When The Strokes first appeared on Letterman, he introduced them by saying, “Our next guests are one of the most talked about new bands to emerge in the past year.” He certainly got that right. At that time, there was simply no avoiding it; whether you loved or hated them, you had to have some sort of a take on The Strokes.
They even spawned a trend: the record industry began spitting out one stripped-down rock band after another—The Hives, The Vines, too many to count. Sum 41 spoofed this with a video that began with their manager telling them they were now called “The Sums.” This was a rock band having broad impact on a level that would likely never come again. Speaking to the A.V. Club in 2004, rock legend Lou Barlow pointed out even that only went so far. “Even The Strokes, who are huge, they’re not a household name, you know?” he said. “Only among pockets of hipster kids. It just happens to be a pretty big country, with a lot of pockets of hipster kids.”
All of this makes The Strokes’ 2002 appearance on Letterman so remarkable, watching over a decade later. Removed from the outsized expectations surrounding them (they’d even named their debut Is This It), it is clear The Strokes were simply a great band that did everything right to ascend to a national stage. They wisely rip into an album track—the closer, in fact—rather than a single, avoiding fatigue that may have set in surrounding their three singles to date.
From there everything unfolds perfectly; the band is as tight or loose as it needs to be in either direction. Julian Casablancas is well backed but could carry the song himself with his casual croon on the verses and urgent shout on the chorus. He and the band careen together into the bridge, at which point Casablancas slams down his mic and exits the stage for a note-perfect solo from Albert Hammond, Jr., then returns just in time to spank the guitarist and resume singing. All this was either choreographed or impressively spontaneous. Letterman is visibly pleased as he comes over to shake hands with the band.