Black, White and Red All Over – Looking Back to The White Stripes
In February 2011, The White Stripes, one of the most iconic bands of recent decades called it quits. The White Stripes were Meg and Jack White, a tiny ensemble that at least sounded a lot bigger from the outside. They carved out their sound, a blistering rock steeped in blues and folk minimalism with six studio albums, one live album, countless concerts and an army of adoring fans.
The White Stripes: The Early Years and The White Stripes
In their early days, before the web was essential and iPods were everywhere, The White Stripes forged a new path through the already well trod grounds of alternative rock. The likes of Nirvana and the grunge movement of the 1990s had brought rough edged, simple rock into the mainstream. Oasis and Blur tinged it with Brit-Pop, Greenday was calling it punk, while the Red Hot Chili Peppers continued to fill stadiums with their funk and hip-hop flavored rock. It was all still “alternative rock” but with just as many subgenres as rock itself the “alternative” tag was starting to mean less and less.
Along comes John Gillis, a young trainee upholsterer and self-taught, whip sharp guitarist from Detroit who was then playing with a few local outfits including hillbilly rock group, Goober and the Peas. In 1997, John ‘Jack’ Gillis married Megan White and took his wife’s surname, while at the same time Meg, a then bartender, took up playing the drums. You see where this is going…..
Jack and Meg White formed The White Stripes, performing together for the first time February 14, 1997 at an open mic night in a Detroit bar, the Gold Coin. Meg on drums and still very new to the craft, Jack on guitar and occasional piano. It was the arrangement to make musical history.
“Meg sat behind the drums and this childish sort of drum beat started happening… She’d never played before. This is the moment we’ve tried to emulate over and over in the White Stripes.” Jack White – The Age, June 2007.
Their first album, self-titled The White Stripes was released in 1999 and displayed the pared down melding of raw riffs and a driving beat that continued to be the crucial core of the White Stripes until the end. The album was produced by Jack White, recorded in Detroit and released on the independent Sympathy For The Record Industry label, and was dedicated to Jack’s musical inspiration – blues legend, Son House.
The simplicity of this sound was its mastery. We’d heard the fuzzed out verse chorus verse of grunge, we’d heard short fast loud of punk and the so called punk-revivalists. The White Stripes and their debut album were something new all at the same time as being something very old. Covering traditional songs, Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan as well as performing their own originals, the pair were wrapped in blues and folk motifs that stretched way back into the beginning of popular music. They were rock, punk, country and metal all at the same time and all with only two members and the bare minimum of instrumentation. They didn’t even have a bass guitar.
“We’re not anti-digital music. We’ve been on iTunes for years. But if we had our choice, would that be the way people hear our music? No.“ Jack White – The Age, June 2007
The White Stripes: White Blood Cells and the Whole Brother/Sister Thing
The White Stripes sophomore album, De Stijl (2000) was a weird display of diversity that while retaining that rocking raw economy of their first release, ventured into more experimental zones leaning into arty pop motifs. The band eluded widespread critical acclaim, until 2001 when The White Stripes exploded into the mainstream with White Blood Cells.
The bandwagon alum, the breakthrough release, call it what you will, White Blood Cells was the catalyst that took the underground two piece onto the world’s stage, securing their footing in the UK and Australia, pounding an eclectic message with powerful but melancholy tunes. The avant garde of De Stijl was packed away and the raw aesthetic of their original guitar driven edge reigned. Arguably, it was the catchy drive of tracks like ‘Fell in Love With A Girl’ juxtaposed with the sing-song sweetness of ‘We’re Going to Be Friends’, and the folksy styles of ‘Hotel Yorba’ that gave White Blood Cells are more user friendly aesthetic and let it land a bit more gently into the popular ear. Whatever it was, it worked and The White Stripes owned rock and roll. Ironic perhaps as a lot of critics see the album as a reaction to a growing public interest in their work, a reaction back up by the juxtaposed images in the album’s liner notes.
Now that they had the attention of the world, questions on the exact nature of Jack and Meg’s relationship continued. For a long time the Whites insisted they were brother and sister, even when it was widely known, not to mention easily proven that they were married. Divorced in 2000, with each going on to various relationships and further marriages, they continued to be an entwined duo, brother and sister, husband and wife or divorced spouses at the end it didn’t matter to fans who they were to each other and their relationship became just another part of The White Stripes performance as much a part of their iconography as their visual aesthetic.
The White Stripes: The ‘Seven Nation Army’ Takes on the World
The White Stripes started the early 2000s garage revival as much as any one band starts a movement. No one moment starts these things, they’re organic, The White Stripes were just one alt rock cog in a much larger machine driven by countless other factors. The difference is what this particular cog became, a machine unto itself. An entire army, all marching to the beat of this black, red and white icon.
