FEATURE: The White Stripes: Remembering the Legends

FEATURE:

 

 

The White Stripes:

 

No automatic alt text available. PHOTO CREDIT: Autumn de Wilde

 

Remembering the Legends

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IT is hard to believe The White Stripes closed shop…

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PHOTO CREDIT: Autumn de Wilde

ten years ago now. My closest encounter was them when I went to see a gig of theirs at Alexandra Palace after the release of their fifth album, Get Behind Me Satan. I remember being very excited about attending my first gig and what it would be like. Turning up to the venue extra-early – to avoid the queues and get a good spot – I marched in with everyone else and awaited the U.S. duo. Unfortunately, they turned up late and, after watching two support acts, had to go home – taking the train for an hour and missing out on a rare opportunity. That did not sour my appreciation of an act who had made a huge impact on me.

On 15th June, it will be exactly eighteen years since their eponymous debut was released – ten years since their finale, Icky Thump.

I am not sure whether they planned it that way but it is kind of neat their bookends were timed that way. In honour of The White Stripes’ legacy; it is worth looking back and seeing how they came together and the music we all remember. Jack and Meg White formed in Detroit back in 1997. Before their debut album, they played a few shows and released some music but it was not until 1999 when things started to happen. We all know the ‘myth’ perpetrated by Jack and Meg: they are sister-and-brother and, naturally, have that sibling bond.

Photo: Pieter M Van Hattem/NME

PHOTO CREDIT: Pieter M. Van Hattem

The reason behind this story was to deflect any press attention from the fact they used to be married – it would lead to gossip and take the attention away from the music itself. Regardless of their relationship and dynamic, one cannot ignore the impress they made right off the bat. If they did not truly explode until 2002 – as part of the Garage-Rock revival – their simple debut laid down the gauntlet and showed what they were made of. Before I look at that, it is worth considering what made the duo so special. It may sound rigid but there was a uniformity that promoted a certain aesthetic. They wore only red, black and white; their music relied on guitar, drums and voice – it was all about the power of three.

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Lesser groups would be restricted by that but, in the case of Jack and Meg, they thrived from limitations. Famously, the band never used any bass parts on their songs and, in the earliest days, kept their music relatively simple. The music was recorded locally; often using basic equipment like four and eight-track recorders. Ione can hear that raw, homemade feel in their music – something that has been preserved by modern-day artist. Their arrival in music arrived at a time when bigger Rock bands were finding favour.

There was less demand for a lo-fi Garage-Blues Detroit duo so, until that 2002 fire, the guys enjoyed modest success.

From the very start, before The White Stripes, in fact, Jack was a huge fan of the Blues and legendary artists like Son House. A young man in the U.S., one would think, would be heavily into contemporary sounds or artists from the 1960s. The fact Jack sourced from the 1930s and ‘40s – and earlier than that – stood him out from his peers. In the same way heroes like Bob Dylan nodded to the Blues heroes; Jack White found huge inspiration in the simple and effective textures of the genre. At that time, there was no option but to simplify – that is not to say the music was not effective.

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Influenced by that almost rustic and low-fidelity approach to music; Jack White extended that to their design, wardrobe and stage shows. Early White Stripes gigs were sweaty, primal and electrifying. That old aphorism of “things were better in my day” could be applied to music but, in terms of precise location, is quite subjective. To me, music peaked in the ‘90s – which would be where The White Stripes come in. To Jack White, I guess he would argue the ‘60s and ‘70s form one-half of the music brain: the other half dedicated to the Blues and early-Folk movement.  Bringing together elements of The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin’s heaviness with the lyrics and performance style of the Blues kings – this was music that was not often heard in the late-1990s. Today, there are a few bands who blend these elements but far fewer existed back then.

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By 1999, the band were ready to unveil their debut album, The White Stripes. Signed to the California-based label, Sympathy for the Record Industry – the single, The Big Three Killed My Baby, came in March of that year (two months before the album came out). Everything about the duo’s debut smacked of simplicity and directness. Produced by Jack with engineering from Jim Diamond, it was put together at Diamond’s Ghetto Recorded studio in Detroit. Deeply influenced by Son House – the album was dedicated to him; Cannon contains an a cappella version performed by Son House on John the Revelator – it is their rawest and most bracing work. Jack White, reflecting on the album years later, felt it was the most Detroit-sounding and, perhaps, best album they ever produced. His voice is a mixture of Punk energy and Blues; a unique cocktail that gives huge life and candour to everything he sings. His guitar work is skilled and commanding whilst Meg’s drumming is methodical, controlled and intense – a perfect combination on an incredible debut. Following the release with the single, Hand Springs – available digitally but not in print – the duo were lauded and tipped as an act to watch. There was a lot of scepticism and doubt around the time of the debut album.

