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Beyond The Hits

The White Stripes: Delving Beyond The Hits
The Quietus , February 8th, 2011 10:22

Last week, Jack and Meg White revealed that The White Stripes had come to an end. Manish Agarwal, Barnaby Smith, Jeremy Allen, Luke Turner, Ben Hewitt, Tom Howard and Al Denney pick over some of their favourite lesser known gems by the Detroit duo...

Jack and Meg are going their separate ways, and The White Stripes are no more. In tribute, we at The Quietus furrowed our brows, tried to remember why we'd fallen in love with them in the first place, and mined their back catalogue for the choicest cuts that didn't make for hit singles - with one or two minor exceptions...

'The Big Three Killed My Baby' single from The White Stripes (1999)

A rare political statement, 'The Big Three Killed My Baby' directs gale-force rage at the giant car companies - General Motors, Ford and Chrysler - who put the duo's Detroit birthplace on the manufacturing map, but then abandoned the city when times got hard. Jack's bile is alternately righteous and poetic - "Thirty thousand wheels are rollin'/And my stick shift hands are swollen" - animated by thunderous distortion and Meg's wrecking ball drums. It's a searing indictment, leant added drama by the ascending chords which punctuate the second verse's increasingly hysterical denunciations, and an echo of Iggy's heart full of napalm nihilism in the desperate pay-off: "I'm about to have another blowout!" Manish Agarwal

'Red Rain' from Get Behind Me Satan (2005)

If 'Purple Rain' was Prince's cipher for the melancholy that lurked in the recesses of his flamboyant soul, 'Red Rain' sees Jack wrestle with the anger that's fired him from the outset, making his slide sound positively vicious as the track proceeds to lash down like a fiery hot blizzard of flaming coals. Arguably, Get Behind Me Satan was the record on which White's dogmatic worldview curdled into something that seemed altogether less wholesome, but alongside the fabulous 'Blue Orchid', at least here he was marshalling that self-righteousness into something clenched and fucking ferocious.

Consider the key lyric, "You think not telling is the same as not lying, don't you? / Then I guess not feeling is the same as not crying to you," which does a great job of summing up the man's contempt for the moral hand-wringing and crocodile tears of an era, and if now there's the sense that someone needs to whip the soapbox from under him, this remains one of his finest moments in the pulpit. Al Denney

'You're Pretty Good Looking (For A Girl)' from De Stijl (2000)

I first encountered the White Stripes via this song, when Erol Alkan would drop it into the middle of his set at dearly departed London nightclub Trash. It was one of the tracks that signalled the return, of sorts, of decent guitar music, songs you could actually dance to and which were popular with girls rather than lager-waving lads. Indeed, given that Jack White's name has since become a byword for a certain sort of blokey classicism, there was something naughtily ambigious about this one minute and fifty seconds of rolling, carefree pop. Today, it conjures up fond memories of happy mincing at 2am on a Tuesday. Luke Turner

'Candy Cane Children' (2002 single)

Get Behind Me Santa! The White Stripes' yuletide 45 is a curio to cherish: both homage to their fans, nicknamed Candy Cane Children, and meditation on the dark side of the festive season. Its prickly guitar figure and trudging backbeat cradle a cracked, unguarded vocal that implies abuse ("three hundred and sixty four tears") and neglect ("nobody knows how to talk to children") with a suicide-or-murder? conundrum of a chorus ("when Christmas finally comes/and nobody's got a gun..."). The baroque, uptempo middle eight briefly promises resolution, but hopes are dashed by the sudden ending. Manish Agarwal

'I'm Bound To Pack It Up' from De Stijl (2000)

De Stijl, released in 2000, was the perfect encapsulation of early White Stripes and has a good claim still on being their finest record, as it best exhibits their debt to Dylan, Guthrie and even Neil Young as well as the blues masters. 'I'm Bound To Pack It Up', despite veering perilously close to Rolling Stones mimicry, is one of their finest acoustic adventures with no trace of the sense of novelty or overt homage that can be said of some of their other softer numbers. Here, they are sincere, spirited and melodic – an early hint at what White would do in The Raconteurs, maybe. There remains, though, the usual Stripes trick of what seems like a dreadfully simple guitar riff that any learner can easily master, yet is actually impossible to recreate due to the warped soul and devil's intent that Jack ploughs into it. Barnaby Smith

'Little Cream Soda' from Icky Thump (2007)

Despite Icky Thump's repeated excursions into OTT camp ('Prickly Thorn, Sweetly Worn', the career-low 'Conquest') its rockers hit tremendously hard, and this track is perhaps the best instance of the pop-metal White likes to indulge in from time to time with the band, and more recently with The Dead Weather, who seem to make a kind of semi-hokey gothic out of his increasingly bitter worldview. Meg splashes hard at her cymbals here — like a steam valve having to work overtime to stop the machine from getting out of control — while Jack switches from rumbling, zombie-like riffs to piercingly high interjections that invest the track with a suitable sense of melodrama. Lyrically, he's still chasing his proverbial vanishing lady, but coming up emptier than ever before: "Now my mind is filled with rubber tyres, and forest fires and whether I'm a liar / and lots of other situations where I don't know what to do" Al Denney

'Apple Blossom' from De Stijl (2000)

While Jack White's harshest critics would accuse him of being retrogressive, nobody could deny The White Stripes sounded like nothing else when they emerged. Having just Meg White's drumming behind him meant his dexterous deployment of the delta blues was always constrained by the limits this minimal accompaniment imposed, and therein lay the genius. His subsequent projects have been more trad.

