Why has it taken 20 years for America to recognise The Strokes?
Updated: Mar 24, 2021
Twenty years of Grammy snubs finally came to an end with a win for Best Rock Album. Here's how the success and legacy of The Strokes has differed in the UK and America.
The Strokes accepted their award for Best Rock Album at the 2021 Grammys in the most awkward way possible. A sound glitch meant the band initially didn't hear who'd won. As we, the audience, stared at Julian Casablancas, Nikolai Fraiture and Fab Moretti for a reaction, they confusingly stared right back at us in anticipation of a result that'd already been announced. 30 seconds later, the penny dropped. The New York band had won their first Grammy for sixth album The New Abnormal. Finally, they were being recognised in their homeland!
Judging by Julian's loss of words and their casual appearance, the band members gave off a demeanour of three lads taking a quick break from a game of pool down the local to show face in the (extremely) unlikely event that they'd actually win. When they did, they looked completely lost at what to do. After twenty years of being ignored by such award ceremonies in their homeland, can you blame them?
Icons of the UK indie scene
In the UK, it's was a completely different story altogether, The Strokes are held up in as high esteem as you can expect for a band this millennium. In the early 2000s, their legendary status was quickly fostered and appreciated by both the indie scene and mainstream alike for sparking a new movement of bands.
At the end of John Harris' brilliant 2004 book 'The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the demise of English', the author laments the failing state of the British rock scene by the late 1990s and into the early 2000s. However, the second last page pinpointed the hope of the genre on a new generation of American groups, headed by one band.
"In the summer of 2001, all this was thrown into sharp relief by the arrival of a new generation of American groups, just about all of whom displayed the kind of qualities that were lacking in the UK's rock scene. They were led by The Strokes, five young New Yorkers whose records oozed both the ambience and musical influences of their home city, but were also endowed with the kind of poise, economy and artfulness that the likes of Damon Albarn had once claimed to be a uniquely British preserve"
Despite their American roots, The Strokes influenced a complete revival of the British indie music scene which had gone seriously downhill. It was easy to see why such a revival was needed. They showed up the big British artists at the time, bands who lacked the attitude and swagger of previous years (Coldplay, Travis, Stereophonics).
Their grittiness and coolness also countered the anger and immaturity of the nu-metal and pop-punk movements which had taken over the alternative scene (I'd be lying if I didn't admit that, at 13, I was a big fan of both genres...). Before long, they were being touted as the saviours of rock 'n' roll, inspiring a new generation of British bands.
Inspiring a new movement of bands
After initial success in Manhattan's Lower East Side, The Strokes caught the attention of London's newly reformed Rough Trade label, were then flouted as the next big thing by British music magazine NME following the release of their EP The Modern Age in January 2001. A bidding war then ensued and they eventually signed for RCA Records, with Rough Trade handling the UK release of debut Is This It. Before long, they were having success in the UK that seemed unthinkable a few months prior.
One such band that benefited from their acclaim was The Libertines. Pete Doherty and Carl Barat formed the band in London in 1997, gathering a cult following for their particular brand of English punk rock, literary references and bohemian attitudes.
By 2001, however, The Libertines were washed up and on the brink of collapse, their music at ends with what was popular at the time. 'The Libertines: Bound Together', by Anthony Thornton and Roger Sargent, then describes a turning point for Pete Doherty and Carl Barat in their pursuit of the rockstar dream.
"And then The Strokes happened. In one way it was a final indignity for British music, punky forthright songs far and away better than nu-metal, something you could actually fall in love with, something that Britain had always been good at. Here was a bunch of good-looking New Yorkers who were doing the jobs of Brits."
Inspired by The Strokes style and recognition, The Libertines developed a newfound spring to their step. They soon wrote songs like 'Time For Heroes', 'Up The Bracket' and 'I Get Along', signed to Rough Trade and then supported their fellow labelmates on tour. The band released their self-titled debut in 2002 and the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, The Libertines, to many, are regarded as the most iconic British band of the last 20 years. Though without The Strokes breaking through, it's doubtful if they'd have been provided with the platform to get there.
The Strokes success paved the way to a movement of British bands on par with Britpop's heyday. Over the next few years, the likes of The Futureheads, Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs and Arctic Monkeys reached levels of popularity for British bands you'd never have expected at the start of the Millenium. Aged 18, going out for the first time and then off the university, these were the bands who soundtracked my life. It really felt like something was happening and so many people felt part of it.