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Many felt the raw sound would not translate to radio and it would not prove popular. Jack White, in 2005, explained the symbolism behind their colour scheme Speaking to Rolling Stone, he explained it in these terms:

The White Stripes’ colors were always red, white, and black. It came from peppermint candy. I also think they are the most powerful color combination of all time, from a Coca-Cola can to a Nazi banner. Those colors strike chords with people. In Japan, they are honorable colors. When you see a bride in a white gown, you immediately see innocence in that. Red is anger and passion. It is also sexual. And black is the absence of all that

There was a childlike quality to the colours. In the sense it was a uniform for the band: you are serious and disciplined when wearing it and have study to do. When you return home, you can be someone else and relax. There were some who felt the colours and uniform were a bit gimmicky and at risk of becoming a niche act.

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Regardless, the band won critical favour (if minor at this point) for their individuality. With few distinct contemporaries at the time, many were unable to compare The White Stripes’ music with anyone else. De Stijl arrived in 2000 and, unlike its predecessor, it was a more varied and, in places, tenderer affair. On The White Stripes, tracks such as When I Hear My Name and Broken Bricks had that exhilarating energy and nervous tension.

Here, there was still that but, alongside it, more affectionate and rounded songwriting – taking in new influences and styles.

It became a cult classic among the duo’s fanbase because of that simplicity and urgency. The album’s title, referencing a Dutch art movement, reflected Jack’s love of the artwork and furniture design – he was a big admirer of Gerrit Rietveld. Here, there was the base of Blues and Garage primal; conjoined with an eclecticism and broader palette this time. Jumble Jumble has clipped strumming and is an infectious bouncer; Apple Blossom is a tender and charming love song that sees White protecting the unnamed heroine – putting all her problems away and lending a shoulder.

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A cross between The Kinks and The Beatles; it showed an understanding and appreciation for British icons of the 1960s. An extraordinary record that continues the debut’s addictive energy but builds on that and proves what a varied and fascinating writer Jack White is. To me, it is a natural step-forward from the duo but packed with more emotion and variation. If you want a simpler and focused work, the debut is for you: for those looking for deeper and more textured work should seek out De Stijl. Following from that was the first breakthrough for The White Stripes, White Blood Cells. Its cover – Jack and Meg cowering away from, what looks like, the press in the shadows – might have reflected the intrusions and mounting interesting in the duo.

By 2001, Jack and Meg were no longer an unknown quantity: their music was much more widespread and the spotlight was on them.

Predating the Garage revival in 2002; White Blood Cells, at this point, was the most realised and confident work from them. The recording speed would put most modern artists to shame: it took less than a week (in Easley-McCain Recordings, Tennessee) to put the album together. Like their previous two albums, Jack was in the producer’s chair. The single, Fell in Love with a Girl, is the most-famous song from the album but there are many others that rival it.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Autumn de Wilde

Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground and Hotel Yorba are standout classics whilst second-half tracks I Can Learn and I Can’t Wait (my favourite tracks on the album) are darker and more brooding. Aluminium is gargled vocals and metallic, machine-rampaging guitars whereas Now Mary is a juddering, scratching skip that gets the body moving. Shorter songs like Little Room (less than a minute of static, pounding percussion and some rare yodelling) showed the confident in Jack White. The debut possessed economic numbers but nothing as brief as this – Little Room is almost a punctuation and interval in a concept record. I Think I Smell a Rat is Jack calling out the so-called uncool kids who wear backwards caps and carry baseball bats – he sees right through them. It is almost Flamenco-like in its guitar work: a glorious work from an album overflowing with wonderful moments. Not all songs on the album were brand-new with many taken from early earlier points in Jack’s career – the first two White Stripes albums and previous other incarnations.  You can hear a lot of The White Stripes’ early-mid career in modern artists like The Black Keys. It has endured and inspired artists many years later – White Blood Cells was the first White Stripes album that got into the critical mindset. It is unsurprising the album dealt with paranoia and mounting tension – hardly a shock considering the number of eyes trained on them.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Autumn de Wilde

White Blood Cells made many ‘best of’ lists in 2001 and is seen as one of the greatest albums of all time. Sites like Spin put it in their top one-hundred; Mojo put it in their Modern Classics collection (1993-2006). Many bands would feel the need to take a few years and step away from the pressure. The White Stripes continued to tour and promote the album. Having released three albums in their first three years of commercial release; Elephant arrived after a two-year gap. The second album recorded on VS Records; it was their way of stripping back to basics and their earlier work.

