When one of the few rock stars of the 21st century, Alex Turner, opens his band's latest album by exclaiming "I just wanted to be one of The Strokes", one can understand the enormous weight of the band that was leading the last time that rock & roll and playing guitar was considered cool and was a massive hit with the public. That band's lead guitarist was Nick Valensi, our protagonist today.
It is impossible to talk about the last popular resurgence of rock at the beginning of the century without talking about the Strokes. Their debut album, Is This It, was the bible for a whole new generation of bands like the Kings Of Leon, who were called the 'Southern Strokes', the Killers, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, or the Vines in Australia, although their shadow may have been even longer on the other side of the Atlantic, as they were the band that definitively put an end to Britpop, which had evolved towards sappier territory with groups like Coldplay and Travis, becoming the beacon for bands like the Libertines, Turner's Arctic Monkeys, the Vaccines, the Kooks... Also for Franz Ferdinand who modelled the intro of their classic Take Me Out on the New Yorkers. In the 21st century it was basically impossible to start a new band without being influenced by them.
Nick Valensi was born on 16 January 1981 in Manhattan, New York, the son of a Tunisian Jewish man and a French woman. Growing up in the city's most exclusive neighbourhood, the Upper East Side, he began playing guitar early, at the age of five, encouraged by a father who saw in him a natural talent for the instrument.
At 13 he met Julian Casablancas, a singer, and Fabrizio Moretti, a drummer, at Dwight School. Valensi was the youngest, but the best player, and their friendship was based on common musical tastes: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Bob Marley, the Velvet Underground and David Bowie. To these Valensi added his devotion to Slash. In 1997 they formed a band and brought in a childhood friend of Casablancas, Nikolai Fraiture as bassist, and the following year they invited Albert Hammond Jr., who had met the singer at a public school in Switzerland, as second guitarist.
Quickly Valensi and Hammond Jr. connected and started working on their guitar parts. Few bands rehearsed more than they did, and there weren't many that had their resources either. That's the thing about being a garage band in a place, like Manhattan, where renting one was $1,500 a month, at the time. Albert Hammond Sr. bought several instruments for his son, and his son didn't hesitate to share them with Valensi, it was him who gave our protagonist the guitar that would define the Strokes' sound, an orange Epiphone Riviera with '90s Gibson P-94 pickups. Hammond kept a white '80s Stratocaster and the Strokes sound was born.
It was Casablancas who laid down the songs and they spoke for themselves: their sound was pure New York, rooted in Lou Reed and the Velvets with some of Television's guitar playing and melodies as catchy as Blondie. Their gigs at the Mercury Lounge began to attract attention and even the club's booker quit his job and became their manager.
It was clear that they had it all, the looks, the attitude, the chemistry and, above all, the songs. It also didn't hurt that there were always several models present from Casablancas' father's agency in the audience. They were, in short, the coolest band on the planet and, without the need to record anything, their fame crossed the pond and reached the UK, where the Brits have always been crazy about guitar bands with their own style. So the band recorded a demo with three songs, The Modern Age, Last Nite and Barely Legal, at the end of 2000, and sent it to the legendary Rough Trade label, which released it in January 2001, when Valensi had just turned 20.
The title track, The Modern Age, was urgent and had one of those perfect choruses that Casablancas has come by so easily. It also had an explosive solo by Valensi, proving that he was the best musician in the band. This was followed by what would become their signature song, Last Nite, with its opening taken from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers' American Girl, and its devastating chorus. Although the sound wasn't the best in the world, these were three golden nuggets that helped start a fierce bidding war for their services. Before releasing their first album, the band had already started appearing on the covers of the most prestigious magazines. But this time, contradicting Public Enemy, the hype had to be believed.
The band recorded, Is This It, between March and April 2001, reworked the three songs from the EP with a much better sound and added the title track, Hard To Explain, Someday, Soma, Alone Together, Take It Or Leave It, New York City Cops and Trying Your Luck. I name all the songs because there was not one that was below a B-plus. Rather than a debut album, Is This It sounded like a greatest hits. Valensi and Hammond Jr. complemented each other so well that their ‘non-technical guitars’ seemed to intermingle, although it was Valensi who usually played the more complicated parts. The two of them working as a team to boost the singer's enormous songs, only seeking the spotlight when they required it, as in the climax of Alone, Together, where Valensi proved his worth.
The album was a sensation halfway around the world and made them stars, the only bad thing is that, despite fending for themselves, they began to be talked about more for other things besides their music, their clothes, their hairstyles, their parents, their privileges... The Strokes were at the forefront of the new rock revolution, along with the White Stripes, and they rubbed shoulders with everyone. In 2002 Jack White went on stage to play New York City Cops with them and that same year, in the video for Someday, they were seen having a drink with Duff McKagan, Matt Sorum and the guy Valensi was most excited about, Slash, all three being former Guns N' Roses - and at that time members of Velvet Revolver.
Two years after Is This It, Room On Fire appeared, a continuist work but almost on a par with their mythical debut. We have to stand up in favour of an album with songs as good as Reptilia, 12:51, Between Love & Hate, Under Control, Whatever Happened or The End Has No End in which, in addition, the band plays even better. Especially Valensi, who is obviously no Hendrix, but who knows how to embellish the songs to perfection, like those lines accompanying 12:51 that sounded like a synthesizer, a sound he found playing jazzy stuff on his Riviera and fiddling with the sound of his DeVille amp. Nor should his solos on Between Love & Hate or Reptilia be overlooked.
It was a popular high point for the band and for Valensi and Hammond Jr.'s work together, with J. P. Bowersock, their guitar teacher, being referred to as 'sensei' in the album's credits. Although they had begun recording the album with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, the band decided to go back to Is This It producer Gordon Raphael and imposed a rule on themselves that applied to those first two albums: nothing was recorded that couldn't be played live with their line-up of two guitars, bass and drums.
But, from here on, the slow decline began, First Impressions of Earth was the first serious slip up of their career, although they had two top songs You Only Live Once, with more great work by Valensi, and the powerful Juicebox, but this time the filler won out over the outstanding songs. With Angles they tried to modernise their sound with keyboards and electronic samples, but, in the end, the best song on the album, Under Cover of Darkness, sounded like the old Strokes. Valensi also continued to expand his guitar collection and his best moment came with a Telecaster on the aforementioned Under Cover Of Darkness, although the album also featured a Les Paul Jr or a Custom. It was also the work in which his hand in composition was most noticeable, having a percentage in the credits in seven of the ten songs on the album.
By the time Comedown Machine arrived in 2013, however, the band sounded more like Casablancas' backing band than a band with its own sound. Things didn't improve much and in the rest of the decade they only delivered one EP, Past, Present, Future, in which clearly the best thing was Threat Of Joy's glance to the past.
Two years ago they returned with The New Abnormal, updating their sound with a bit of 80s glitter and, more importantly, the best collection of songs since the distant days of Room On Fire. Still, it seems unlikely that a new generation of teenagers will pick up guitars again because of their impact, but it matters little now. With that album they have shown that they may have a viable future ahead of them beyond playing Last Nite again and again at any festival in the world.
Maybe they are no longer the measure of what is 'cool' - maybe they haven't been cool for centuries - just some 40-something musicians making good songs. But the fact is that listening to the best of them, especially those from their first two albums, in the 22nd century there will still be some teenager who dreams of slinging a guitar over their shoulder and being “one of the Strokes”.