Last week I learned of some rather troubling news. One of my all time favorite bands, the White Stripes, broke up after 14 years together for reasons not really specified, other than the fact that this decision will somehow allow fans to treasure their music even more. There were no creative or personal differences cited, but they did mention that this decision was right for a myriad of reasons. I suppose the true reasons for their breakup are inconsequential as the end result is still the same for me and for others, as fans. Our beloved Stripes will no longer be making music together. And I have mixed feelings about this.
For the past few years, whenever I have entered into a conversation with someone regarding favorite artists of all time, the White Stripes have consistently made it into my top five (along with the Beatles, Radiohead, Wilco, and yep, you guessed it, Guns n’ Roses). Although I have found myself somewhat modifying this answer over the years a more appropriate response would be any Jack White band or project. For the man is Rumpelstilskin to me and just turns everything he does into freaking gold. In fact, I would venture to say that I like his second project, the Raconteurs, more than any of his other bands including the Stripes. But my affinity for his music started with the Stripes and it is with that band that I will always hold the most special place for in my personal music archives.
The Stripes formed in the late 90’s during a time which can be most aptly described as the worst era for music (at least in my lifetime). The late 90’s were horrible for rock music. These were the years of rap-metal like Limp Bizkit, 311, and Linkin Park. They were also the years of generic rock that the post grunge and alternative rock years produced such as Creed, Matchbox 20, Sugar Ray, and Smash Mouth. Rock was having trouble finding its footing and while I still liked bands such as Pearl Jam, the Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins and others from the early to mid 90’s periods of rock, they were starting to fall off the map. Alternative Country was starting to make its way into my catalogue and I will always be grateful for bands such as Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Son Volt, and the Jayhawks for turning me on to a new form of music. But rock and roll was falling behind. Until the introduction of the so-called “The Bands”
Along with The Strokes, The Hives, and The Vines, I remember the Stripes being one of the four bands that fit into this category of really reigning good rock music back into the mainstream or at least the public consciousness. And while the Strokes had an amazing debut album, and the Hives giving one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen, the Stripes are clearly (for me) the greatest of the bunch. (Looking back on all this, the Vines did not belong in this conversation. ‘Overrated’ does not even begin to describe them). The Stripes already had two albums before their breakthrough White Blood Cells and hit singles “Fell in Love with a Girl” and “Hotel Yorba” were released and as I began to discover more of their music, I realized that they really could do no wrong.
I suppose what draws me so much to them is their raw energy. They are the quintessential garage rock band. Minimalist in their approach with just a guitar and drums, they prided themselves on keeping things simple, but raw. They took the blues and punk and modified them with a more modern approach. They didn’t try anything fancy and the whole sound was backed by Meg White’s overly simplistic drumming style that many chided her for as being amateurish. Jack would say that Meg was the most important aspect of the band. According to him, if you took her out the White Stripes could not exist. He literally believed that she could not be replaced. I’m not sure if that is entirely true, and I would suspect that it was her style that could not be replaced as I’m sure someone else could have copied what she did. But that simple drumming style provided the backbone of the structure and identity of nearly every White Stripes song.
I was fascinated by them almost from the beginning. They were strange and unique and represented something that was sorely missing in the music scene. They always wore a combination of red, white and while for most bands that would come across as cheesy or lame, the Stripes were somehow able to pull it off and still be respectable. I remember being confused over their relationship as most other fans were. Were they brother and sister as Jack had always introduced them in their shows? No. It turns out they were married once and in a move I have yet to hear be equaled, Jack took Meg’s surname and turned from Jack Gillis to Jack White. They divorced in 2000 right before they became household names and were somehow able to carry on creating some of their greatest music.
My favorite album is Elephant. It represents the perfect crux of their simplistic garage rock sound infused with White’s greatest songwriting. It’s the album in which they branched out a little bit more and added some layers to their sound without really changing it that much and keeping true to their format. It has the best guitar licks and does not miss a beat from beginning to end. It is actually one of those rare albums that ends better than it begins. The last four songs in particular are stellar and it really leaves you wanting more. Included in this progression of tracks are two of my all time favorites:
What a freaking riff.
In their subsequent albums; “Get Behind me, Satan” and “Icky Thump” they add even more instruments and polish their sound a little bit and somewhat deviate from their original sounds. They perform more acoustic songs and even go country in some places. I don’t think this was a poor decision and was a necessary one for them to take. They had to try different sounds and come up with new approaches to their music as any reputable artist does. And in doing so they came up with some of their greatest tracks:
Their last album was released in 2007 after Jack had formed The Raconteurs and I actually believed he would hold true to his promise that both bands were just as important as the other. White has become one of the most respected and genuine artists of his generation and I believed he could carry on with two full-time bands so much that I thought he would have no problem adding a third band when The Dead Weather was created. All the while he would produce albums by artists such as Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson, appear in movies like Walk Hard and It Might Get Loud, and create movie soundtracks like Cold Mountain. If you ever look at a list of all his projects, you have to wonder if this guy has time to even go to the bathroom.
But I suppose all great things must come to an end. In their latter years, the Stripes spent less time touring and even had to put a halt to a tour due to Meg’s reported ongoing anxiety issues. Last year they released a live album and documentary called Under Great White Northern Lights which I have yet to see but also have no doubt is awesome. I heard of rumors that a new Stripes album would make its way into the public this year. And I was reminded of this two Thursdays ago when I heard “The Denial Twist” on XM Radio and thought to myself: “Oh man, I can’t wait for that new Stripes record to drop this year!” To my surprise, this thought quickly fleeted my brain when I opened up my facebook account only to see that Kevin posted the article on my wall informing me that the Stripes had in fact broken up. One of my all time favorites was finished.
I was really upset by this news at first and still am. But I also got to thinking that this decision does make sense. For while the Stripes are an amazing band, the best thing about them was their raw energy, stripped down production, and simple yet modernized blues and punk style. There is only so much you can do with that. Yes, they branched out more in the latter years and created some great music, but when I think about it, maybe they aren’t really a band who should be branching out all that much. And maybe that’s what Jack meant when he said that they broke up so that fans could enjoy their music more. He didn't want fans to get bored by them creating similar types of records. For while Meg’s drumming might have provided the backdrop and core sound of the band, it was Jack’s songwriting and creative drive that was the true center of the band, and in all actuality, he is the one who needed to move on which is what he was doing with his other bands. My guess is that he no longer had any interest in creating White Stripes type material and felt that he said all he needed to say with that band. Any branching out or changing of his sounds really needed to come from other projects and bands.
A friend of mine mentioned that I should not get too down about this breakup as White still has two formidable bands he’s in and will no doubt keep going at a rapid pace turning out music whenever he can. This is a very true statement and it's nice to know that for me, he is my generation’s greatest artist and I have no doubt he will continue to write, produce, and record amazing music. It is that thought that keeps me positive and hopeful in the years to come. But as I said earlier, I will forever hold the Stripes as his greatest achievement and credit them with changing the direction of rock music from something contrived, phony, generic, and boring, into something genuine, creative, raw, and amazing. Thanks guys. You'll surely be missed.