The White Stripes were a band that spilt opinion. For many music fans, they were a thrilling two piece rock band who were able to update the blues tradition for a modern audience. To others they were a gimmicky and derivative act with a drummer of limited ability who were little more than a vehicle for the frontman’s blues fantasies. Regardless of your opinion though, it’s impossible to view them as anything less than one of the key rock acts of the 21st Century.
Jack and Meg White received their first meaningful press coverage here in the UK in 2001, but they’d been releasing albums since 1999. The most raw and authentic sounding of all their albums, their self titled debut has a rough and untamed feel to it, yet that is much of its appeal. At the time of recording this the band were unknowns, yet they had already put in place most of what would make them one of the most discussed bands of the next decade. The basic guitar and drums sound, the black, white and red colour scheme, a sound influenced by – but not restricted to – the blues.
Even at the start of their career it was obvious that the White Stripes were a vehicle for the man who called himself Jack White. Drummer Meg was there to provide the most simple and unfussy of rhythms for Jack to build upon with his thrillingly untutored guitar playing and his rock yelp. The sound is derivative of so many bands that had gone before, be they Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Stooges or the blues masters, but that’s the point. There were many retro-rock bands about at the time that this album was released, but few were so open and enthusiastic about updating the blues for the modern era. The White Stripes weren’t particularly interested in emulating their heroes, they were more interested in encouraging younger generations to investigate the acts that had influenced them.
Although perhaps a little uneven, The White Stripes can boast a fine selection of great tunes. First and foremost of these is the opener “Jimmy The Exploder”, a glorious statement of intent which starts with Meg’s booming drums, continues with Jack’s gargantuan riffing and loads of whooping and hollering. It’s one hell of an entrance for any band, let alone one with only two members. Further into the album, the run of songs beginning with “Cannon” and ending with “When I Hear My Name” almost matches the opener’s ebullience. Another highlight is the cover of “One More Cup Of Coffee” which they handle better than you may expect.
The rest of the album is solid enough, but can get a little bit samey with with some blues licks and lyrical lifts being too obvious to actually be interesting. You get the sense that Jack White was only just getting into his stride, but he had enough faith in the enthusiastic sound of the album to realise that it needed minimal production, leaving it sounding endearingly scruffy and oddly loveable.
While The White Stripes’ endearingly sloppy debut that hinted at the fact that if Jack White wanted to, he could make a real go at this rock music lark, I’ve always fpund De Stijl to be a slight disappointment, as it becomes too bogged down in its blues influences, yet lacks the scruffy enthusiasm of it’s predecessor. It is a slightly more mature work though and opener “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl)’ definitely starts things off on the right foot. “Hello Operator” then shows that the band were starting to take their blues influences very seriously indeed, even if all they were doing was merely taking old classics and making them louder and potentially more accessible to a modern audience. “I’m Bound To Pack It Up” makes a better fist of things and is one of the strongest tunes on the album, as it indicates that Jack White was getting increasingly comfortable with acoustic tunes. The other highlights of the album are the strong “Death Letter” and the more upbeat “Let’s Build A Home” and “Jumble, Jumble”.
De Stijl is the preferred White Stripes album for those that maintain The White Stripes sold out when “Seven Nation Army” charted. This may be due to the fact that it’s probably their most serious album and the one with the least obvious commercial appeal.
I don’t dislike De Stijl, indeed there is much that is commendable about it, but it is one of The White Stripes albums that I play the least.
Of course it was after De Stijl that the UK music press started to get themselves into a lather about Jack and Meg. Following the UK’s embraces of The Strokes, the press started predicting unfeasibly huge success for the red and black clad duo. As it turned out, while their next tour of the UK was met with rabid enthusiasm, their next album wasn’t the instant massive hit that some had predicted.
White Blood Cells is The White Stripes strongest album, the one where they left behind the limitations of their deconstructed blues format and made something which stood entirely on its own merits. The slide guitar which had been all over the previous two albums had been dispensed with, which had the unusual benefit of improving Jack White’s guitar skills. The album combined the energy of their debut with the maturity and skill of De Stijl. Even Meg’s drumming seemed to have improved considerably, though she endearingly stuck to her none-more-basic technique. Sure Jack White was at times oddly outspoken, but he never made any effort to disguise that fact, so kudos to him.
The thing that makes White Blood Cells is the strength of the songs, from the delirious opener “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground”, to the joyous singalong of “Hotel Yorba” and the energetic thrash of “Fell In Love With A Girl”, this is an album of obvious commercial appeal. True, it does drop a gear in the second half of the album, but the accusational tones of “I Think I Smell A Rat” and the freaky “Aluminum” continue the strong showing and the piano led closer “This Protector” is one of the album highlights.
Of course the modest success of White Blood Cells was a double edged sword, as it brought the band to the wider attention of the record buying public and the inevitable cries of ‘sell out!’ from those that evidently had no interest in the band in the first place. Whatever the case White Blood Cells is The White Stripes’ strongest album and the ideal starting place for the uninitiated, despite the fact that it was their next album which made them a household name.
It’s a soft target, the album that signals a massive commercial breakthrough for an act. It’s a chance for all the naysayers to claim that the band have sold out. It’s the point where longterm fans start to lose that feeling of superiority over those that haven’t heard of the band. It’s also the point where fame can go to the head of the musicians involved.
Let’s get one thing sorted out now. Elephant is a great album, but it’s a great album that got overplayed, thus raising the ire of those that assume that just because something is played on the radio, it’s a heap of shit.
The track that gets the most derision was the lead single and opening track of Elephant, “Seven Nation Army”, yet it remains the band’s signature tune and one of their biggest hit singles. Possessing an instantly recognisable bass line, a stupidly simple drum beat and one of the best riffs in years, it gained vast amounts of airplay. It is not the fault of The White Stripes that it was so universally accepted, Jack White just wrote a catchy rock song and the media fell in love with it.
