PHOTOGRAPHY: Ko Melina Zydeko/Heather White
The White Stripes – The White Stripes
THERE are a couple of big music anniversaries…
IN THIS PHOTO: The White Stripes in 1999/PHOTO CREDIT: Doug Coombe
that are happening today. Not only is Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasure forty; Nirvana’s debut, Bleach, is thirty. Running another decade down is another debut: The White Stripes’ eponymous gem. The White Stripes was unveiled to the world on 15th June, 1999 - and it was a bit of a minor success. Think about what was happening at the end of the 1990s in the U.S. and U.K. We had seen Britpop and Grunge die; Alternative sounds were coming through but I don’t think there was a huge movement to end the 1990s the same way Hip-Hop ended the 1980s and Grunge started the 1990s. There was a burgeoning Garage movement happening in the U.S. towards the turn of the century. In many ways, The White Stripes helped spearhead and popularise the scene. Although it would take another couple of years for proper exposure to come the way of Detroit Garage – The White Stripes were formed and based out of Detroit – the debut from the duo was extraordinary. It was produced by Jim Diamond and Jack White (lead/guitar) at Ghetto Recordings and Third Man Studios, Detroit. Although Jack White would take over production duties very soon, he and Meg (White) were relatively new to the scene and did not have the commercial respect they soon gained. I look at bands around today and the raw sound they provide. Whether it is Post-Punk bands like IDLES or the likes of Fontaines D.C., I think there is a slight nod to The White Stripes.
I have been looking back at the late-1990s and how, in a way, The White Stripes was completely different to what was happening here in the U.K. Whereas we were seeing a new wave of Dance music, it seems strange to think there was something as bare and basic as The White Stripes in the world. Taking its cues from the classic Punk albums, the Detroit duo’s debut consisted of short songs with stripped production values and very few instrumental touches – The White Stripes would add more instruments to the fold later but, here, it was mainly guitar and drums (with a bit of piano here and there). One of the finest tastemakers the music world has ever seen, John Peel, was attracted to The White Stripes right from the off. He was drawn to the cover and the song titles; he developed an instinct and would be a big part of their success in the U.K. To be fair to Peel’s prescience, one looks at the cover photos of Jack and Meg; their what-would-become-standard kit of red-white-and-black and this rather minimal design – like a local band selling their debut record, with little money, at a local shop. Opposed to a lot of the glitzy and big artists of the day, The White Stripes’ introduction was pretty modest and under-the-radar. The songs on the debut mix in a few well-selected Blues covers (including a great rendition of Robert Johnson’s Stop Breaking Down), a Dylan cover (One More Cup of Coffee) and the remaining originals.
Jack White would take more of a songwriting role after the debut – in the sense there would be fewer covers – and he clearly had a vision of where The White Stripes were headed. The White Stripes is a relatively brisk and concise album, even though there are seventeen tracks on it – most are under three minutes and a few are under two minutes. Even though the songs are Garage/Blues-based, there is a lot of variation and nuance. Jack White’s incredible licks and natural abilities fuse with Meg White’s minimal-yet-essential percussion work. One almost feels like they are in a living room hearing the duo lay down their tracks, such is the style of production. From the rumble and rawness of the opener, Jimmy the Exploder, to the interestingly-named and memorable closer, I Fought Piranhas, The White Stripes is an incredible debut. The White Stripes would widen their palette with 2000’s De Stijl; they would score massive reviews and acclaim with 2001’s White Blood Cells and hit their peak with 2003’s Elephant but, to me, their finest hour happened right at the start! The sparse production allows this live-feeling album to resonate and strike. My favourite songs include Wasting My Time and Screwdriver: you could see that classic White Stripes sound developing and, with just guitar and drums (the duo never used bass at all), it is breathtaking to hear. Of course, the duo had been playing gigs before they laid down their debut but nothing on the level they would achieve.
