa Roach, Korn. These are the bands that say something to me about my life. Then my uncle picks me up in his Peugeot 206 and my life is changed forever.
It might seem clichéd to suggest a song can change you forever but that doesn't stop it being true. Simmy has come to take me for a drive. I can't remember why. He's the music reviewer for the Independent on Sunday but to me his occupation is simply cool uncle. He's single, done drugs, been in bands. I am a nervous child and lack ambition. I used to stand in front of the mirror playing air bass.
'Have you heard this?'
Four words I'd heard countless times before and since immediately followed by varying degrees of disappointment. Not this time though.
Simmy handed me the box. It was a free CD with the NME. Now I had assumed the NME was something from the seventies that no longer existed, like shillings. But no, it not only existed but apparently it gave away CDs on the cover from time to time. The sun was shining as we drove through Stonegrove and the CD was sucked into the machine.
The Modern Age.
That sound. I'd never heard anything like it before. The drawl of the singer, the chug of the guitars, the way it all sounded so fucking cool. I had no idea who The Strokes were or what they looked like but it was immediately obvious they probably dressed a little differently to Fred Durst. To Simmy this was a brilliant new band wearing their influences on their sleeve but to me they were utterly unique. I didn't know about The Ramones or The Velvets, Television or The Stooges. All that would come later. In that moment, it was just about this band. I'd loved bands before but I'd never been part of anything from the very beginning.
Fast forward a week and I own everything The Strokes have put out. Namely, one EP, The Modern Age, containing the title track, "Last Nite" and "Barely Legal" as well as one single, "Hard to Explain" (B-Side New York City Cops). I hadn't bought a single in years but these were exceptional circumstances. I have even subscribed to the NME.
2001. August. The twin towers are still up, I am still down. In England it is customary for young Jews to spend a month in Israel after their most important exams to date. Organised by various youth groups, this is most commonly referred to as tour though The Rolling Stones it ain't. We spend our days sleeping on the tour bus, sure, but in place of the sex and drugs and rock & roll, we're mainly confronted with attempts to turn us into Zionists.
I am part of Tour 3 with FZY. Many of my closest friends are part of the same group; others have pulled out, as apparently the situation in the Middle East is the worst it has been in years. I simply assume this is typical overprotective Jewish parenting though in fairness we are forced to call home and assure our parents we're safe on more than one occasion after a bomb explodes a few miles from our location. Plus ça change.
FZY Tour 3 is subject to its very own Israeli conflict. Jewish princesses of both genders dominate our party and everything is a problem. Years before My Super Sweet 16, we were witnessing the kind of spoilt behaviour that is a lot funnier on TV than in reality. I spend most of my time on the bus listening to Ben Folds Five with my new friend Andy witnessing this selfishness and hoping neither I nor anything else will explode. Music is all about connection and our group's self-penned motto, 'Tour 3, how hot are we?' is not a lyric my friends and I can relate to. We choose not to sing and are accused of thinking we're better than everybody else. Pointing out the inherent irony in this aids nothing and nobody. Best to keep quiet and listen to Andy's Discman, one headphone each, whilst attempting to drown out the Destiny's Child emanating from the bus's own sound system. This is war.
Unlike Moses, I make it to the Promised Land. Jerusalem was the city in which my faith was restored though not by praying and leaving a letter amongst the ruins of an ancient wall. Instead, I received a letter.
I had received plenty of letters during my time in Israel, exclusively from my mother (asking if the food was OK and telling me she loved me) and my father (making me laugh and not telling me he loved me). This was different though. I didn't recognise the handwriting on the envelope. I hastily tore it open. A note.
Hi Daz. I thought you might like this. Let me know. Love Simmy x
No reference to the trip, Israel, England. That was it. And there, hiding at the bottom of the envelope, was a C60 cassette tape with a track listing in the very same handwriting. And at the top, in block capitals:
The Strokes - Is This It
At first I assumed Simmy must have mistakenly omitted the question mark. But then I thought again. This was no error. For months all the music press had done was champion The Strokes and eagerly await the arrival of their debut record. They were responding to that hype with the very title of the album. But rather than feel daunted by the exposure, the band had had the temerity, the sheer balls, to leave off the question mark. There was no question about it. In other words, This Is It.
