The odd couple
The White Stripes’ ‘Under Great White Northern Lights’
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The last White Stripes’ album, Icky Thump, came out in 2007. For a group operating under the normal touring and recording schedule, the middle of 2010 would be a reasonable point at which to release the next piece of ‘product’, even if it wasn’t a new studio record but a live album with an accompanying DVD documentary. Yet, as the footage of Under Great White Northern Lights shows, and those who have followed the band know, The White Stripes are no normal rock band: contrariness and bloody-mindedness, mixed with a genius for marketing and image construction and a ferocious work ethic, have set the group apart from the start. So since 2007, when the band’s drummer, Meg White, suffered acute anxiety to an extent that shut down the possibility of touring, Jack White, the songwriter, singer, guitarist and only other member of the group, has found time to record and tour with two other bands – The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather – while filling up any spare days with such things as writing and recording a James Bond movie theme with Alicia Keys and producing a forthcoming album for rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson. Meg has lived a quieter life, marrying Patti Smith’s son Jackson and releasing little or no music. The myth of The White Stripes, meanwhile, has been able to bubble on, with the live album providing a neat chronicle of the band’s first ten years, and the film, which captures most of the album’s songs in performance, permitting a rare view of one of the most intriguing ‘couples’ in rock.
The band formed in the rock ’n’ roll town of Detroit in 1997. Jack Gillis, as he was known then, was a member of a number of low-profile garage punk bands before meeting bartender Meg White in 1996, marrying her and taking her last name. The following year Meg took up the drums and by September they were gigging as a duo. Because there are only two of them in the band, the relationship is under unrelenting scrutiny, and this attention soon became red-hot and tipped over into farce and headlines with the exposure of Jack’s claim in interviews that he and Meg were brother and sister. In 2000 they divorced.
Jack White’s reasoning for the sibling fantasy received its fullest explanation in Rolling Stone in 2005: “When you see a band that is two pieces, husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, you think, ‘Oh, I see …’ When they’re brother and sister, you go, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ You care more about the music, not the relationship.” Beyond the uncertain logic of this, what stands out is White’s willingness to put his marriage to one side in the cause of establishing the conceptual singularity of his band. There is nothing much morally at stake, assuming that tricking the press and taking already intrigued fans along for the ride can be excused; what is interesting is the intensity of the vision and the importance given to how a band should look and be. Such notions were not too strong in the late ’90s, when Pavement- and Wilco-inspired slackerdom had band identification running to little more than members having matching socks tucked into their sneakers. The White Stripes from the start were a blast; their candy-coloured red, white and black record sleeves and fashion, and their stark vintage gear, were fresh and exciting – bands hadn’t looked this contrived and co-ordinated since glam rock.
The group released six records between ’97 and 2007 and they fall into a curve. The first two albums have the sound and the mix of songs but are not yet stirred to full potency; albums three and four are the classics, the last magic click of focus attained and mega-stardom and mega-hit ‘Seven Nation Army’ achieved; and the last two albums are the view from the top of the mountain, solid and commanding, with a question hanging over them – are they as good as three and four? It could cheekily be suggested that Meg’s ‘anxiety attack’, be it from fear of flying or just from having to get up on stage each night of a tour, may be the ‘where to from here’ metaphor for a group after ten big years. How long do you carry on having the same three-colour co-ordination running through all your packaging and marketing? How long do you stay a two-piece with no outside musicians? Options for now are open, although there are already rumblings from the ever-active Jack of a new Whites Stripes record. And in the meantime there is the live album.
It’s 16 tracks long, with an emphasis on Icky Thump songs, understandable given that the band were on the first part (the Canadian leg) of a long tour promoting this album – it was soon after these dates that the band stopped performing. The sound of the recording is murky and real, the ambience of the hall captured – the sound of a live album circa 1973. Jack White is responsible for this, being a firm believer in analogue recording and its resultant warmth and ‘truth’ in sound reproduction. The music is therefore not thin and stinging, with the usual digital clarity and quick shifts of instrumentation in the mix. The analogue approach plays well to the band’s roots in blues, blues rock, hard rock and garage noise, but it also leaves a central ball of sound coming from the stage, heavy enough to require Jack to be singing in high screeching mode to be heard. Add frequent bursts of up-the-neck lead guitar that no matter how well played can quickly shift from rock-hero note noodling to the sound of the dentist’s drill, and the album can be harder going than anticipated. The choice of material may also play a role, as the live album lacks the light and shade of the studio works, where the folk songs, country vamps and pop intersperse and refocus the rock numbers. ‘In the Cold, Cold Night’, a great Meg White vocal number without drums, and with Jack playing sparse octave chords, is in the film but inexplicably not on the live album. And ‘We Are Going To Be Friends’, a beautiful pop song with Jack at his sweetest and most McCartney-esque is at song 11, leaving a bruising run of loud rock from ‘Blue Orchid’ at song four through to ‘300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues’ at ten.
