Yeah Yeah Yeahs Took the New Rock Revolution and Skewered It
15 years after 'Fever to Tell', Karen O’s lipsticked chutzpah is marked on everyone from Grimes to Gaga, Sleigh Bells and even Alice Glass.
Lead image by Max Knies via Wikimedia
In Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom, an oral history of the NYC rock scene in the aughts, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ then-manager Asif Ahmed recalls that for a while the band were getting a rep as the “No No Nos.” They were saying no to Saturday Night Live, no to the Vanity Fair music issue, no to [insert brand here]. But ‘no’ isn’t always an indicator of an erratic artistic temperament, or an expression of disagreement. It can also be a succinct word for self-preservation.
Possibly the most important ‘no’ came from singer Karen O in August 2002, eight months before the release of their debut album Fever to Tell. At the time she was overwhelmed – the attention, particularly over in the UK, was blinding, the pressure immense. The band hadn’t finished the record and were scheduled to play a hyped slot at Reading Festival, plus a slew of shows around it. But Karen said no. She cancelled all of it, much to drummer Brian Chase and guitarist Nick Zinner’s initial chagrin. She was thinking of her health in part, but she also felt they needed to focus on making the album exactly as they envisioned it: A record that would dish their passion and fury and fun; a record that they could stand behind.
This week marks the 15-year anniversary of Fever to Tell. At 37 near-perfect minutes it still bleeds both hedonism and heart. It’s also a record that boldly left off every track from their self-titled 2001 EP, the microphone-fellating, DIY-punk collection that sparked it all. In its wake, Fever to Tell exceeded expectations while silencing the sceptics at the back who sniffed that Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ beer-slick, lawless live shows served as a mere smoke-screen for style over substance. “It's our time, sweet babe / To break on through / It's the year to be hated,” sings Karen on that debut EP’s closing track. Prophetic perhaps, but ultimately it was a triumphant taunt.
Like all the emerging American bands of 2001-2003 – The Strokes, The White Stripes, Interpol, followed by The Killers and Kings of Leon et al – Yeah Yeah Yeahs were seized upon outside New York in the UK first. It’s hard to pinpoint why, exactly, but the UK mainstream always had an affinity for indie rock. Perhaps it was – is – because the country thrives on party culture, and this sweat-drenched wave slotted right into that. Or perhaps the UK is just always willing to hop on what’s new, as championed by music mags and papers like NME and the now-defunct Melody Maker. Either way, at the turn of 2000, the days of pogoing in clubs to Britpop were a cider-blurred memory. America was now importing pop as suspiciously shiny as Kraft cheese slices and the UK’s new, homegrown guitar acts – Starsailor, Travis, Coldplay – were rendered diabolically dull in the wake of what NME crowned the New Rock Revolution. But while Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ history will always entwine with their imported peers, they were outsiders in the midst.
Watching an early Strokes show, Karen O told me she remembered thinking “All right, this is the competition,” when I spoke to her in 2015 for a Noisey cover story on Julian Casablancas and the Voidz. Fizzing with nerves and tequila at their very first gig opening for The White Stripes in the autumn of 2000 (after just one rehearsal with Brian), the trio came ready to lay waste. It wasn’t just The Strokes who were their rivals, though, it was all those boys in bands, to which Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the antithesis.
For one, they looked like they were in different gangs – Nick, slight, ghost-white, crowned with his disorderly mass of blacker than black hair; Brian, a Dorkasaurus Rex as Karen once quipped, and Karen herself a terror in torn fishnets with a smeared, scarlet slash of a mouth. Moreover, unlike their contemporaries, Yeah Yeah Yeahs shows were a dazzling display of chaos. Nick and Brian held it down while Karen blazed across the stage – that quivering right thigh, the way she’d pull the mic lead taut arm-to-arm, or bend like a slinky, blowing beer (and later champagne) into the air like a busted city fire hydrant. You can map those moves to Jagger, to Iggy, to Siouxsie Sioux, and yet every twitch seemed so avowedly her own. It wasn’t just her voice, it was her full body acting as the purest conduit for the emotion in their music.