Photo: Dean Chalkley/NME

PHOTO CREDIT: Dean Chalkley

If pressure and celebrity forced The Beatles to reinvent themselves by pushing their music to new heights: The White Stripes want to make their next statement as raw and quick as their debut. Maybe an attempt to revert to simple times; it was recorded at Hackney’s Toe Rag Studios under the supervision of Liam Watson. Using antiquated equipment, it seemed like the perfect environment for Jack. Pre-1960s gear and eight-track machines, there was no modern technologies or computers employed during the album’s creation. All the equipment came from 1963 (or earlier) and the plan was to record a non-modern album in ten days. Well It’s True That We Love One Another was captured at Toe Rag in November 2001 whereas I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself was recorded at BBC’s Maida Vale Studios.

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Aside from an explosive and pained version of I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself – Dusty Springfield never imagined it would be as tortured – the material was written by White and employed few instruments (De Stijl was a busier album in terms of the number of instruments used). There was a distinct Englishness to the record. Apart from the fact it was recorded in London; the record’s cover sees Jack holding a cricket bat – various theories swirled as to the relevance and symbolism. Elephant can be seen as the catalyst in the Garage revival of the time.

There are few albums from the decade that have that memorability and incredibly consistent songwriting.

Seven Nation Army has that much-sung ‘bass line’ (actually recorded on an electric guitar but made to simulate a bass – Royal Blood must have heard that!) and is considered as one of the defining moments of the band’s career. Fully-realised and variegated; the album has tenderness and affection (In the Cold, Cold Night and You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket) but contains plenty of snarl and growl – Black Math and Little Acorns two of the finest examples. I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart is Jack as the awkward teen/kid trying to impress his new girl but comes up dry when he realises she is paying no attention to him – maybe the mother route is a way of getting into her affections. It is a song that boasts some of White’s smartest lines and is one of his most tender vocals.

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Sweat, blood and affection seem like odd bedfellows but are loving siblings on an album that takes the brain in different directions. One moment, you are listening to the piano roll and inspirational introduction of Little Acorns; then, Jack trying to mesmerise his girl through watch-spinning and hand-holding ploys; then, Jack is the man pacing hotel floors and confessing “Life is so boring/it’s really got me snoring”). Jack has since admitted The Air Near My Fingers is a bit of a misstep but it shows another dimension to his songwriting. Ball and Biscuit is a Dylan-checking (similar early riffs recall Meet Me in the Morning) rhapsody and exorcism that displays Jack’s peerless guitar chops and showmanship – it was largely improvised in the studio and has that live, loose feel.

Photo: Dean Chalkley/NME

PHOTO CREDIT: Dean Chalkley

Well It’s True That We Love One Another is a delightful three-way conversational song between Jack, Meg and guest vocalist Holly Golightly. It shows a humorous side to Jack’s writing – inspired by a late-night flash of brilliance – and is a charming way to end the album. Elephant is considered one of the finest albums from the ‘00s and is an extraordinary leap from the band – moving forward in terms of songwriting but back to the beginning when it comes to production. A clarion call to any meek or hesitant Garage/Blues-Rock bands out there: this is what could be achieved. Perhaps future attempts were not as lo-fi as Elephant but there remains its uniqueness. The fact Jack abandoned any sense of modernity fitted with The White Stripes’ heritage and resulted in a fantastic live-sounding masterpiece.

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Another two-year gap formed before Get Behind Me Satan was unveiled to the world in 2005. If Elephant was an attempt to move on from White Blood Cells and revisit the rawness of their debut: Get Behind Me Satan was a left-field run towards new experimentation. The basis guitar-piano-vocal-drum balance of the predecessor had been replaced with marimbas, new rhythmic approaches and new styles. There was more a Latin/South American feel whereas, previously, there was a Blues/Rock-heavy vibe. From The Nurse’s weird and Hitchcock-esque creepiness to My Doorbell’s funky, piano-led stomp – it is one of their most unusual and diverse records.

Less reliant on heavy guitar sounds and more focused on rhythms: there was still enough of the ‘old Stripes’ to keep the fans happy. Opener Blue Orchid is a mysterious and paranoid riff-sharp slam that could be directed at a former lover or jealous contemporary – there are theories who it is aimed at – whilst Little Ghost is a rare excursion into Country territory. The Denial Twist, again, is heavy on piano and Funk and sees the frontman at his catchiest and most confidence. It is a fun song on an album that manages to blend light-hearted and intense. Instinct Blues is about how everything reproduces – whereas Jack’s sweetheart is unwilling to surrender – and comes complete with savage riffs and a huge dinosaur-sized swamp-stomp.

