While on holiday last week I finally picked up and read Elizabeth Goodman’s excellent “Meet Me In The Bathroom”. It’s an account of New York music in the early 2000s, documented in that peculiar format of quotes from individuals arrayed in narrative succession, once so beloved of Q magazine. As such, it’s super easy reading and warmly redolent of the heyday of UK music magazinery.
The book focuses mainly on four acts – The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem and Interpol. That said, it also focuses on a number of others who were either fellow travellers, inspirations or successors; the likes of Jonathan Fire*Eater, The White Stripes, The Rapture, Fischerspooner, TV On The Radio, The Hives, Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, Kings of Leon, etc.
It’s a highly enjoyable read, particularly for anyone who was young enough to be excited by at least some of these bands, or certainly anyone who is willing and able to recognise the particular greatness of The Strokes.
The turn of the millennium was obviously a time of great change for the music industry, which makes it fertile ground for a book of this type. It’s interesting to read about the flowering of the original indie blog scene, how the debate over selling out was crystallised by Sonic Youth and then dissolved almost entirely by the Internet, how completely failing to spot Nirvana coming had influenced A&R work, etc. It’s also an interesting portrait of New York itself, and the changes wrought over a 20 year period by Giuliani, gentrification and 9/11. In fact, the chapters on the impact of 9/11 are worth reading on their own – lots of breathing in the dust of human bones in the daytime and partying like it was the end of the world come nightfall.
The book sent me back to a lot of New York music, old and (in relative terms) new. It made me return to You Only Live Once, marvel again at the first three Yeah Yeah Yeahs albums, and dig out the ever magnificent Coney Island Baby. I listened for the first time in ages to Losing My Edge (what a magnificent slap down to music “experts” that song is), rediscovered Things Done Changed by Biggie, and at one point – in what can only be described as an act of sheer madness – actually attempted to describe to my wife what’s good about Marquee Moon. Jesus, that didn’t work at all.
The book does a great job of conveying the energy of a “scene”, probably in part because Goodman was part of this particular movement in real time. These were her mates and she was at most of these shows. It’s an incredibly gossipy piece of work, full of energy and excitement and the last vestiges of that youthful belief that you might just be at the centre of the universe.
It also, probably correctly, ventures that this was the last hurrah of the “old” music industry, one last attempt to collectively put weight behind a group of bands and market them as The Big Thing through sheer force of expense account, right before Napster began to drain the life out of your P&L.
I took a few things from this book. It got me thinking properly about The Strokes, which is always welcome. There was a time when I definitely thought of them as “my” band – I’d downloaded a demo of The Modern Age quite early on (even before the famed NME Tour shows which put rocket boosters under them) and shouted from the rooptops to anyone who would listen that they were going to be the thing. At the time, I thought this was an example of my eagle eye for a tune. Reading this, it becomes apparent that my experience was the de facto route in to the band for the vast majority of people – file downloads meant that they were one of the first acts to really break big globally before they even had a record out. I wasn’t early, I was merely on time (for once).
Obviously, they looked magnificent. Almost comically so. There are some wonderful reminiscences here about the impact they had when they entered the room, or walked down the street together. That thing that made it seem that being in a band might be a really, really good idea if you were staggeringly young and staggeringly beautiful and had been sent into the world with a rock star name before you even knew what music was. They’d have been pretty good if they’d never even played a note.
As has been said on the Afterword before, The Strokes need to be understood as a party band, first and foremost. They never wrote 10 minute long songs about their inner lives, or experimented in the studio, although they clearly in their own minds considered themselves artists in the true sense. Their best work was music that made boys jump up and down and girls scream. Or girls jump up and down and boys scream, I don’t think it really mattered much to them which way round the screaming and the jumping occurred. You could scream and jump at the same time, if you liked. The early shows sound like something to behold – people had been waiting a while for this, and now here it was, more perfect than they could ever have hoped.
At their inception, they were compared to Television. I never really got that – Television to me always sounded like a bunch of guitar virtuosos headed by the college poet, and looked like they were in need of a warm meal and a mother’s love. Maybe the haircuts bore some similarity, but that was about it. The Strokes, to me, always felt like the Monkees, only dramatically better-looking, instructed to play the contents of The Velvet Underground’s Loaded at double speed so you could actually dance to it. That they formed organically and without the interference of a record company/some sort of lab technology, remains startling.
