Guitar music was in the doldrums at the start of the 21st century. Indie music was still finding its footing in the wake of Brit Pop as a series of watered down derivatives and plodding soft rock balladeers clogged up the nation’s airwaves.
Blur wisely abandoned the Brit Pop sound with 1999’s excellent 13 while Radiohead completely ditched the traditional rock and roll aesthetic with their esoteric masterpiece Kid. A pitiful void had now emerged at the heart of the traditional rock scene that no band seemed capable of filling.
Hard rock fans weren’t faring any better. Over in the US Metallica struggled through an excruciating midlife crisis, while Metal became the plaything of a series of morose Nu-Metal bands who, with a few notable exceptions, were utterly devoid of artistic integrity.
2001 was the year that everything changed. Three bands, Interpol, The Strokes and The White Stripes took the lead and set the aesthetic and artistic agenda for a generation by giving the world a back to basics history lesson in garage rock.
The Strokes reminded indie fans of the sleek minimalism and ice cool New York chic of The Velvet Underground and The Ramones while introducing a new generation to delicious precision engineered guitar interplay of Television. Fellow New Yorkers, Interpol, took a different path; bringing the world down with the despondent Joy Division meets The Chameleons grooves of their debut album Turn On The Bright Lights.
The White Stripes were an entirely different animal from their fellow revivalists. They weren’t New Yorkers. Jack and Meg White looked different from their peers and they certainly didn’t dress like their heroes, instead adopting a strict red, white and black dress code; revelling in the utopian artistic movements of the early 20th century. They weren’t new debuting artists either; The Stripes had been clawing their way up the independent circuit, slowly building a following, perfecting their sound over the course of two albums and waiting for their big breakout moment.
When Jack White exited Tennessee’s Easley-McCain Recording Studio just a week after he entered it The White Stripes were still a minor league band and the hurriedly recorded White Blood Cells was set to be self released by Jack’s own Sympathy For The Record Industry label.
This lo-fi approach to recording and releasing an album wasn’t the product of circumstance it was a deliberate choice of artistic direction. Jack rushed the recording, against Meg’s wishes, to create a primal and organic aura. He wanted White Blood Cells to capture a live band in action, blemishes and all. This album would be a raw and enthralling jam session not a pristinely polished studio creation, and that’s exactly what the White Stripes delivered.
White Blood Cells is a gloriously raw album, if feels loose, free and at times conversational; while at other points it’s vindictive, austere and emotionally scathing.
The pounding riffage of “Expecting” belies a sardonic outpouring of resentment, but this oppressive mood is turned on its head instantly as Meg, at the song’s crescendo, casually asks Jack to grab something for her. The menacing atmosphere evaporates as the duo dutifully launch into the silly yelp along “Little Room”.
This is a record of starts and stops, Jack’s timing is impeccable and yet it sounds positively shambolic. Pauses emerge and linger as if The Stripes are figuring out the tracks as they go along before a wonderfully definitive riff comes booming out of the ether.
The sensational “Union Forever” captures the Stripes at their zenith. The track migrates from an ominously sleek riff when Jack indulges in a playful stream of consciousness verse; only for the track to be dragged suddenly back into brooding guttural territory at very the last moment, as White screams “There Is No True Love” with a haunted affectation.
These sudden U-turns help White Blood Cells to foster a sense of unpredictability; the entire record feels on edge, you never know where the next crunching riff, pounding beat down or lyrical swipe is coming from.
The Stripes refuse to stay in one place leaping happily from a straight-ahead rocker (“Offend In Every Way”) to a Morricone-eske jaunt (“The Rat”) and into the discordant bluster of an abstract pummelling (“Aluminium”). White Blood Cells’ diverse sounds are tied together by a relentless pace (the longest track clocks in at 3:38) and the band’s ardent commitment to primal and fundamentally minimal rock structures.
The impact of the White Blood Cells, along with Is This It, Turn On The Bright Lights and Kid A, altered a wayward artistic agenda and gave the 21st century the jolt of energy, excitement and genuine artistry it had been lacking. Earthy lo-fi guitar rock was back, as was a sense of innovation coupled to a revived love of music’s past.
Minimalism might have been the order of the day, and no band was more minimal than The White Stripes (they still hold the record for the smallest number of people to ever headline Glastonbury), but their sound was positively maximalist. Big unwieldy riffs boomed out filling cavernous arenas and endless festival fields, and while Jack rarely soloed, he made it cool to be a guitarist again, making himself an era defining icon in the process.
The White Stripes rode to superstardom on the back of singles “Hotel Yorba”, “We’re Going To Be Friends”, “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground” and of course “Fell In Love With A Girl”. The latter, more so even than “Seven Nation Army”, has secured The White Stripes’ legacy. That simple four-chord assault has become one of those songs that every young guitarist learns to play. It has entered guitarist folklore, as one of the essential building blocks entrenched in every new guitarist’s foundation alongside “Iron Man” and “Smoke On The Water”.
Now, a month after The White Stripes officially called it a day, they, and White Blood Cells still sit apart from their peers. The band were significant players in an important revival and reconsideration of guitar music, however they did not inspire a legion of derivative clones in the way that The Strokes or Interpol did. They were truly one of a kind: in style, shape and even in colour.
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