It’s crazy that The White Stripes — a two-piece punk-enthused, blues-inspired rock & roll band out of Detriot — helped shape the political development and cultural identity of a lad born in the North East of England with no musical talent, but they did.
I was introduced to the music of Jack and Meg White when I was 10-years-old in 2004 by one of my mam’s best friends, Auntie Bev.
Bev intervened after I’d requested and received a copy of pop-crap boyband Busted’s hit debut album, she took the sensible decision and handed me the CD edition of the Stripes’ most commercially successful venture, Elephant, to provide some balance to my musical education.
In my bedroom on the top floor of 26 Argyle Square in Sunderland’s city center, I pushed the disc into my yellow Toshiba portable boombox (it was the early 2000s, give me a break) and their unique brand of heavy guitars, plodding drums and wailing lyrics sent me on a crash course.
I’d never care for boybands again.
Jack White’s chilling, thumping, heavy Airline guitar broke me into the power of electric rock and prepped me for the punk ideals of the Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen and the post-punk era of The Smiths and their equally anti-establishment record, The Queen Is Dead.
Initially, however, I wanted to know more about the mysterious American rockers. Were they actually brother and sister? Who were their influences? And were there more bands like them?
Over time, I found answers to my questions.
The beauty of the ‘old’ blues artists, harnessed by Jack with such manic energy, lead me to study segregation and the racial tensions in early 20th Century America — black artists expressing themselves through chilling lyrics whilst picking old acoustic guitars.
Through the impressive teleportation of Son House and Robert Johnson’s harrowing voices into modern-day culture, Jack and Meg’s music opened a window into another dark, murky civilisation.
The thirst for knowledge generated by discovering Jack’s musical influences lead to a passion and flair (the latter debatable) for history, a subject I continued to study through school, college and, eventually, to degree level.
I feel as if can map my educational development back to that first 2004 intervention. A life changer.
Although The White Stripes’ influences are easily traceable, their sound — based around three key elements: drums, guitar and vocals — is still so fresh and modern, yet raw, pure and rooted in history. The band’s juxtaposition as both blues powerhouse and modern rock ensemble is part of their irresistible allure.
And Jack White’s doctrine of homogenous rigidity taught me that to overcomplicate creative arts, such as writing, can prove fatal in regards to the end product.
Simplicity has a certain beauty to it.
Jack’s vision appealed to me, even at such a young age. The Elephant album cover clapped in red and black with Meg in a white dress and Jack in his red suit, so resembled colours of my beloved Sunderland AFC. Far from the traditional notions of fear and anger; to me, red represented love, excitement and positivity.
The Lyrics from We Are Going To Be Friends beams me back 15-years to early childhood primary schools days, Jack perfectly encompassing the dizzy, youthful optimism of my formative years.
“Numbers, letters, learn to spell
Nouns, and books, and show and tell
Playtime we will throw the ball
Back to class, through the hall
Teacher marks our height against the wall
Teacher marks our height against the wall”
And Little Acorns taught me to deal with life’s many problems, one little step at a time. Former broadcast journalist Mort Crim’s spoken word intro tells the story of Janet, who overcomes her issues by watching squirrels storing up nuts for the winter. A vital life lesson: manage your dilemmas by breaking them down into small achievable goals one-by-one, for “the problems in hand are lighter than at heart.”
“When problems overwhelm us and sadness smothers us, where do we find the will and the courage to continue? Well the answer may come in the caring voice of a friend, a chance encounter with a book, or from a personal faith. For Janet, help came from her faith, but it also came from a squirrel. Shortly after her divorce, Janet lost her father then she lost her job, she had mounting money problems. But Janet not only survived, she worked her way out of despondency and now she says, life is good again. How could this happen? She told me that late one autumn day when she was at her lowest she watched a squirrel storing up nuts for the winter, one at a time he would take them to the nest. And she thought, if that squirrel can take care of himself with a harsh winter coming on, so can I. Once I broke my problems into small pieces, I was able to carry them, just like those acorns, one at a time.”
Years after first discovering the Stripes, I took a job working in a biker-influenced rock bar called The Office in Swansea. I’ve always been more of an ‘indie-alternative’ kid as opposed to the heavy rock surroundings I found myself in. The White Stripes and particularly Little Acorns helped break the ice with colleagues who remain friends to this day. I’m looking at you, Stine.
Music, especially when played by The White Stripes, transports me to past locations and previous life events. I’ve been listening to this odd Detriot duo for so long that pretty much every song reminds me of something, usually yielding a picture in my mind of good or bad times past.
And far from being relics of a bygone era, Jack and Meg’s creation still remains a cultural reference point and is relevant to today’s crop of alternative artists.
Black Math and Hotel Yoba were both covered by the world-renowned Arctic Monkeys in their first ever show, with the Sheffield band covering Union Forever as recently as 2018. The White Stripes remain far more deeply encompassing than the singular success of the heavily commercialised Seven Nation Army suggests.
So thank you, Auntie Bev — it seems your kind gesture paid dividends, and I remain eternally grateful as your generosity altered the course of my being for the better.
Life is certainly a richer place with The White Stripes’ music in it and witnessing their cacophony of brilliance at Glastonbury ’05 with my wonderful mother, Annie, remains one of the highlights of my existence so far.