The perception of the Strokes is that they were superstars in the United Kingdom but never quite found their commercial footing in America, never achieved the cultural cachet of the White Stripes or the creative longevity of Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But the chart numbers tell a somewhat different tale. In Great Britain, the Strokes were actually a mild crossover success, placing their first eight singles inside the Top 40, but only two songs (“12:51″ and “Juicebox”) reached the top 10. In the U.S., the band made nowhere near the same impact on pop music or the culture at large, but were consistently played on rock radio, scoring a few sizeable hits (“Last Nite,” “Juicebox,” and “Under Cover of Darkness”). The Strokes also went platinum in the U.S. with Is This It and gold with Room on Fire.
But sales numbers, of course, paint an incomplete picture. When it comes to the Strokes’ legacies in America and the U.K., perception is reality. The state of British rock music in the years prior to the Strokes’ breakthrough was almost hilariously dire — the 2001 NME Awards Tour featured JJ72, Alfie, and Starsailor. Ex-NME deputy editor James Oldham, in looking back at that time in a 2008 retrospective, characterized the situation this way: “‘What the hell are we going to put in this magazine?’ It was a void.” The country’s leading rock magazine, and by proxy British rock music itself, had no identity — 2001 NME cover stars included Limp Bizkit and Ali G, and the magazine had made a valiant, if ill-advised, attempt to nudge its readers into groundbreaking American pop like Destiny’s Child and Missy Elliott.
So when editors at the magazine caught wind of the Strokes, they saw a band that could save both rock music and their jobs. The band landed their first NME cover in June 2001, with only a three-song EP to their name. The headline— “Why New York’s Finest Will Change Your Life – Forever!”— doesn’t look too insane in retrospect. People like Kate Moss and Thom Yorke attended their early U.K. shows, and they got into fistfights with British bands infuriated by the hype. They were on the cover again in August 2001 and NME soon awarded Is This It a 10/10 rating. “NME lost its mind over the Strokes,” said Oldham. “If the Strokes opened a door, there’d be a news story.”
On this side of the pond, most of us were more sanguine. The band had scored those two NME covers before SPIN weighed in with a few hundred words in the November 2001 issue under the headline “England’s Creaming.” “So who the hell are they?” we asked, two months after the release of their debut album. The Strokes appeared on the cover of SPIN’‘s 2002 “Year in Music” issue and finally nabbed a Rolling Stone cover in the run-up to Room on Fire in 2003. In North America, groups like Hot Hot Heat, Kings of Leon, and the Bravery clearly followed their lead, but the Strokes were too mainstream to influence indie rock and too indie rock to influence the mainstream. In Britain, though, their sound — and almost more importantly, their look — was rock music’s driving force for at least a half-decade. They birthed a legion of famous, infamous, and forgotten U.K. bands — a legacy almost as absurd as it is impressive. So let’s dig out our leather jackets, skinny jeans, and Converse, and take a look back.