Whether it was pals across the pond gawping incredulous at the threesome at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey, or 21-year-old me witnessing them under the red strobes at London’s legendary nightclub Trash – or, soon after Fever to Tell’s release, when they graduated to playing to a couple thousand, Karen trussed up in a Christian Joy-designed prawn prom dress – their shows nixed fear from the equation and gave us, the audience, the freedom to be fearless in turn. That night at Trash they played just three songs: the sound was an awful squall and it was hard to see more than Karen’s glove-clad hand in the air and the crown of her inky black bowl cut, but we walked away wet with each other’s sweat, feeling like we’d mainlined their energy and the spirit of something utterly foreign and fresh. For so many girls at the time (and still), Karen was a new totem of femininity and possibility: You didn’t have to be pretty or put together, you could be messy and awkward and unstuck, and that was really fucking fun.
Dropped in the spring of 2003, Fever to Tell hit the UK charts at number 13. First and foremost, it’s a record that led the pack to the indie dance floor: “Date with the Night,” with its distorted, see-sawing lick and clattering of hi-hats, was the cue to go buckwild. The glorious pop of “Y Control” slotted right in next to the thrashy mashups of 2ManyDJs and cowbell clangers The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem. Inspired by the American invaders, the Brits – Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys and The Libertines – rose to the challenge and met them at the club. On “Black Tongue” Karen delivers her hellion quaver “We're high in the back room / Gonna have a pack soon / With this you will regret / Just let it be,” which encapsulates the reckless antics of the era; timeless antics at that.
The record’s reception in the States was a little more slow-burn: it didn’t trouble the Top 40, but then the single-tear-streaked video for “Maps” entered heavy MTV rotation, boosting Fever to Tell to Grammy-level acclaim (their following two records also received Grammy nods). To date it’s sold more than a million copies worldwide. Visuals aside, “Maps” remains the record’s crown jewel because it’s cut with a potent poignancy previously unrevealed. Written to her then-boyfriend Angus Andrew of Liars, it’s imbued with the early 20s love pangs that wipe out rationality, a love where you’re not fully present when the other’s absent, a love that will turn you inside out when it’s over – all of this trapped within the song’s sweet, barely sang line: “Wait, they don't love you like I love you”. To this day it still socks you in the gut.
The record’s release also marked the beginning of a genre-blurring free for all: Swedish pop architect Max Martin and Dr Luke – who wrote Kelly Clarkson’s smash “Since U Been Gone" – ripped a guitar sequence from “Maps” 18 months later, and truth be told, we all danced around to that too. Alongside “Maps,” it was the songs that allowed the space to be soft – “Modern Romance” and “Poor Song” – that elevated Fever to Tell from great, to sincerely compelling. It’s tough to stand onstage night after night spot-lit by your own vulnerability.
Watching the band perform the record in its entirety late last year at Brooklyn’s King’s Theater was a sparkling reminder of the band’s renegade spirit – but also of how far they’ve come. Where the majority of their contemporaries fell foul to all the rock ‘n’ roll clichés – imploding in a vortex of drink, drugs, expectations and fractious interband relations, Yeah Yeah Yeahs held it down, and in doing so managed constant evolution. They’ve yet to release a record that sucks.
When this class of 2001 emerged, what they represented above all was a sense of excitement. In America no one was thinking they’d have mainstream impact. Limp Bizkit were big, not doe-eyed boys singing with dishevelled ennui. Primarily the shift was felt in the Lower East Side dives. There was also a collective amusement (for those paying attention to the UK press) that Britain was so hyperbolically fixated on characters you’d pull up a stool next to at East Village basement bar Black & White. It was only when The Strokes played Letterman or SNL that Stateside fans felt there was a sliver of a chance that, hey, maybe this thing could go wide.
But it was The Killers and the Kings of Leon who went on to headline stadiums. It was “Seven Nation Army” that became an international sporting events anthem (and even as recently as last year, a chant that swelled after Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s speech). Yeah Yeah Yeahs never achieved big dollar commercial clout, but like Bowie or Debbie Harry before them, their imprint on pop culture is indelible, Karen’s lipstick traces and theatrical chutzpah is marked on everyone from Grimes to Gaga, Sleigh Bells and even Alice Glass.
If every record is a snapshot, this debut captures a band when life was a blur of opportunities and sweaty upturned faces; at that point the stakes were raised to the sun, which even with the bullish invincibility of youth, is a scary-as-hell prospect. Fever to Tell is coiled tight with angst, tenderness and ripe, raw sexuality. And when Yeah Yeah Yeahs paused to exhale, it was with defiance and stubborn conviction that they truly delivered.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.