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Why The White Stripes mattered, and still do.

10 Feb

Ok, another music fandom orientated blog, so soon, but with good cause. In the week that saw the sad passing of Irish guitar legend Gary Moore and film composer John Barry, The White Stripes also announced their long expected split.

“I’ve got no heroes”, sang grunge songstress Juliana Hatfield in 1993, and I could agree, with the change in emphasis on “I’ve got no new heroes”. It’s a worry.

Perhaps the music scene, and rock in particular, was undergoing one of its periodic lulls in panache and inspiration just over a decade ago (and maybe it is again); all the artists I admired and loved were either well established or dead. Then The White Stripes came along. As much as I loved a few other bands that came to prominence at the turn of the millennium (The Strokes spring to mind), The White Stripes really stood out from the crowd. Jack White understood what it means to be a music fan, and what an audience expects from their music. It can’t just be about a few good tunes and an ability to play and write music. All these things, White did very well- exceptionally even. But The Stripes had more than that. They delivered the full package. They had style and the ability to play the fame game without selling out to the lowest expectation; infact, they often defied expectation and cloaked themselves in deliberate ambiguity. White knew that this is the way to keep the audience interested. The music came first of course, and brilliant it was, but Jack and Meg gave us something equally interesting to accompany it. We got an an aesthetic, a look unlike any other band. In their red, white and black livery, the band were truly iconic. Their second album was called “De Stijl”, and the style reference was obvious. This iconic element allowed them to get noticed, and dally with the mainstream. Who knows how many music fans they managed to initially reach through their image alone? Top ten Billboard albums followed, Grammy awards, sell out tours, British top ten singles and UK No.1 albums. This was joined along the way by ‘appearances’ in The Simpsons and being immortalised in Lego (in one of their videos). Even rendered in toy bricks, the duo were instantly recognisable.

Jack and Meg White were first introduced to us as siblings, although they were later revealed to be a divorced couple. They certainly gave good interviews, with no shortage of memorable quotes, and the late John Peel happily promoted Jack White as a Hendrix for a new generation; an exceptionally talented guitarist who could create sounds with the instrument that you couldn’t imagine anyone else quite managing. With Meg’s heavy drum motifs, they were the garage band made good, but better than any garage band. Their songs were not just relentless ear barrages, they were also potent rock tunes for an age that had almost forgotten what one of those was. Such great tunes as “Fell in love with a girl”, “Hotel Yorba”, “Hardest button to button”, “Seven nation army”, “Icky thump” and “Conquest” were the most invigorating blasts of melodic noise to wake up the charts for many years. Their music had a suggestion of Delta blues, punk attitude and a dash of pop sensibility (but pleasingly unchanged and uncontrived to suit preconceived expectations of a hit). They sounded like themselves, and no one else- the ultimate accolade.

So Jack and Meg have creatively parted ways, very amicably by all accounts, and Jack will continue his other work in The Raconteurs. Also, married life with Oldham born model Karen Olson may have become more of an important priority, who knows. As for Meg? Always the most enigmatic member of a group that excelled at enigma, who can say? I don’t think we’ll have heard the last of her though. A woman who looks like she loves thrashing the shit out of a drum kit as she does, deserves to be heard again.

They were a band out of time, The White Stripes, stubbornly low-fi in sound and approach (from filming their Blackpool gigs on Super 8mm film to the Southern blues aesthetic of some of their merchandise). This suited their origins in Detroit, still the most obviously historical metropolis in the US, where the architecture of the past is allowed to stand and decay longer than in most American cities. Yet, they managed to be overtly 21st century, simply by being a breath of creative fresh air in the stuffy room of manufactured dross.

This is all why the internet is full of remorse at their demise. My biggest remorse is that through circumstance, I never saw them live, apparently the best way to hear and see them. Film footage only delivers so much. But the music was still quite something; Jack was the music fan made good, and an inspiration for anyone with creative drive and vision. The White Stripes are still his greatest band, and I expect they will continue to inspire. Hopefully the Stripes will rise again, and Jack White will most surely return soon with some new project, but it won’t be quite the special dynamic and verve on display in The White Stripes. But in the meantime let’s be happy that we got to hear them in the first place. Go and play “Elephant” (arguably their finest hour) and just marvel at how fresh, exciting, different and downright exuberantly noisy music can be. 

It’s brilliant.