While principally a guitarist of eminence, he also wrote the odd gem on the piano, beating out three chord structures with childlike simplicity, and 'Apple Blossom' is probably the finest example. A delightful ditty that risked sounding like McCartney at his most chintzy, it somehow overcomes such a thing by the sheer conviction of joyousness. Interestingly the lyric could be regarded as a dark tale of countertransference where White encourages the subject to confide her problems in him before making his move. Sweet on the surface, dark and lascivious underneath. I'll miss The White Stripes for that. Jeremy Allen

'Hand Springs' split single with The Dirtbombs (1999)

Limited to 2000 copies, this pre-fame rarity was given away with pinball fanzine Multiball. If its provenance suggests ultra-spod marginalia, then think again. 'Hand Springs' is a catchy little number, hooked on a rollicking axe refrain that swaggers in opposition to the verses' spoken word narrative. In brief: boy tries to make up for earlier argument by taking girlfriend to bowling alley; sees her admiring local pinball wizard; interrupts their flirtation by dropping his bowling ball through the machine; loses girl. There's humour in the details, such as the specifics of his rival's game - "a country pinball machine called Stand By Your Man" - and the hapless suitor's attempted zinging retort when he breaks it: "Are you quick enough to hit this ball, Mr Clean?" Manish Agarwal

'Little Room' from White Blood Cells (2001)

With a running length of just 50 seconds and consisting only of Meg's raggedy drum beat and Jack's vocal, it would be easy to dismiss 'Little Room' as throwaway fare - especially given its position sandwiched in between White Blood Cells' opening killer material ('Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground', 'Fell In Love With A Girl') and more bizarre later stages ('I Think I Smell A Rat'). But if back-to-basics was The White Stripes' early ethos, then 'Little Room' serves as something of a mission statement. Possessed of a charmingly sparse aesthetic that allowed plenty of room for Jack's tight-trousered yelping, he lovingly exalts the virtues of the stripped-down simplicity that would be their early hallmark. And if you're of the school of thought that Jack's frequent extra-band activities went someway to destabilising the Stripes, then there's something quite eerily prophetic in his words: "And when you're in the bigger room/You might not know what to do/ You might have to think/ Of how you got started/ Sitting in your little room". Ben Hewitt

'The Nurse' from Get Behind Me Satan (2005)

A sui generis, bad vibes - well, marimba to be accurate - experiment from the band's underrated fifth, 'The Nurse' ranks among the oddest ditties to be successfully aired as part of a Glastonbury headline slot. Namely, the knee deep mud swamp that was Friday 2005, when Jack (in the pits of his goateed, gothic pirate period) and Meg (serene, as ever) raised spirits earlier stricken by lightning and flash floods. The words are self-pitying break-up fare, male pride wounded by a reductively drawn femme fatale. However, this is more about texture than text. Underpinned by a gentle shaker rhythm, lilting chimes pick out a deft central melody that's blasted by transient random noise bursts, while a shadowy piano line grows ever more elliptical to match the singer's unravelling mood. Inevitably, live versions lost the out-of-phase dissonance - it's tricky to play marimba, guitar and keys at the same - but gained an unlikely communal uplift, as shown by the aforementioned festival outing captured in the video above. Manish Agarwal

'Good To Me' from Elephant (2003)

As well as a carrier of so many traditions, Jack White is always wilfully mercurial in choosing cover versions, from 'Death Letter' to 'Jolene' to Tegan and Sara's 'Walking With A Ghost'. 'Good To Me', a song by fellow Detroit native, good friend and future bandmate Brendan Benson, turned up on Japanese versions of Elephant and as a b-side to 'Seven Nation Army'. Benson's light pop touch is something White arguably lacks, and the combination of the former's ear for a tune and the latter's fiery primitivism ensured that the Stripes' version outdid Benson's own, which turned up on his Lapalco album. The song - about how much the singer loves his car, his amp and his girl – is not exactly a classic in anyone's hands, but any fan coming to this after hearing Benson's recording will be rewarded by hearing it beaten up, stretched and scarred. Barnaby Smith

'Stop Breaking Down' from The White Stripes (1999)