It is perhaps less laudable that they allowed another four tracks from the album to be released as singles, thus allowing the album to reach saturation levels on the radio, however this is an indication of how many great accessible songs there were on Elephant. “Black Math”, “There’s No Home For You Here”, “The Hardest Button To Button”, “Little Acorns”, these great commercial rock songs just keep on tumbling one after another. While there is a perceptible slump midway through, with a couple of mellower tunes, followed by the over-long “Ball And Biscuit”, things do pick up again as we sprint towards the end of the album, which is celebrated with a jokey number featuring the vocal talents of Holly Golightly.
With Elephant, The White Stripes showed that their blend of influences could be shaped together to appeal to a mass audience and achieve sustained success. Sadly this meant that a lot of music fans that had been previously indifferent to them suddenly hated them. To combat this Jack White ensured that the next White Stripes album would be much more rootsy and authentic, thus alienating their fair-weather fans and attempting to regain some credibility with the hip indie-set. Regardless of this, while Elephant may not be the coolest White Stripes album to own, it’s still one of their best.
This new found celebrity found The White Stripes as one of the most hotly tipped acts of the new millennium, with reams of articles being written about them, their influence on a new generation. They had become mainstream, and there’s only one way that Jack White was going to react to that…
Get Behind Me Satan is an album that divided longstanding White Stripes’ fans, the music press and confused the hell out of those fans they picked up following the release of Elephant. Considerably more moody, downbeat and, lead single and first track “Blue Orchid” aside, a considerably less accessible album, it’s The White Stripes ‘difficult’ fifth album. Actually, maybe that’s a little unkind, as both “Mt Doorbell” and the duet “Little Ghost” are great little tunes, just ones buried within an album from an act who were desperately trying to convince the cool kids that they hadn’t sold out.
While it isn’t the disaster that some would have you believe, it’s still tempting to consider Get Behind Me Satan as the delayed reaction to the expectation heaped upon the band over the previous four years. Having said this, it is an album that grows in stature over time, though be warned, it’s reputation as The White Stripes least commercial album is well received.
Perhaps a factor in the mood of Get Behind Me Satan was the fact that Jack White was getting ever more involved in side-projects like The Raconteurs, a band he formed with Brendan Benson and back up by Patrick Keeler and Jack Lawrence, whose debut album was every bit as commercial as Get Behind Me Satan wasn’t.
Difficult albums aside, as a live act The White Stripes were as popular as ever, becoming regular festival headliners and selling out just about any venue they played. Their fanbase, although challenged by Jack White’s need to spread his creative force a little too thinly from time to time (he had also spent time revitalising the career of Loretta Lynn in recent years), remained loyal and enthusiastic for any new music by them.
New music eventually arrived in the form of Icky Thump. While Icky Thump (it’s the first White Stripes album to have a title track fact fans!) isn’t up there with White Blood Cells and Elephant, it was a solid return to blues, guitar heroics, willfully unorthodox drumming and a sense of fun. It kicks off well with the title track and continues The White Stripes’ grand tradition of having a killer opening track which sets the bar for the rest of the album, but like some of their other albums, the rest of the album does it’s best to escape the shadow of its’ lead track. Jack and Meg do give it their best shot though and they do come close at points.
As had happened on their last couple of albums, Jack White tried to reinforce his rock credentials by including a mini-epic on Icky Thump. Although “300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues” isn’t tedious, it underlines the failings of Icky Thump in that it’s bitty, never seems to settles into any one mood and goes on a little longer than is strictly necessary.
It’s not all bad news though, as “Little Cream Soda” and the deceptively brilliant “Catch Hell Blues” are strong tunes and although the tastemakers would happily write off “Conquest”, “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn” and “Rag And Bone” as gimmicky novelty pieces (indeed they’d have been happy to describe the band in the same terms), to my ears they’re refreshingly enjoyable tunes that are paying no lip-service to indie credibility in order to score points with the band’s doubters.
Actually it’s possible to see Icky Thump as a concerted effort by Jack White to shake off the indie-rock tag. It was given a fuller sound and a more lush production, with a number of overdubs bolstering the core of guitar, vocals and drums with various keyboards, bagpipes and trumpets. Meg White’s drumming significantly improved to the point where the sloppiness of her playing was no longer a talking point. Perhaps in all this increased sophistication, The White Stripes lost some of the unique thrill of their sound (I for one yearn to hear the band once again stripped down and raw without studio overdubs), but at least it was good to hear them back on reasonably good form.
By this point in his career, it was getting pretty obvious that Jack White had outgrown the band with whom he had made his name. He continued to spread his creative energies over a wider area, with a new Raconteurs album, another new band called The Dead Weather, a pretty good live album for The White Stripes and even a theme tune to a James Bond film.
In early 2011 Jack White finally announced what his fans had figured out a while ago, The White Stripes were no more. It was no great shock, as their last studio album had been released four years previously and it was obvious that he had become ever more interested in other projects. A well received solo debut was released and Meg White quietly slipped away to lead a life away from the glare of the media.
Despite The White Stripes huge success, to date there has been no attempt to formally compile an official best-of compilation. Their six studio albums are easy to track down and each one has it’s own distinct character. Their Under Blackpool Lights concert DVD is a celebration of the band at the apex of their fame following the successful promotion of Elephant.
Ultimately The White Stripes are one of those odd acts that would probably have received less criticism if they simply hadn’t been so successful. I, like so many people, enjoyed following their career, yet never got the opportunity to see them live. All things considered, they probably called it a day at the right time, allowing Jack White to launch his solo career in the most favourable trajectory while still leaving their fans wanting just a little bit more.