Doves frontman Jimi Goodman, speaking in Lizzy Goodman's 'Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001–2011', said "The Strokes were one of those bands that people saw and then instantly wanted to form a band". Former NME Editor Conor McNicholas, speaking in the same book, said that "The Strokes did this brilliant thing of giving everybody permission to self-consciously be a band...suddenly it was okay to be a star". Suddenly bands - some good and, erm, some not so good - were popping up all over the UK, quickly becoming the sound of nights out and house parties across the land.
The Strokes also paved the way for American bands such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, and The White Stripes, as well as Sweden's The Hives and Australia's The Vines. Garage rock was sweeping across the country like it had never before and it was hard to turn on daytime Radio 1 during that time without hearing such bands. It was everywhere. What a time to be alive!
In 2009, Zane Lowe, then on BBC Radio 1, recognised the power of The Strokes was such that they moved popular opinion from DJs and pop music in the UK to "skinny jeans and guitars", creating a "template for rock 'n' roll in the modern age". Some praise indeed.
Accepted into the British mainstream
Released on 30 July 2001, Is This It marched into number 2 in the UK Official Albums Charts. 'Last Nite', easily the most recognisable song by the band, was suddenly all over the British airwaves and tv channels.
Follow up Room On Fire, again, saw the band reach number 2 in the UK Album Chart, though the best was to come in 2006 when third album First Impressions of Earth gave them their first number 1 album.
Proof of the country's love came at the 2002 Brit Awards. The Strokes were nominated for International Group, International Breakthrough Act and International Album. Even to be nominated in the biggest British pop music awards was an achievement for an indie band in those days. They went one better took home the award for International Breakthrough, beating the likes of Linkin Park, Nelly Furtado and Anastacia. In the 2004 edition they were again nominated for International Group (losing to The White Stripes).
The NME Awards carried on this acclaim to the next level. In 2002, The Strokes won Best New Act, Band of the Year and Album of the Year, and in 2006, after the success of First Impressions of Earth, they won Best International Band. It was clear that here in the UK, we were treating the band with the praise usually saved for our own.
Why was it a different story in America?
Yet, for some reason, America hadn't quite got the memo. In their homeland, the band never seemed to have the same impact they had in the UK and this was clear to see in the performance of their debut album and singles.
Whilst the singles on Is This Is were suddenly everywhere and lauded from every corner of the UK, the album would only reach 33 in the US Billboard 200. None of the early singles would chart on the Billboard Hot 100 and, in fact, the only one of their 17 singles to chart in the US was 'Juicebox' (released 4 October 2005) at 98.
Whilst their first seven singles charted in varying positions in the top 30 on the UK Official Chart, it was clear the US charts wanted nothing to do with them. Did these New York rich kids simply possess too many qualities that you'd expect from a British indie band to make it in their homeland? It appeared so.
In 2002, while The Strokes were being nominated left, right and centre at UK Awards ceremonies, the American versions simply weren't interested. At the 44th Annual Grammy Awards in 2002, they would've been eligible for the following categories, but for the fact that no one bothered to put them forward.
Record of the Year ('Walk On' by U2)
Album of the Year ("Oh Brother, Where Art Thou' by various artists - Soundtrack)
Best New Artist (Alicia Keys)
Best Alternative Music Album (Parachutes by Coldplay)
Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal ('Elevation' by U2)
Best Rock Album (All That You Can't Leave Behind by U2)
What was clear was that the American mainstream was choosing to ignore them in favour of, funnily enough, inoffensive bands from this side of the Atlantic, bands like U2 and Coldplay. Hardly the kind of bands likely to inspire movements back home.
The MTV Video Awards reveal a similar story. In 2002, The Strokes were nominated for the MTV2 Award, being pipped by Dashboard Confessional ("Who are they?" I hear you ask...). In 2004 and 2006, they weren't even nominated, overshadowed by bands like Jet and Yellowcard, artists who (one song aside, 'Are You Gonna Be My Girl' is a belter...) had nowhere near the same appeal as the New York band in the UK.
I recently ran a poll on Twitter asking people to vote for their favourite album by The Strokes. Their debut record Is This It overwhelmingly won with 71% of the vote, proving the love for the album still remains as true as ever. The New Abnormal picked up 4% of the vote, again showing how bizarre it was for the Grammy's to recognise one and not the other.