The backlash against them was probably inevitable. I would have been 23 when Is This It came out – just that little bit too old for a band of this type – but I could see the magic. I don’t think I can ever recall, in my music listening youth, a band arriving with a debut album like that. Something that felt so complete and instantly classic. In fact, I struggle to think of a band who were so perfectly formed upon initial impact.
Their look, their sound, the songs – they had it all absolutely sussed. The Strokes of Is This Is were the uber-Strokes, the Super Saiyan version of The Strokes, the none-more-Strokes Strokes. It’s presumably what’s blighted the rest of their career: when you nail it quite that hard out of the gate, when you present the best possible version of your band, where on earth do you go from there?
They made it look so simple. Not a single song over 4 minutes long, the slight distortion on the vocals, all those hooks. Their claim on all that rich New York inheritance, probably not truly earned (if it ever mattered). They broke zero new ground, and were all the better for it. They were The Ramones, but the anti-Ramones at the same time; fast and repetitive and beautiful.
Meet Me In The Bathroom offers a fairly compelling account of their rise, and what is was like being inside the group. Quite how easily it came to them, quite how quickly they went supernova. Quite how much fun it all was, until it wasn’t. It’s like they lived out the cartoon version of bandlife, at accelerated speeds.
There’s a great quote in Meet Me In The Bathroom, from Tim Goldsworthy of Unkle, which bears repeating here: “Rock and roll is about passion and the energy of transferring what you’ve got and you’re feeling to somebody else, to a group of people. Can a technically skilled musician make great pop music? No, you can’t. It gets in the way. It’s just not going to happen. You’ve got far too much baggage.” I absolutely love the first half, because I don’t even think that’s rock and roll, I think that’s life. Energy transfer is life. You go out there and you take your little buzz and you try to share it all as best you can, and hope some comes back to you in return. Certainly, that’s what happens when human beings meet art. The second part of the quote, I’m less sure about, although I find it super interesting. Should music be about virtuosity? Maybe a subject of discussion for the Pistols thread. I do, however, like the idea that virtuosity and great pop music are two different things, because on some level that feels true as well.
Sometimes when pop gets looked down on, that’s got to be an element of it. You don’t need to be a virtuoso to write How Will I Know, but you do need to be some sort of genius, otherwise we’d be deluged with songs as good as How Will I Know, and yet here we are, resolutely un-deluged.
All of which is to say, very few of these groups (if any) were virtuosos, but they did make some great pop music. And moreover, they made you look at them and think that maybe it wasn’t even that hard. You looked at Karen O and thought that maybe anyone could do that, if they could just drop every single one of their inhibitions, wear an outfit that looked like it had been designed on a dare and let music course straight through them like electricity fresh from the mains. Which is to say, you looked at them and you got it all wrong.
As an aside, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs can also lay claim to an all time great band name. In fact, possibly even the greatest band name of all. I don’t think I’ve ever needed to hear an act’s music quite as physically as I did the first time someone said to me “The Yeah Yeah Yeahs”. Then I laid eyes on them: Karen O looking like someone had rolled her across the floor of an indie disco, wild-eyed and stompy; the three foot tall guitarist with the two foot tall quiff and the drummer, who had clearly wandered in from IT and was just filling in for the real drummer. It really doesn’t get much better than that. If you are going to go back to the records then the first one is the authentic sound of the band at full force, but the third is the unexpected delight.
Anyway, this has been a bit of a ramble, but all of it to say that this book is very much worth a read. You don’t even particularly need to like the bands involved – they could be any bands, really – because the book is far more about what it’s like being 19 and bored and a little nihilistic and trying desperately to get something started around you. Trying hard to pool all that energy, all that electricity you have between you and your mates, and to send it all out into the universe like some great beacon that others can follow.
It’s a very easy read, it’s full of great quotes from clearly interesting people (who wouldn’t want to hear more life philosophy from Har Mar Superstar), and if nothing else it’s an excuse to listen to a lot of great New York music. On which note, let’s end with Lou.