There was just one problem. We had Andy's Discman, I had a MiniDisc player, but nobody had a device for playing cassettes. Even in 2001 they were deemed passé. There was only one option available to us. The tour bus tape deck. This suggestion, like those making it, was not going to be popular.
And so it proved. Given the location of the dispute, the lengthy negotiations seemed apposite. After weeks in which the most challenging music we'd been subjected to was Savage Garden, the leaders reneged and allowed us a blast of something fresh.
We sat at the front of the bus in a desperate bid to drown out the arrogant chants of our peers. Myself, Bob, Jon, Matt and Andy. Old friends and new. This was the big moment. In went the cassette. Here goes everything.
That opening sound, that of a tape grinding to a halt, makes us all fear for an instant that the cassette is in some way broken. But no, our fears are allayed; apparently it is simply The Strokes slowing down a lifetime's worth of boring guitar music and grinding it into the dirt. Then the drums kick in and Julian sings:
Can't you see I'm trying?
I don't even like it. I just lied to
Get to your apartment, now I'm staying
Here just for a while
I can't think 'cause I'm just way too tired.
Is This It. Is This It. Is This It.
I'd love to say the next 36 minutes passed with the entire bus stunned into reverential silence. That for the remainder of the trip we were no longer outsiders but treated like Gods. I'd love to, but I can't. All I can recall is the five of us at the front of the bus straining to hear every lyric and the rest of the group utterly ambivalent. By the end of the day though, I had a new favourite album and we had our very own chant to combat the ditty our group sang in praise of their collective good looks.
FZY Tour 3, FZY Tour 3, FZY Tour 3, they ain't too smart.
Victory is ours.
2002. March. The twin towers are down, I am up. In the intervening few months, I kissed a girl and I liked it. I've continued to obsessively purchase every single bit of Strokes merchandise on the market. I am part of The Strokes mailing list, and, as such, have received a free signed poster of the band by virtue of being one of the first 500 members. I am en route to the Brixton Academy in South London for what feels, to all intents and purposes, like a homecoming show. The band have not played on these shores since the release of the album, in the days when they opted to perform Is This It in order and in its entirety. Ticket touts bellow 'buy or sell' as Andy and I emerge from the station and some of the prices being suggested beggar belief. £500 insists one scalper despite the fact that The Strokes do not have the material to perform for more than 45 minutes at the very most. With all this in mind, is it worth cashing in? Is it fuck.
It goes without saying that The Strokes were majestic. They played each and every track from Is This It along with a couple of new numbers. All was well. The less well-documented aspect of the evening was the performance of the support act, Longwave. Stylistically a kind of middle ground between Radiohead and The Strokes, they were good enough for our ears to prick up when they concluded their set with the friendly invitation to come and see them headline their own show at the tiny Camden Barfly on Saturday. Perhaps it was the excitement of my heroes' imminent arrival on stage, perhaps it was simply because there was very little to do on a Saturday night during Passover but in that moment I silently vowed to attend that gig.
It proved to be a Saturday night of almost Whigfieldian proportions. The Barfly remains the smallest venue I've ever gone to for a gig. Pre-smoking ban, the air was filled with cigarette smoke of every description. Quite uncharacteristically, we had a few drinks. And then, just before Longwave made their way onto the stage, I spotted some familiar faces.
Well, two of them to be precise. Fab Moretti and Nikolai Fraiture. Three if you count Ryan Gentles, often referred to as the 'sixth Stroke'. A combination of alcohol, adoration and the goading of my friends meant I had to say something.
To this day I can't remember exactly what I said. They say never meet your heroes but there was so much I wanted to tell them. Gratitude I wanted to express. Instead I just fumbled around in the dark trying to make clear exactly how great I thought they were. I concluded with the utterly cringeworthy, 'Believe the hype.' They just smiled and said, 'Thanks man.'
The next day I sent an email to the mailing list (manned by Ryan) and apologized if I came across as an asshole. He replied, 'Not at all, see you at the next show.' But still, for a decade that encounter has bothered me.
This piece is, to some extent, an opportunity to apologize for being an asshole. It is about a band. A time. A place.
It is about being young, being a fan. It is about hype. My friends and I loved and love this record. Our lives were soundtracked by five young men in New York who thought it'd be fun to try and write some tunes and ended up conquering the world.
Is this it?
You'd better believe it.
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