Monday, 19 May 2014

The coolest rock & roll band on Earth

Music and fashion are inextricably linked; indeed, one will often influence or inform the other. Fashions come and go, and many will return again and again. In 1967, for instance, we had the Summer of Love. Twenty-two years later, we experienced the Second Summer of Love. Tie-dye, Paisley and baggy/flared jeans were de rigeur. Of course, it’s rarely just about the music and the clothes, there is often a whole culture (or counterculture) that evolves, as evidenced with both summers of love.

The point is, just because something happened once upon a time, it doesn’t mean its time has gone. More often than not, it just rests awhile and waits for its time to come again. It amuses me how the hipsters of 2014 all rave about all these amazing original new bands they’re into, yet aren’t aware that the Human League released Being Boiled in 1978 and most of what happened in electronic music in the 80s, and the current electropop crop of Hot Chip, Metronomy, et al can point back directly to that brilliant single. Yes kids, we had computers and keyboards to make music with in the 80s you know. We did it before you. And Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd and Can did it before us… Check out the work of Clara Rockmore who, along with Louis Theremin, pioneered electronic music in the 1920s and 30s!

Anyway, in 2001, we were about ready for something new. And when I say something new, I mean something that had its roots in something old. The festering corpse of Britpop had now putrefied and the slew of turgid acts that followed in its wake had, one-by-one limped away with their tails between their legs almost immediately. The popular music scene at the dawn of the 21st century was, in short, flagging, stale and increasingly insipid. It needed re-energising in a big way.

Cue the White Stripes.

Seemingly from nowhere, two saviours, dressed in red and white, appeared, tore up the rule book and dragged pop music kicking and screaming into the new millennium by, ironically, referring back to the early years of the last one.

If Jack and Meg White had only existed in photographs, they would still have been the coolest fucking rock and roll band of the last, ooh, at least three decades. Talk about photogenic – they were a photographer’s wet dream; two good looking young people with a natural, idiosyncratic style and seemingly up for anything. How could anyone seeing pictures of the pair of them not instantly fall in love?

The fact they also played the most fitful, primal, searing music we’d heard since punk broke made them one of the most exciting prospects we’d ever had. What the White Stripes did that was so clever, so unique, so damn special, was to not try and make anything thing they did sound clever, unique or special. Their secret was to keep everything as simple and stripped back as possible, and to display genuine, heartfelt emotion while doing it. No one could ever accuse Jack White of not giving a shit.

OK, so maybe there were one or two contrivances here and there. There was the legend that Jack and Meg were brother and sister, which held true for a while until the rotten spoilsport that is ‘the media’ discovered they were married from 1996-2000. This could be aligned however with the tradition of the blues, itself steeped in legend and storytelling (Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads being the most famous). Jack and Meg’s ‘sibling relationship’ could be seen as merely an extension of this tradition. Then there was the aesthetic image of them always dressed in red and white (and later on, black as well). Jack has implied this was based on the yellow and black uniform and tools he used as an upholsterer pre-White Stripes, when he felt like he was living in a cartoon world.

To me though, the White Stripes felt like the most natural, honest and goddam exciting act I’d come across since I discovered R.E.M. more than a decade before. I could do nothing but grin when I heard their version of Hotel Yorba played on an acoustic guitar and a cardboard box (recorded live in Detroit’s Hotel Yorba, no less). No pretensions, no fancy production – just simple, honest and fun.

And it is that very f-word that sums up what the White Stripes were to me from the very first moment I heard them to the day they broke up – Fun! 

They’d first been mentioned to me by local second-hand record shop owner Matt the Hat (not his real name, but he always wore a top hat, so that’s how he became known). On his advice I bought ‘White Blood Cells’, the band’s third album, and instantly fell in love with it. This was exactly what I needed when I was in danger of becoming a Coldplay fan. I naturally went out and bought their first two records, though at the time they were only available as imports, not released in the UK for another year or two. No matter, I sensed the money I invested in this band was going to be well worth it. I was soooo right. It seemed everything they turned their hands to turned to gold: old blues standards (St. James Infirmary, Death Letter), restrained, acoustic numbers (Sugar Never Tasted So Good, We’re Going To Be Friends), little bursts of country-folk (I’m Bound to Pack It Up, Hotel Yorba, and their wonderful cover of Jolene) and short, crazy thrash-a-thons (Fell In Love With A Girl, Let’s Build A Home, Broken Bricks) – whatever it was, they could do no wrong. They were also a phenomenal live band and I am grateful I managed to catch them at one of the most memorable gigs I ever attended.

The one thing I never expected the White Stripes to be though was a global sensation. It’s one thing making the 9-o’clock News and causing a tabloid frenzy when it’s a slow news week, but to have a string of number one albums, to have one of your songs sung by sports fans in stadiums around the world and – the ultimate accolade – appearing on the Simpsons is altogether something else. Somehow, Jack and Meg captured the imagination of millions with nowt more than a simple drum kit, a couple of guitars and a whole lotta screamin’. 

The second half of their career – from 2003’s album ‘Elephant’ onwards – saw the White Stripes become one of the biggest bands in the world, putting out some of the most thrilling and intriguing music the 20th Century never heard. First came the world-dominating single Seven Nation Army which fooled us all into thinking they’d betrayed us all by using a *shock-horror* bass! It wasn’t of course, just a funky new effect Jack found for his guitar. This was followed by all manner of styles and sounds that seduced and teased, delighted and enticed, intrigued and amazed. The blues was always highly evident, but they also gave us Mariachi (Conquest), gentle Velvet Underground-esque ballads (In The Cold Cold Night), even charming but hilarious ditties like It’s True That We Love One Another and Rag And Bone, to this day one of my favourite tracks of theirs, purely for the fact that even at the peak of their powers they refused to be taken too seriously.

And that in essence remains the eternally endearing quality of the White Stripes. For all the plaudits, the awards, the number ones, the celebrity fans, the undeniable influence they continue to have on rock & roll – in spite of all this the White Stripes were, at their very core, just a whole lot of fun, and isn’t that all we really want from pop music at the end of the day?

But that’s not all. Through the White Stripes, my interest in blues and country music grew to previously unknown proportions, while I also enthusiastically explored the wonderful world of 60s American garage bands like the Sonics, the Trashmen and the Stooges. There’s no doubt the White Stripes enriched my musical life in the decade they were together, and I rate them along with R.E.M. and Pixies in terms of sheer inspiration.


1 comment:

  1. Well, there ain't much to add to the above: they were indeed groundbreaking!