Published January 2019
10. The Strokes – New York City Cops (2001)
The origins of the Strokes lie in the private school infrastructure of New York City (as well as a bit of Switzerland’s). All but guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. were raised in NYC – front man Julian Casablancas met bassist Nikolai Fraiture at the independent and bilingual Lycée Français de New York, guitarist Nick Valensi and Fab Moretti at Manhattan’s Dwight School, and Hammond Jr. while at Le Rosey boarding school in Switzerland.
Once Casabalancas had brought these connections into one entity, the Strokes forged a reputation through a number of Manhattan venues, including the Lower East Side’s Luna Lounge and nearby Mercury Lounge.
Then of course the track itself is laden with New Yorkery, the only of our 11 NYC tracks to reference the city in the title. The song’s critical chorus of law enforcement forced The Strokes to pull New York City Cops from its US album release due to it coinciding with the Big Apple’s most (in)famous event.
At some point during my time in the States I realised this love could be wedded to my map-driven geography obsession, eventually leading to where I am today (aside from irresistible to women). Starting at New York I delighted in the notion of marrying my personal favourite Leonard Cohen song, First We Take Manhattan, with New York City Cops – for what other reason could fate throw together Cohen’s surrealistic flawed military strategy with Julian Casablancas’s garage rock admonishment of the NYPD’s competence?
Once the playlist was capped at a 100 song limit and expanded into blog form, First We Take Manhattan was sadly dropped, my rationale most likely being that there lay behind it no real obvious New York story, title aside. The opposite is true of The Strokes’ number however: a very New York song from a very New York band, the release of which was unfortunately tied up in the aftermath of the most infamous and shocking occurrence ever to befell New York.
This is also the Volume I entry that turns the clock back furthest on the timeline of my musical palette’s evolution, The Strokes one of a number of early 00s indie rock bands that dominated my tastes at the time. Their 2001 album Is This It, from which New York City Cops is taken, found its way into my early teenage collection along with follow up Room On Fire. While I didn’t know it at the time, my appreciation of the Strokes – along with the White Stripes, Kings of Leon, the Hives, the Libertines et al – was an indulgence in what is now considered a turn of the century garage rock / indie revival.
We were also at the forefront of the digital revolution, smart phones and Spotify lying in wait just around the corner. As such, much of the nostalgia I draw from listening to this music is tied up in antiquated technology: much like a 60s romantic might hark back to the satisfying sensation of withdrawing a shiny new vinyl from its impeccably decorated sleeve, listening to the Strokes can spark fond memories of a discman jumping around in my pocket causing CDs to skip, or of my Creative Zen mp3 player (pictured) causing Windows to crash.
OK, so it’s not exactly the birth of hip hop – music borne out of destitution and poverty this ain’t. On the Wikipedia page of famous alumni of Swiss boarding school Institut Le Rosey, the names of Julian Casablancas and Albert Hammond Jr are largely surrounded by those of royalty, aristocrats and statesmen, including the last King of Egypt and several members of the Rothschild family. Perhaps a little unfairly this has prevented The Strokes from being able to shake a ‘rich boy’ label, with some even speculating that they were a manufactured group at the behest of Julian’s father, John Casabalancas, founder of a successful modelling agency.
Unsurprisingly Julian himself rejects this theory, pointing out he was raised by a single mother and emphasising the more pronounced musical influence of his his step dad, artist Sam Adoque. Whatever the circumstances (and certainly no call for reverse snobbery here at US100 HQ), it all came together for The Strokes in late 2000 when they put together a three song EP, designed to elicit more gigs rather than a record deal. There followed a UK tour, a showcase at South by Southwest festival, and what’s been termed an ‘old fashioned bidding war’ between record labels, eventually won by RCA.
Wedded to the raw aloof sound that had served them so well, classy studios were rejected in favour of an East Village basement, partially financed by Albert Hammond Jr’s father. The result was Is This It, an album that caused something of an indie earthquake, arriving at a time of slim pickings in the guitar-led mainstream. However their timing was nonetheless unfortunate – a staggered release schedule designed to coincide with touring saw Australian, UK and Japanese audiences get their hands on the record in the summer of 2001 ahead of their American counterparts. The September 25 US release date was, understandably, further delayed after the shocking events of 9/11; it seemed remiss to put out an album containing a track that declared the now New York City first responders to be not ‘too smart’ in the weeks after the terrorist atrocity.
