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Feb 02

The Strokes – IS THIS IT?

FTPost a comment • 1,949 views

1) Can I begin with a footnote?1

It makes sense to do so, since for all intents and purposes the Strokes are a footnote – that least sexy of paratextual props2 – a scribbled quibble in the margin of pop history, not even parasitic (since that would imply some independent existence), but entirely reliant on the source they reference. Sad sacks of all ages would have you believe that this is the condition we’re condemned to in the belated 21st century – that even the gleaming nonplusUltraDisko of Daft Punk is a mere digest of all our dancefloor days. To exclaim, like some nineteenth century Romantic, ‘let us establish an original relationship with the universe’ is these days a little gauche, since the universe, like the stars, was lost to us long ago amid all this light and noise. Nevertheless, we should at least expect some caprice or cunning from our thieves. Daft Punk are jackdaws, their principle of selection whatever glitters most, be it a Shannon bassline, a Satriani solo or a Trevor Horn orchestral flourish, and this indiscrimination creates odd equations, strange constellations of feeling and flavour. The Strokes, on the other hand, are one of those shameless birds that squats in somebody else’s nest.

2) And this nest, needless to say, is ‘CBGBs’ – now just as much a historypark nexus of avant-garde glamour and bohemian ambition as, say, ‘Paris in the Twenties’, the Cabaret Voltaire or the Warhol Factory . In truth, there are few greater fans of this milieu than myself. Back in my poppuppyhood, when I first rolled up in Manhattan with all the city open to me like a book, I insisted my hosts escort me to the orphic motherlode that had given the world Television, Blondie, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Richard Hell, The Ramones. They looked at me in the way I might look at someone who wished to make a pilgrimage to the Camden Falcon. So I can see the appeal. And the Strokes certainly have the look down cold: ragged, tousled philanderers, dandified streetpunks (after manners, the Oxfam suit jacket still maketh the man). There is the attention to detail one would expect from a fashion stylist expensively artschooled in the flot-jet of twentieth century subculture. In a sense, The Strokes are an old-fashioned new kind of pop group – one that Aspires to the Condition of a Face Fashion Spread. And I can applaud this – America needs an artfag haircut guitar band right now, if only to piss off the Joe Carduccis of this world.

3) But what do The Strokes accomplish in making history their playground? As I say, they make for diverting fashion, and they have the choppa-chops – hearing ‘Hard to Explain’, ‘Last Nite’, ‘The Modern Age’ in the upstairs room of a pub disco, there’s an economy and drawly drive that sounds fresh and thrilling, and makes one’s old geezer gripes (that ‘See No Evil’ or ‘Lust for Life’ might sound just as good) seem like some very sour grapes. The Strokes exist for now in the peachykeen pop present, not yet archived and soundtracked and Mojofied. You’ve played it for them, Mr Casablancas, so why don’t you play it for me?

4) Here’s why: In his introduction to ‘In the Fascist Bathroom’, putting back all he left out of ‘Lipstick Traces’ (ie the music), Greil Marcus keeps it real: ‘I played favourites, devoting a lot of space to bohemian bands from the UK and scabrous groups from Los Angeles, ignoring New York, where most punks seemed to be auditioning for careers as something else’. This is Marcus’s tough-minded Berkeley put-down of all the poncified pretensions of the wicked sinful city of the east, and it has some truth. Look at it one way and the CBGBs scene is all slumming: lyricists who would rather be poets (Smith, Hell), groups who would rather be installations (Talking Heads), singers who would rather be filmstars (Deborah Harry). And maybe it’s this pretension (or to be more charitable: ambition) that made the scene so astonishingly fertile – in artistic terms, if not the world-historical socio-cultural terms that Marcus would prefer. What astonishing bounty there is in these careers! To pick at random: ‘Marquee Moon’, ‘Horses’, ‘Remain in Light’, ‘Parallel Lines’, the first four Ramones singles – all enlivened by the desire to be something else… the Charlie Parker of lead guitar, the Rimbaud of the lower East Side, musical ethnographers, the girl group of Andy Warhol’s dreams… Ultimately, it’s this absurd admirable gusto, that means the most to me – as though the shabby friction between the desperate dreams of artistic-literary glory and the mundane possibility of being in a pop group caused the spark that brought something new into the world. And, oddly, it’s the one thing the Strokes have left out of their historical re-enactment society. They have proceeded, as though guided by the dictum that ‘god is in the details’… yet missed out on some central mystery. The Strokes look and sound like a pretty sharp powerpopgroup and seem pretty satisfied by that: nowhere in the sound or in the words do I hear the stifled desire to be a lysergic sage, ghetto fabulous flaneur or expressionist guitar symphonist. Whereas the groups they pastiche often seemed like they would rather be anything other than a popgroup, The Strokes don’t want to be anything but…

5) So in a sense, The Strokes remind me of one of those early Cindy Sherman photographs of a painting. What happens in the space between the two frames? Is it a space for dismay or irony or sarcasm or reverence or goofing around? All of these attitudes are possible and permissable, yet I don’t get any of that, any sense of The Strokes bringing something of themselves to the party. They’re not even a tribute band, where there’s some joy to be had in the slippage between intention and execution. Instead they remind me of something closer to home, our own aimless, witless detour through the airless rooms of the museum. What I’m saying, I guess, is that The Strokes are closer to Suede or Blur than they are to the bands they might eulogise. The Strokes are…. YankPop? Yes, that feels right.

1 It’s worth stating that although I come here not to praise The Strokes but to bury them, I applaud the audacity of argument that, through intellectual backflips and critical judo, manouevres The Strokes into position as a disco band, or as R’n’B stylists. The point is to set the trifle of mental excitement flying through the thin air of received opinion, and –as someone wise once said – have fun starting arguments.

2 The footnote may enjoy a postmodern vogue, but let us remember that the experience of reading the footnote is like leaving the arms of one’s sublime and inventive lover to run downstairs and answer the door for the mailman.

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