Inspiring American bands
The Strokes were also pivotal in the early success of Tennessee band Kings of Leon, the group who, in their early days, were regularly referred to as "Southern-fried Strokes". The Followill family band were another who exploded in the UK despite initially being shunned by their home country. Speaking in 'Meet Me in the Bathroom', frontman Celeb Followill was keen to spell out how influencial The Strokes were to him.
"If you ever wanted to be in a rock-and-roll band, and you watch the Strokes come out, it was like, 'Holy sh*t, that is a rock-and-roll band. And that is what I want to be."
In the early 2000s, Kings of Leon rode the wave of The Strokes success in the UK, quickly becoming overwhelmed by the environment that had been set for them. Drummer Nathan described the difference in reaction to their music in both countries in 2003. In the US, they had barely played any shows and were living in a small condo in LA when news broke through that they'd exploded in the UK.
"The Brits had picked that up (their early singles), started playing "Molly's Chamber and "Holy Roller" and it blew up. So we're halfway through making our first record in Los Angeles and our manager said, 'Man, we got to get over there. Y'all are hot right now, we need to go over there, put a face with the music, and start making the rounds'".
Kings of Leon grew from strength to strength in the UK, resulting in a headline slot at Glastonbury Festival in 2008 after the success of their third album Because of the Times. But it was only when the band polished up their act, went through a style makeover (and a trip to the hairdressers...), reigning in the faster and rawer elements of their music that they began to find success in America. 'Sex On Fire' won Best Rock Performance at the 2009 Grammys, and by the following year, 'Use Somebody' picked up the same award, as well as Record of the Year and Best Rock Song.
The example set by Kings of Leon proved that only compromising their style - both aesthetically and musically - would get The Strokes anywhere close to mainstream success in America. By the time The Strokes released their fourth album Angles in 2011 after a five-year gap, it was clear the band weren't willing to play ball. They may rue that some of the bands they inspired have gained far superior financial rewards in their place, but sometimes legacy and authenticity is more important than a few extra dollars in your pocket.
In 2021, The Strokes were finally recognised by the Grammys for their sixth album, The New Abnormal. In my Best Albums of 2020 list, where I placed it in number 13, I wrote that "they aren't exactly reinventing the wheel with The New Abnormal, but it's simply effortless indie rock with cool riffs, nostalgia and melancholia". It was their first album in seven years and - just as we were beginning to forget about them - they comforted our early lockdown listening with a brilliant comeback album.
Upon their win, it was suggested to me that the reason for their previous snubs was due to the Grammys simply being 20 years behind. With the likes of U2, Coldplay, Foo Fighters and Bruce Springsteen seemingly dominating related categories over the past few years, there might be some truth in that.
For one reason or another, garage rock simply didn't have the same appeal in America as it did over here. Of the 50 bands nominated for Best Rock Album at the Grammy's in the 2000s, only The Raconteurs (Broken Boy Soldier in 2007 and Consolers of the Lonely in 2009) of the genre were seen as worthy of putting forward for nomination.
As stated, Kings of Leon were only nominated once they'd changed their sound, and bands like Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand - who were both massive in the UK - failed to have much mainstream impact in that time. Even Oasis, a band still as popular as ever in the UK in the 2000s with a host of number 1s, reached the Billboard Hot 100 only once, in 2008, with 'The Shock of the Lightning' (98).
Ok, I confess, the sudden recognition may not exactly be the revelation I had predicted. To understand it, you also have to look at their competition for the Best Rock Album category at this year's Grammy's. It was taken up by my favourite Irish band Fontaines D.C., 2020 Mercury Prize winner Michael Kiwanuka, Grace Potter and Sturgill Simpson.
As much as I love the first two, neither have made much of a mark in America, whilst the latter two are hardly household names when compared with 2002's competition in U2, Linkin Park and Aerosmith. Were The Strokes simply in the right place at the right time?
To answer my original question, being awarded a Grammy does appear as some sort of vindication for the band's early years neglect, but it has to come with the caveat of who they were competing against in the category.
I recently produced an article in response to Adam Levine's comments that bands were a "dying breed" in the pop world. Whilst I simultaneously agreed and countered the claim by looking at a few of the bands who were on the edges of the mainstream, it would be remiss to suddenly claim The Strokes were big favourites now in America.
Does this win mean America now loves The Strokes? Well, no. Not on the same level as we did anyway. But nonetheless, what a fantastic achievement it was for a band that have gone through so many high and lows over their 20-year career.
Picking up their first Grammy should hopefully encourage them not to wait another seven years for the next one. What a brilliant thing it is for them to finally be recognised.