While New York City Cops did not make it onto the Clear Channel memorandum list of songs that radio stations were advised against playing in the aftermath of the attacks – most likely because no one knew of its existence at the time – it was ultimately pulled from the US release of the album altogether. The track shares this distinction with the racey cover image of a photographer’s girlfriend’s backside, which similarly was disseminated internationally but deemed inappropriate for US audiences.
To me New York City Cops is a suburban teenager mildly – not excessively – trashing his dad’s garage, perhaps reflecting the relatively comfortable upbringing of the band’s membership. It is an archetypal Is This It era Strokes number, complete with the uncomplicated indie riffs and singalong chorus that made album bedfellow Last Nite such an indie club floorfiller in the early 2000s.
Lyrically the song contains the US100’s first swear, as early in proceedings Julian Casablancas recalls one particular night as being ‘fucking strange’. This serves as a reasonable summary of the song’s lyrical content overall, a confusing and vague tale of someone named Nina, unhelpful letters, and police incompetence, with the Romans and Turks even earning a curious reference at one stage. Consult genius.com for explanations of how this all apparently relates to drugs and prostitution. Consult the Wikipedia page for Is This It for the kind of detail on drum kit miking schemes, effects pedals, and equalisation that you won’t get from me.
For those for which the album is not a nostalgia trip, I imagine listening back to it today would prompt many to question what the fuss is all about. I believe this can be explained in part by the distinct lack of guitar-based competition at the time, rock journalists the western world over desperate to latch onto something – anything – to excite their readership.
However that isn’t to downplay The Strokes’ role in the wider indie revival – bands such as The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys in the UK and Kings of Leon in the States rode on their coattails in the following years, as the band nomenclature zeitgeist definitively shifted from the single word format (Creed; Nirvana; Pulp; Blur; James; Oasis; Supergrass) to the early 00s The Plurals format (The Hives, The Bees, The Killers, The Zutons, The Cribs). Yet Julian Casablancas has expressed disappointment that their success has been restricted to the upper limits of the ‘underground’: “we never got as big as Green Day or Creed or any of the bands we were supposed to be replacing in 2001,” he lamented in a 2009 interview.
Four further The Strokes albums have been released between 2003 and 2013 to generally positive acclaim, but without ever having recreated the buzz of Is This It. The band still remain active but sporadic, with each member also consumed with other projects. Casabalancas, Albert Hammond Jr, and bassist Nikolai Fraiture have all released their own solo work – the latter, released under the name Nickel Eye, is easily my personal favourite – while guitarist Nick Valensi fronts up CRX and drummer Fabrizio Moretti forms part of Little Joy. Casablancas is also busy running his Cult Records label, its roster including his own The Voidz project as well as Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The Luna Lounge in New York’s Ludlow Street area, important in the The Strokes’ early career, is now no more; in Ludlow St. Casablanchas as a solo artist lyrically bemoans the gentrification of this part of town, where ‘yuppies [are] invading’ and ‘history’s fading’.
Having fulfilled the obligations of their RCA contract, a long drawn out sixth Strokes album is promised to be released on Cult. For the third US100 entry running, there’s a Rick Rubin connection, as Hammond’s father let slip that the superproducer was working with the band on the record, only for his son to quickly piss on those chips. However the band have recently announced that a global comeback tour is on the agenda for 2019, with their first gig in two years scheduled for Bilbao in July.
The New York City Cops, for what it’s worth, continue to have their smartness questioned. The cases of Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and Eric Garner led to huge institutional questions raised over police brutality and a severe dispute with Mayor Bill De Blasio – not to mention over $15m paid out in compensation to victims’ families.
When Julian Casablancas and Albert Hammond Jr first met at boarding school in Switzerland, they may well have compared the cultural impact of their respective fathers. John Casabalancas is credited with popularising the concept of the ‘supermodel’, with his Elite Model Management agency having represented Cindy Crawford, Heidi Klum and Claudia Schiffer over the years. Gibraltarian songwriter Albert Hammond Snr OBE meanwhile is responsible for co-writing two monster singalong ballad anthems that found later fame with other artists: The Air That I Breathe (The Hollies, 1974) and Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now (Starship, 1986).
Pickin’ On Series – The Bluegrass Tribute to the Strokes (2006) Spotify
The Lonely Island feat. Julian Casablancas – Boombox (2009) Spotify / YouTube
Nickel Eye – Time of the Assassins (2009) Spotify
Julian Casablancas – Ludlow St. (2009) Spotify / YouTube