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Take, Take, Take concerns the way people want celebrities to act for them without giving anything in return whilst I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet) is another Country-fried song but is incredibly tender and funny- Jack showing his cheeky pen was still sharp and willing. If some critics were unsure about the new direction and experimentation; it showed the duo were unwilling to repeat themselves. The more expansive and Latin-fused sounds inspired Jack and Meg to continue strong on their finale, Icky Thump. Gone were the marimbas to be replaced by, among everything, bagpipes (shockingly).

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PHOTO CREDIT: Dean Chalkley

At the time, Jack was still married to Karen Elson (a successful recording artist in her own right, now) who he met on the set of Blue Orchid’s video – they were wedded around the time of Get Behind Me Satan. Released in 2007, it was another album that nodded to England – ‘Icky Thump’ a northern expression, no doubt inspired by his then-wife’s roots and vernacular. Recorded and mixed in analog at Nashville’s Blackbird Studio;  it was the longest The White Stripes took to record an album – taking them a massive three weeks! The reason was they were experimenting with various takes and new ways to record drums and guitar. White had the luxury of a sixteen-track and had reached a point where some of the duo’s early ideals could slide. Having reached the limits of the eight-track-guitar-based sound; he was pushing the music in new directions. More fanciful and full than previous effort; it is more mature but shows enough nimbleness as not to be formulaic.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Autumn de Wilde

Some of the ‘Scottish excursions’ are not quite as successful – Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly Worn and St. Andrew (This Battle Is in the Air) – but they are rare missteps. The title track is a quirky and stomping opener that ranks among their best songs of the previous few years. 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues has a quiet-loud dynamic that starts as a cool breeze but turns into a hurricane in the chorus. Straight after, there is a unique take on Corky Robbins’ Conquest – complete with a trumpet line from a musician Jack met at a Mexican restaurant. Little Cream Soda mixes childhood remembrances and ideas with a grumbling, Metal-esque riff that took the duo to unprecedented electric highs – perhaps their fiercest lashing so far. This intensity re-emerges in Catch Hell Blues whilst A Martyr for My Love for You and I’m Slowly Turning into You are two different sides of co-dependency.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Dean Chalkley

Maybe there are a few repeated ideas on the album – that do not advance the duo too far – but it is another record that shows how adventurous and curious they were at the time. Some critics congratulated the noise and heavier moments but highlighted some numbers for their tired sound and hit-and-miss nature. The two-hander, Rag and Bone, casts Jack and Meg as old-time collectors of rare treasures and salvageable junk. It is a funny and playful song that shows the mood-diversity and diversity on the album. Critics who really ‘got’ the album saw it as a fitting finale – although nobody knew at the time – and a record that brought together the heavier sound of their debut with the experimentation of their later creations. Surprising to see a duo produce unexpected and consistently brilliant work eight years after their debut – that doesn’t sound that impressive but few modern acts can do that!

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The real reason behind The White Stripes’ breakup was never revealed but it seemed like a natural time to call it quits. Meg was suffering from anxiety and found touring harder. Jack, one suspects, was keen to break from the restrictions of red-white-black and step out alone.  Icky Thump is a perfect and solid way to end a wonderful career. Following their split, Meg got involved with a few musical projects but has, in effect, retreated to a quieter and more domesticated life. Jack, as we know, remains busy and appeared in two different bands: The Raconteurs and wonderful The Dead Weather.

Photo: Dean Chalkley/NME

IN THIS PHOTO: The Raconteurs/PHOTO CREDIT: Dean Chalkley

Neither has reached the same level as The White Stripes – in both bands, White is not quite as dominant as one would hope. To me, his best work has come from his solo albums. Blunderbuss arrived in 2012 and produced some of his best material in years – Freedom at 21 and Weep Themselves to Sleep – whilst Lazaretto came out in 2014. The latter is a tighter album but one, I feel, more electric and nuanced (the title track is especially explosive and swaggering). Many eyes are on Jack as it has been a three-year gap. I have a feeling he will put something out this year but will it have a lot of build-up and promotion? That is not the Jack White way so it could well appear on the shelves without warning.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Dean Chalkley

In the meantime, he is looking after his Third Man Records label and revolutionising music – the way vinyl is created and recorded on; how we experience music. He is producing for others and not exactly remaining idle!

We shall see what Jack brings us this year but he remains one of the most influential songwriters and guitarists in the world.

He was never better when adorning The White Stripes uniform and performing those timeless, incredible tracks. On 15th June, it will be ten years since the duo released their final album. It is a timely reminder of what an impact they had on music – and still do today – and how many musicians they have influenced. As we listen back and remember their brilliance, it gets me thinking about the new generation. Will we ever see an act quite like The White Stripes?! I think they were one-of-a-kind which, in a way, he is a good thing. Their music compelled and amazed when it was released and, you know, I think that magic will…

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CARRY on for many years to come.

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