For the most part, they were playing sets locally so it was sort of hard to gauge whether their material – a blend of early workings of their tracks and covers – would translate in the studio. Everything about The White Stripes is pretty lo-fi and low-key. Jack and Meg would tour more on their second and it wasn’t until White Blood Cells when they really became involved in music video-making. If critics prefer the duo’s work from White Blood Cells onward, one cannot deny the importance of the debut. It is simpler and less ambitious than their later work but, in my mind, The White Stripes is the birth of one of the last great Rock acts. Have we seen many bands since them that could make you feel like they did?! The White Stripes were not concerned with hitting the charts and following what was popular in 1999. About to head into a new century, Jack and Meg were putting down an album that meant a lot to them and was true to their roots. The stories throughout are original and rare; the chemistry between them is tight (not a surprise considering they used to be married) and the production allows that balance of live-sounding and studio-set. Also, like a lot of Rock and Punk bands today, the sound was not one-dimensional. Listen to their take of Bob Dylan’s One More Cup of Coffee and compare it to The Big Three Killed My Baby; match that with Slicker Drips and then place it with Astro. They all come from the some act but the songs are very different. Even though The White Stripes limited themselves in terms of instruments, the songs’ subjects and the sheer scope was definitely not confined.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
The White Stripes is an amazingly confident and complete debut that definitely hinted and a golden future. AllMusic, in this positive review, highlighted the blend of sounds and genres:
“Singer/guitarist Jack White's voice is a singular, evocative combination of punk, metal, blues, and backwoods while his guitar work is grand and banging with just enough lyrical touches of slide and subtle solo work to let you know he means to use the metal-blues riff collisions just so. Drummer Meg White balances out the fretwork and the fretting with methodical, spare, and booming cymbal, bass drum, and snare cracks. In a word, economy (and that goes for both of the players). The Whites' choice of covers is inspired, too. J. White's voice is equally suited to the task of tackling both the desperation of Robert Johnson's "Stop Breakin' Down" and the loneliness of Bob Dylan's "One More Cup of Coffee." Neither are equal to the originals, but they take a distinctive, haunting spin around the turntable nevertheless. All D.I.Y. punk-country-blues-metal singer/songwriting duos should sound this good”.
The White Stripes’ debut gave us this unique and promising force that was very different to everything in the music world. Jack and Meg would go on to pretty much conquer the planet and seduce people around the world. In this great feature from Consequence of Sound, they talked about how The White Stripes defied expectations and added something truly special to music:
“Beginning with their debut self-titled record in 1999, spanning the likes of White Blood Cells and Elephant, and on into 2007s Icky Thump, the duo made gigantic strides in the world of music. Riding the wave that was the garage rock revival, The White Stripes music was just as simple and grungy as the likes of The Strokes or The Von Bondies, but it transcended the confines of the genre by being so much more.
Stripped to the core and as minimalist as possible, the simplistic drumming of Meg White kept the steady rhythm for the wild guitar antics and virtuosity of Jack White. It was country, it was punk, it was blues, it was gospel; whatever it was, it rocked hard and quick and true. Every note was important, yet each sound created was free to interpretation”.
Stereogram are one of the few sites that have marked the twentieth anniversary of The White Stripes - and discuss the way the duo sort of saved the Indie-Rock scene from itself and provided much-needed guidance:
“The White Stripes is an album of a band trying to understand itself by briefly attempting to become everyone it loves, and that works, too. Sure, they’re Son House on “Canon,” which uses a portion of House’s song “John The Revalator” for lyrical inspiration. And they’re Robert Johnson on a rendition of his old tune “Stop Breaking Down,” which, by the way, is a killer choice for track two on a debut album for a band. An introduction, and then an immediate stepping out of themselves. They’re also Dylan on a trembling and howling version of “One Cup Of Coffee.” But beyond the covers, there’s the sound and spirit of many, jumbled up into the music. They’re a bit of the Kinks, the wailing vocals of early AC/DC or Led Zep, the loud-quiet-loud dynamic of Pixies.
The White Stripes arrived in the middle of 1999 to save indie rock from its own self-analyzing. The band took its presentation and myth-building seriously, of course. But the songs themselves were playful, even when meditating on conventional or simplistic ideas…
This, too, is the blues. The blues aren’t just a musical mood, but also the way the mood looks when turned on its ear. The sad songs are also funny. The funny songs are sometimes about death. The blues is, among other things, an understanding that so much of living is absurd, and must be seen through as many lenses as possible in order for it to make sense.
For all of the other things about it The White Stripes is also an album made by a band that fell in love with songs, and then did their homework around those songs. It is an album that tips its hat to the past while restructuring old sounds for new audiences. Lineage fades when no one chooses to act as a lighthouse. More than just a great debut album for a band that would go on to invent and reinvent, The White Stripes was potentially also a starting point for someone who had never known what the blues were, and then found Son House, or Robert Johnson, or Ma Rainey. Someone who later bought a new amp, and stopped going to church as much as they used to”.
To me, there are few albums that sound as good and natural on vinyl. Jack White is a huge lover of vinyl and he is someone who you can imagine, even now, surrounded by records from the Blues masters. Because of that, there is something organic regarding the sound of The White Stripes. That attachment and knowledge of the Blues scene, combined with a ready-born genius means the debut from the Detroit duo will continue to intrigue for years to come. Make sure you grab yourself a copy on vinyl and allow this twenty-year-old treasure to…
IN THIS PHOTO: Jack White at the Gold Dollar in Detroit on 27th November, 1999/PHOTO CREDIT: Doug Coombe
STUN the senses.