In 2003 that army had its anthem. ‘Seven Nation Army’ erupted from the 2003 album, Elephant, the first recording the band did for a major label. The whole album is a lot more snarly, more aggressive than anything else that we’d heard from them but also a whole lot more accomplished and while it still retained a rawness, the edge was a lot more polished. The driving simplicity of ‘Seven Nation Army’ became an instantly recognisable hit easily comparable with the paradoxical success of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ twelve years earlier. For the few people who might have missed White Blood Cells, ‘Seven Nation Army’ was a blasting introduction to the masses. That unmistakable rhythmic opening was a product of Jack’s semi-acoustic Kay hollow body provided that deep lasting thump invading these new fangled MP3 players.
There’s no doubt the visual recognisability of the white stripes contributed to their if not their record sales directly, then undoubtedly their public visibility. Heaps of band have their logos plastered all over their album covers, The White Stripes swathed themselves in their own image, head to toe.
“After I apprenticed as an upholsterer for a few years, I opened my own shop, Third Man Upholstery. Everything was yellow, black and white. All my power tools were yellow and black. I had a yellow van. I ran my business like a cartoon. I was making out bills in crayon and writing poetry inside people’s furniture. I didn’t care if I made any money. I was so happy to pull up in front of someone’s house wearing a yellow-and-black uniform, with a yellow clipboard. But the White Stripes’ colors were always red, white and black. It came from peppermint candy. I also think they are the most powerful color combination of all time, from a Coca-Cola can to a Nazi banner. Those colors strike chords with people. In Japan, they are honorable colors. When you see a bride in a white gown, you immediately see innocence in that. Red is anger and passion. It is also sexual. And black is the absence of all that.“ Jack White – Rolling Stone, September 2005.
Arguably a gimmick, perhaps an ironic statement of self and their own performance of identity, in retrospect it’s impossible to separate that colour scheme from the band. As years went on, more side projects, the black and red and white became less prominent, perhaps that in itself was a sign of the end.
The White Stripes: Calling it Quits
The indie turned invincible popular duo carried on with the Stripes amidst their numerous side projects. Jack joined up with The Greenhornes and Brendan Benson to form The Raconteurs (known in Australia as the Saboteurs due to a local outfit already securing the Raconteur name). The Raconteurs/Saboteurs were a similar sound to The White Stripes in that raw blues turned rock kind of way, though tinged with a more Appalachian folk aesthetic.
Touring The Raconteurs with The Kills in 2008, lead Jack and fellow Raconteur Jack Lawrence, to join forces with Kills’ vocalist and guitarist, Alison Mosshart and Queens of the Stone Age’s Dean Fertita and form The Dead Weather – a sound not dissimilar to The White Stripes, but with a much darker, much harder metal edge. Jack continued his collaborations with seemingly the entire music industry on one project or another, he acted in films and appeared in numerous music docos, all continuing to assure his position as one of the most diverse and talented artists in recent decades.
Meanwhile, Meg stayed comparatively hidden, popping up on a few cameo film spots; clips from other bands including The Detroit Cobras; a brief modelling spot for Marc Jacobs and a couple of generally low profile collaborations, including soundtrack work on the film Let’s Go To Prison (dir. Bob Odenkirk.2006).
The Whites were long separated, married again – Meg now wed to Patti and Fred “Sonic” Smith’s son, Jackson. Jack now had children with his new wife, British model and musician, Karen Elson. Meg moved to L.A, Jack moved to Nashville. Yet, The White Stripes put out two more studio albums – 2005’s eclectic pop driven Get Behind Me Satan and the more brash, more stylistically diverse, Icky Thump (2007). Both albums were astoundingly successful in both the mainstream and alternative markets. Neither showed signs of the band winding down, both retained the simple chemistry that had already secured The Stripes in music legend.
The announcement came in February 2011. There had been rumours of illness – Jack’s voice had given out on him a few times over the recent years, and the band had cancelled numerous shows due to Meg’s anxiety. On a statement released on their website, The White Stripes denied health was the reason for calling it quits, instead claiming “a myriad of reasons, but mostly to preserve what is beautiful and special about the band,” stating it was a positive move.
The White Stripes bridged that impossible gap between real, raw rock and a pleasing mainstream pop aesthetic. It’s hard not to have this come across as a maudlin eulogy for a band that, not unlike another rock icon of recent decades, refused the fade away. It’s a year gone now, but the music world is still taking stock of the loss just as much as we’re still marveling at the thirteen years of perfect rock that came before. The White Stripes, a band so forthright and transforming, balanced two centuries, various forms of music and media, and never failed to exert their power. It now lies in our hands – the records will spin, however metaphorically these days. The legend will endure.
Co-written by Anna Scott Graham
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