The American Sterilization of Is This It
By Alex Rice
It’s one of the most notable instances of rock and roll’s youth movement butting heads with the old guard. The Rolling Stones tumbled into the Ed Sullivan Show’s New York City studio in early 1967, ready to perform their latest smash, the innoculously-titled “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” The twenty-something British rockers had already appeared on the popular CBS talk show three times prior, but the 65-year-old host would hear nothing of young lovers cuddling under cover of darkness. A compromise was reached, but only enough for the Stones’ performance to air as planned. When singer Mick Jagger and bassist Bill Wyman rolled their eyes while singing a bastardized version of the single’s title - “Let’s spend some time together” - their band was banned from the program.
Sure, some things are lost in translation when crossing the Atlantic. But the band we’re talking about today was birthed in The Bowery. Three decades after the Stones got censored- with cultural upheavals like the Summer of Love, the rise of hip-hop and Limp Bizkit’s lewd existence occurring in the interim - The Strokes were sanitized… twice. For instance, when the quintet’s instant-classic debut, Is This It, hit U.S. shelves in October 2001, it was without the slightly-suggestive album cover it donned across the rest of the globe.
Sometime in the late ‘90s, unofficial band photographer Colin Lane’s girlfriend was stepping out of the shower in their Manhattan apartment when he proposed an impromptu shoot. A candid, black-and-white close-up of her gracefully caressing her ass with a leather glove ended up on the worldwide cover of Is This It a few years later. It’s a stunning snapshot that perfectly mirrors the songs on that stirring debut. Simple, sexy and somehow stately - everything that endeared the music world to The Strokes at the dawn of the new millennium. That image was deemed too salacious for U.S. retailers, though. When Is This It arrived stateside three months later than everywhere else, it donned another close-up - this time through a microscope. To this day, the American version of the debut dons a photo of subatomic particles reacting inside a bubble chamber - a portion of which had previously been used on the cover of Prince’s 1990 LP, Graffiti Bridge. Leave the recycled subatomic particles for stoned studies of science books. Rock and roll is for fresh pictures of butts.
The decision to replace the record’s ninth track - the critical yet humorous “New York City Cops” - with the bouncy but anonymous “When It Started” was a decidedly less black-and-white situation. The attacks of September 11 devastated the United States in between Is This It’s global and American releases, so the former was tactfully removed from the U.S. tracklisting in light of, in the band’s words, the “valiant response” of the NYPD. “New York City Cops,” though, had referred to the 1999 murder of Amadou Diallo by four officers - just like Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots).” That tune caused plenty of controversy when The Boss debuted it lin 2000, but nobody suggested he meant “The Rising” any less two years later.
“We were like, ‘No, no, no!’” remembers Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr. in the 2017 NYC garage rock revival oral history Meet Me in the Bathroom about removing “New York City Cops,” his band’s fourth most-played live song ever. “At a time like that, though, people get hysterical.”
Is This It is a document of five musicians coming of age in pre-9/11 NYC. Twenty years on, it’s time to restore the album to its original condition - on both fronts.
Alex Rice is the founder of Bandbox. His writing has appeared in the Denver Post, Guitar World and Minneapolis's City Pages.