Back in the early 00s, New York City was the coolest place on the planet. Sure, there are probably just a few years
where it hasn’t been. From the CBGB punk and post-punk scene that sprung from an unsuspecting club on 315 Bowery street, to the birth of hip-hop; there are very few musical
movements that haven’t at least taken a trip on the city’s sprawling subway network. But for those few years, at
least to our rose-tinted British specs, it really, really, was the greatest place on earth. The year 2000 saw the release of the much-feted ‘Yes New York’
compilation; ostensibly a collection of artists with the same zip code. With a track listing featuring The Strokes,
LCD Soundsystem, Interpol, The Rapture, and The Walkmen, fifteen years later it reads more like a who’s who.
Nestled alongside the heavyweights were Unitard, with their ‘Year To Be Hated’. Sound familiar? It should – Unitard were Karen O and Nick Zinner, and the track soon became ‘Our Time’. Add drummer Brian Chase and a heavy dose of garage-rock, art-punk, hardcore and everything else New York City’s grimy streets could throw at the trio, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs were born.
So what exactly is it about the band’s debut full-length that made it become one of the best-loved rock albums of the noughties? Lead single ‘Date With The Night’ was – and still is – a blisteringly brilliant number, all punk ferocity and dancefloor-filling ambition. That’s a fact echoed by its status as the record’s highest-charting track, reaching #13 here in the UK. And take a look at the video, live footage of an early UK tour. Is there a better frontperson for any band, ever, than Karen O? Spitting water, swallowing mics and throwing bodies around the stage ad-hoc wasn’t particularly new – it’s pretty much a staple of hardcore punk, for one - but doing it while single-handedly starting various fashion crazes, all the while switching between guttural screams and quiet whispers on a sixpence? There’s no wonder she’s not been rivalled since. From The Ramones to The Strokes via Talking Heads and Blondie, the trio’s adopted home has a long-standing reputation for mixing avant-garde with straight-up pop, and here were three scrappy punks taking on punk, disco, art-rock, and running with it.
Then there’s the emotional rollercoaster that is ‘MAPS’. Written for Karen’s then-boyfriend, Angus Andrew of LIARS (the title is an acronym for ‘My Angus Please Stay,’ fact fans – what’s more, her tears in the video are real because he was late to arrive at the shoot), it’s still as potent today as on first listen. Its delicate, intimate vulnerability would be a masterpiece for anyone, but when contrasted with the brute force of much of the rest of ‘Fever To Tel’, it’s even more remarkable. It’s not just one of the greatest songs of the 00s, but of all time. Elsewhere there’s the brilliantly sassy ‘Pin’ (which also hit the Top 40, at #29, MAPS reached #26, meanwhile), plus ‘Cold Light’, ‘Y Control’, and the venomous ‘Black Tongue’. Any track here could’ve arguably joined in as a single.
Over a decade on, Yeah Yeah Yeahs are still a band constantly reinventing themselves. There’s their subsequent foray in to synth-led songs, O’s painfully intimate ‘Crush Songs’ and Zinner’s involvement in the Africa Express project, as well as recent production duties for Songhoy Blues and Deap Vally to start with. But, to hungry British ears in the early 00s, this debut was all the impossible cool of New York City and then some. In part, Yeah Yeah Yeahs will always be ‘Fever To Tell’.
For DIY’s full Hall of Fame coverage on the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s ‘Fever To Tell’, head here.