Any exposure to The White Stripes brings you to the band’s proficiency in and love of the blues. When the group broke through on the crest of the garage-rock revival of 2001–02, it was their excavation of a musical form long gone from the cutting edge of the rock scene that caught the attention as much as the fresh-cheeked, T-shirted and jeans look of the couple who played it. Blues-fixated ’60s survivors such as Keith Richards and Bob Dylan have been testifying for decades about the importance of the music and the place it had in the sound and songs they wrote; few younger artists, though, took up the challenge. In the underground Jeffrey Lee Pierce and his band The Gun Club, a group Jack White lauds, sutured the blues to a fiery post-punk beat with strong songwriting to make one classic album, Fire of Love. Through their consistency, timing, the twist of being a two-piece and a headful of ambition, The White Stripes have managed to build a career and a catalogue on it.
At the centre is Jack White the songwriter. He’s good and he’s fearless. His guitar playing allows him to churn out enormous amounts of blues-soaked riffarama, which he then cuts and pastes into garage rock or straighter takes on amped-up blues boogie. Then comes the cream: the twisted girl/boy lyrics, the ability to write melody, the strong suite of other song styles, the conceptual brilliance of the packaging. And finally, of course, there’s the fact that this music is not being played by five balding guys solemnly bent over their instruments; it’s just two of them, and one of them is a woman and she’s the drummer, and are they a couple or are they brother and sister?
The 93-minute film component mirrors the live album and The White Stripes’ general aesthetic by being simultaneously inventive and traditional. Shot mostly in creamy 16 millimetre black and white, it eschews the box of tricks that goes with the standard digital rock-umentary for something more stately and classic. The off-stage footage of the band as they travel, busk free gigs in bowling alleys, cafes and halls, or sit for one filmed interview, shows two agreeable, good-hearted people, while enough evidence leaks in to give rough personality portraits of them both and their relationship with each other. He is Mr Intensity, with, when serious, a hawk-like profile and a pair of eyes that could burn holes in distant hills. His offstage recreation is pounding blues piano to old rock records, and he has the ability to quote the one bad review they’ve probably had in their entire career verbatim. She is almost pathologically shy and withdrawn, her voice quiet enough to require subtitles, her long black hair curtaining one eye and half her face. We witness one boilover between them, when even her acknowledgement of the film cameras can’t stop him during a post-mortem of a show seething to her, ‘Randy Newman said short people ain’t got no reason to live. Shit, he mustn’t never have met a quiet one’. The live concerts, caught in colour that contrasts nicely with the charcoal-stained Canadian landscape of the travel footage, contain venom and punch as Jack and Meg eyeball each other and play out perhaps something grander and more personal than just two musicians poring through their back catalogue. And as ever we are privy to that perennial conundrum in rock music: how sane, courteous people when given a stage and a crowd can instantly turn into devil-worshipping, arms-flailing, volume monsters of rock ’n’ roll, and then the minute they walk from the stage turn that beast off.
‘The music is … really completely in charge of us.’ Jack White drops this line deep in a monologue and it immediately rings true. Sure, there is the manic concert performance that looks like ‘possession’, but it is also the result of the type of music they are playing. Blues, especially, is filled with rules, and a logic that allows remarkable freedom within the grid of notes and chord sequences. If you submit and are in charge of your instrument and willing to go where the music takes you, old songs are there to be had and new songs for the gifted are there to be written. Ten years into the band’s life, Under Great White Northern Lights has the music well in charge, with the marionette-like Meg and Jack jiggling and contorting on stage, and a six-album career compressed into a live album that is probably only the start of a long run of songs stretching out to the red, black and white horizon.
Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.