From the first press they received here in the UK, it’s fair to say that The White Stripes came across as gimmicky as hell. Allegedly brother and sister, the garage rock duo restricted their wardrobe to red, white and black (which at least would make sorting loads for the washing machine relatively easy, but potentially disastrous if they got it wrong), sister Meg’s drumming technique was rudimentary at best, while brother Jack played a battered Seers catalogue Airline guitar, which just so happened to be in the band’s ‘colours’. Sceptical at the amount of hype they received, I initially dismissed them offhand as a flash-in-the-pan novelty act.
Then I saw the footage of them playing “Hotel Yorba” on Top of the Pops and my scepticism instantly evaporated. Even playing such a simple tune, Jack White was evidently a fully fledged guitar hero and a front man that dripped charisma, while Meg clobbered her drums with such idiosyncratic enthusiasm that she was obviously the ideal foil for Jack, without stealing any of his limelight. They had a rare energy about them and “Hotel Yorba” was a cracking little tune that rattled along in winningly ramshackle style.
Surely they couldn’t channel that energy across into a full blown album?
Actually, they’d already recorded two albums that had yet to see release here in the UK, the second of which, De Stijl, is frequently considered by certain White Stripes afficionados to be their best. For me though, it is their third album, White Blood Cells, that is their undoubted highpoint. While the preceeding De Stijl may show off their blues chops and follow up Elephant was their commercial peak, White Blood Cells is the album that catapulted them from obscure cult act to a band that really mattered to people.
From the guitar screech that opens “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” and gives way to a riff which hits you in the face like a mountainside, White Blood Cells is the perfect introduction to one of the key rock bands of the last two decades. Jack’s guitar wails as he hollers along, while Meg’s drums are the ideal accompaniment and all is temporarily good with the world. Second track is the rapid-fire “Hotel Yorba”, a song which offers a sharp contrast to the unrepentant rock guitar of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”, without making either sound like the lesser musical statement. That’s the beauty of White Blood Cells, it manages to pull off the high-wire trick of balancing between the fashionable modern garage rock movement (which itself was stylistically preferable to the turgid sounds of the nu-metal movement which was happening at the time) and something just a little bit more substantial.
White Blood Cells is the album that gave notice of the scale of Jack White’s talent. True, Meg has always seemed to be the much more cool of the two, but it was Jack’s genius call to dial down the blues influence and slide guitar on the album that would introduce them to a wider audience, ensuring that plenty of room was left for diverse tunes like the break-neck rocker “Fell in Love With a Girl”, a sinister instrumental like “Aluminium”, as well as folkier material like “We’re Going to be Friends” and “This Protector”. In retrospect it was a brave but brilliant judgment call and one that Jack White judged to perfection.
15 years after its release, White Blood Cells remains one of the most important releases from Jack White’s bewilderingly prolific career, and it’s certainly one of the White Stripes albums that has endured the varies of fashion and remains one of the few albums from the early 2000’s garage rock revuval that continues to bare regular repeated listens.