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Between Love and Hate: The Strokes’ Guide to Staying Together

Sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll seem like the sorts of things that are best enjoyed with friends. Since the conception of the ‘rock band’ in the 50s, thousands of groups have passed in and out of rock’s sizzling stir-fry of stars – some tossing and turning for decades, others burning to a crisp at once. However, fame, money and love on a world-size scale are harder to share than they seem, and very few bands make it out of the pan alive.

US-based pop-rock band The Strokes have encountered just about all of rock’s common killers. And yet, 22 years on from their first album, they are still here – and reportedly working on a seventh. What, if anything, can we learn from The Strokes about not just making it, but making it last?

Under Control: Drugs and Alcohol

The standard cause of collapse for a young, successful rock band is drink and drugs. Guns ’n’ Roses ran on booze and heroin, Pink Floyd lost their greatest musical visionary to LSD, the Smashing Pumpkins had to fire their bassist over her abuse of crack cocaine. The nature of the job is late nights, afterparties, alcohol and hard drugs, and while this has no doubt helped to shape the sound of modern music, addiction invariably damages the quality of musical output as well as intra-band relations.

Alcohol turned The Strokes’ frontman Julian Casablancas into an ‘asshole’ (in his own words), and by the late 2000s he was becoming difficult to work with. Phil Everly smashed a guitar over his drunken brother Don’s head for less, but Casablancas had the foresight to kick the drink in 2009, with guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. also beating a four-year heroin addiction around the same time.

Casablancas told Rolling Stone magazine that he ‘felt hungover for … five years’, but the band have nonetheless made it to the middle-age of their rock career, bruised but not defeated.

What Ever Happened?: The Decline

Perhaps the most impressive challenge that The Strokes have survived is the downward trajectory of their career. The band boasts six full-length albums and multiple EPs, but their first album, Is This It (2001), remains almost indisputably their finest work. Their ratings declined steadily across the following four albums, flatlining in 2011 with the chaotic and crumbling LP Angles. The years 2013-2020 saw only one EP, slipped out without ceremony on Casablancas’ own label Cult, and fans broadly considered the band finished. However, the high standard and success of their 2020 return The New Abnormal demonstrated how the intervening years had been a chance to reflect and right the project.

Early success is often a recipe for a messy end. The Smiths shot up but didn’t last long, shoo-ins to the rock hall of fame despite being active for a mere four years due to poor management. Today, the easily distractible public sees the young and TikTok-famous picked up, exploited, and dropped at will by the world’s biggest labels. The way of the meteoric rockstar is fraught with danger, but credit must be given to The Strokes for riding out napalm stardom and a steady decline without ever completely fading into insignificance or exploding into flames.

Take It Or Leave It: Life Beyond the Band

Often, the world wants a rockstar. And it picks one – Alex Turner has become synonymous with Arctic Monkeys, Freddie Mercury with Queen, Sting with The Police. Art is subjective, but money is concrete, and sometimes a band needs to give the world what it wants. One singer, one songwriter, one star, a formula which both made and broke The Police; for the rest of the band, it can be hard to take.

Julian Casablancas writes The Strokes’ songs. This has been the accepted order since Angles (2011), their only collaborative work, which was unpopular with fans and even more so with the band themselves. The other four members of The Strokes are musicians in their own right and yet have played peripheral roles in the creative process of their work. This has not held them back, though, and all of the band members have released music as part of other outfits and Albert Hammond Jr. has had significant success under his own name. Their interests stretch beyond music: drummer Fab Moretti has become an art dealer and Casablancas has invented the world’s first ever pedal-less foldable electric bike. Obviously. The band must not be all-consuming, and self-worth is best derived elsewhere.

Bands don’t always go down in a blaze of glory, and I believe that soon, The Strokes will simply stop. This should not be treated as a failure; they will leave behind one of the best albums of the last thirty years, a deep and varied discography, an adoring fanbase, and the still-falling debris of the indie rock revival which they kickstarted two decades ago. They have little more to achieve and yet less to prove. And while The Strokes’ career cannot be called exemplary until they navigate how it ends, we can already celebrate a band who, in spite of everything, have stuck it out and spared us the dismal speculation over what could have been.

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