Play ‘The Rat’ again!

Sam Kinchin-Smith

What happens when you accidentally write a perfect song? You get a measly slice of the pie, is one answer – but also, possibly, the last laugh. That seems to be what’s happened to the Walkmen: the authors, though not exactly the beneficiaries, of the New York garage rock revival’s best song. This summer, a nostalgic wave – gathering momentum since the 20th anniversary of the Strokes’ album Is This It, which was released a couple of months before 9/11 – crested with a run of shows in London and elsewhere: anniversary concerts for Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights, a headline show by the Strokes at All Points East, supported by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and, some way down the bill, the Walkmen – who then had a three-night residency at KOKO in Camden.

In a genre in which songs tend to build in plodding layers, ‘The Rat’ comes at you with an immediacy that is dazing and inexplicable: first, a guitar sound that arrives without warning or lead-in and functions throughout as a high-register drone; then a deranged drum part that is essentially an unbroken sequence of whole-kit show-off fills, an effect that would be ridiculous if it weren’t sustained for the full four minutes of the song (with a brief breather in the middle). The song frontloads the kind of chord sequence that more bombastic bands laboriously work up to, before disrupting any sense of accumulating over-production with Hamilton Leithauser’s vocal, which has the peculiar distinction of residing unmovingly in the place where other voices crack.

‘Youuu’vegoddanerrrve to be aaaskingafaaavour’ – the second-person lyrics establish an intoxicatingly pugilistic dynamic in any singalong setting – and verses keep breaking themselves against the drum line after a few words, rejecting the idea of a chorus. Instead, we get that far more satisfying thing, a middle eight extended just long enough to ensure that when it reconnects with the main theme the tension is tightly sprung (catharsis!). The song ends with the guitar drone from the opening and a raised heartbeat from the drums that stop a beat too soon. It used to so affect me as a teenager that I would have to physically expel energy, hammering a wall with the heel of my hand or grabbing the nearest person in an unwilling semi-headlock; it was so embarrassing it became a minor spectacle for my friends, who for years would call me whenever they heard it playing.

If not written quite by accident, it does seem to have emerged while the band were ‘just screwin’ around’ during a rehearsal, Leithauser told Rolling Stone. The drummer, Matt Barrick, started playing like Tommy Lee, for some reason. ‘We threw some chords on it,’ Leithauser said. ‘I wrote the words in five minutes.’ Still, they knew they’d done good: ‘We had that song and we were like, “This has got to be worth something,”’ Pete Bauer, the band’s bassist, told Lizzy Goodman for her oral history of the 2000s NYC scene, Meet Me in the Bathroom, published in 2017. ‘It just has to be. If anything’s worth something it’s got to be that.’ But ‘Hamilton and I wanted to be really cool and have a bigger record contract and do the whole rock-and-roll thing, and we just failed miserably.’

A documentary based on Goodman’s book that came out earlier this year skips over the Walkmen completely. Implicitly, it makes the case for a different song, ‘Maps’ by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs – also four minutes long, more exemplary drumming, other structural and thematic similarities too – by including the video in its entirety alongside fragments of everything else.

This makes sense in the context of the film’s overall focus: situating the scene in terms of wider dynamics including 9/11, gentrification and the advent of peer-to-peer file-sharing, and zoning in on Karen O, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ singer, as its most compelling and charismatic performer – a half-Korean woman from New Jersey who conquered the combined forces of stage fright and music industry misogyny with a chaotic stage persona that owed as much to performance art as it did to punk-rock. (As the video for ‘Maps’ progresses she appears increasingly weighed down by this burden, and a single tear rolls down her cheek.)

The film has another argument, too, which is that, musically speaking, at the turn of the millennium in New York there was nothing, then there were the Strokes, then there was everything. But that’s not how the contributors to Goodman’s book recall it:

Simon Reynolds: ‘I was trying to remember what was going on in the rock scene before the Strokes, but I can’t. Before the Strokes, were there any bands at all?’
Anthony Rossomando: ‘There was nothing going on and then there was Jonathan Fire*Eater. That really was the band.’
Jason Gordon: ‘Jonathan Fire*Eater was the precursor to the Walkmen.’

The two bands had three members in common, Barrick, Walter Martin, who played keys, and the guitarist, Paul Maroon. The album Jonathan Fire*Eater made shortly before breaking up, Wolf Songs for Lambs, is still startling to listen to (as are the several EPs they released before it) because it crackles with the angles and attitudes of the Lower East Side in the early 2000s, but was released in 1997 (the same year as Oasis’s Be Here Now and the Verve’s Urban Hymns).

It also sounds a lot like the more clattering drum-led moments on Bows + Arrows, the Walkmen album that included ‘The Rat’. And this is the through-line that probably best explains where ‘The Rat’ came from, rather than some tenuous connection to 9/11 or Napster: as a fulfilment of the potential of the band that cleared the path for the scene that followed, before the Walkmen had fully worked out how to go their own slower, croonier way. (Jonathan Fire*Eater’s brilliant, troubled frontman, Stewart Lupton, took his own life the year after Goodman’s book was published.)

Which means the Walkmen would have reason to be doubly bitter at the lack of recognition, but at KOKO last month there was little sign of that. Leithauser said he was amazed that anyone had turned up (all three shows were sold out, or near enough) and, following a ten-year hiatus, the band were a picture of good health, comfortable in their own skin – the fruits of modest success, a world away from the hot mess of the Strokes.

Most of the songs sounded really good, ‘The Rat’ just one among many, all played very loud, which was always one of the Walkmen’s unlikely USPs (‘That was definitely the gag,’ Bauer told Goodman. ‘I remember being able to just take people’s heads off.’). Leithauser’s stage banter only once hinted at the long history of underappreciation. ‘Being a musician,’ he said, ‘it’s a tough life. I could go on about that all night. The thing about musicians, successful ones, unsuccessful ones, all they want to talk about is money.’ Then someone in the crowd shouted: ‘Play “The Rat” again!’