If the Stones' 1972 take on Robert Johnson's cautionary tale about the perils of being irresistible to women sounded louche and inordinately pleased with itself (it was sung by Mick Jagger, after all), the Stripes' rendition on their still-electrifying debut is a bundle of shaking nerves. In fact, it sounds like White's the one having the breakdown: "I can't walk the streets now, to consolate my mind / stop breaking down, won't you please stop breaking down!". As well as being a particularly incendiary bit of garage rock, this was also the first of the band's dalliances with misogynistic blues; the next being the incredibly ugly 'Your Southern Can Is Mine', from White Blood Cells: "look'ee here, mama, lemme explain you this / you wanna get crooked I'll even give you my fist". A strange song choice, that one, but I suppose if you're going to put ye-olde chivalry on a pedestal you have to at least look at its opposite. Al Denney

'Jack The Ripper' from Under Blackpool Lights (2004)

A few years ago, some buddies and I decided to hotbox a car in a field in Devon because we were at a rubbish festival in Kingsbridge and it was raining. We'd all been obsessed with The White Stripes since they made The Strokes look like Alvin and the Chipmunks at Reading Festival in 2002, so when one friend was all "shall we listen to this tape I've got of the White Stripes doing some John Peel sessions" as pot smoke stuck to our hair, we all shouted "YES". I'd heard Astro before and was an admirer of Jack's penchant for welding two songs together. But when I first heard his yells of "maybe Jasper does the Astro" explode into the opening riff of a version of Screaming Lord Sutch's 1963 song 'Jack The Ripper' it blew my head off with its quintessential Stripes combination of enormous riffing, lethal soloing, twisted mythology and Jack singing like a man being tortured by Beelzebub. The best version of the song is on YouTube from the Stripes' Under Blackpool Lights show in 2004, but it was watching them open their set with it when headlining at 2005's Exit Festival in Serbia that I realized how powerful 80 seconds of music can be. Tom Howard

'Ball And Biscuit' from Elephant (2003)

Seven minutes of speaker-humping libido, 'Ball And Biscuit' is built on a simple foundation of slow-grind riff and primal cavestomp, over which Jack periodically rains down the most outrageous combo of in-the-red superfuzz and molten fretwank, his instrument skirling like Jimmy Page plugged into the mains. The lyrics form a classic blues double-entendre, concise yet multi-layered, conflating sexual promise ("take our sweet time about it"), thwarted lust ("right now you could care less about me") and tumescent braggadocio ("my strength is ten fold woman/I'll let you see it if you want to before you go"). White's folkloric "seventh son", referenced by everyone from Willie Dixon to Iron Maiden over the years, gains a personal dimension here - he happens to be the youngest of seven brothers in real life - adding mythical heft to his dual-role as spurned lover and macho conqueror. Amusingly, the tune's author says he named it after a vintage STC 4021 microphone used at Toe Rag Studios, which is shaped in the titular style. Manish Agarwal

'I Think I Smell A Rat' from White Blood Cells (2001)

A song enjoyable entirely for how daft it is. I must admit, I thought the whole "I think I smell a rat" and "walking down the street carrying a baseball bat" lyricism was a reference to the popular fete pursuit of trying to smack a rodent after it has just been ejected from the end of a length of drainpipe. In retrospect, these words perhaps hints of a nascent desire to be a cowboy stridin' down a dusty main street that eventually manifested itself in White's unfortunate facial hair and bad hats. Still, this track accentuates the White Stripes early panache and expertise in short song minimalism, a pseudo-Oriental guitar lick set off against a one-note riff. Luke Turner

'Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine' from Elephant (2003)

Lord knows that if you ever fancied taking a pot-shot at The Dead Weather or The Raconteurs you'd find no shortage of ammunition to aide your worthy cause, but one of my main gripes with both bands has always been how po-faced Jack White is when he's fraternising with them. After all, 'leaden' and 'dull' are words you'd seldom associate with The White Stripes, and its tracks like 'Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine' which showcase how much fun the duo could be. It's built around a white-hot riff that's satisfyingly dirty and scuzzy, but it's Jack's hammed-up-delivery that makes it stand out. "Don't even need a glass of water to make the headache go away," he ruminates like some demented doctor, before managing to make 'acetaminophen' rhyme with 'medicine' in the chorus. Crucially, it never veers into irksome frivolity, either (unlike the track that follows it on Elephant, 'It's True That We Love One Another'): that it's played completely straight-faced only heightens its brilliance. Ben Hewitt

'Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn' from Icky Thump (2007)

In much the same way that Queen's 1978 opus Jazz was a freewheeling genre tombola, so The White Stripes' gleeful swansong housed various flights of fancy that got by on loving craft and sheer chutzpah. Conquest's batshit mariachi-metal is excluded from this list due to it being their final hit single (#30 in the UK chart), so we've opted for perhaps the least fashionable item in the catalogue: a cod-Celtic hoedown fuelled by trilling mandolin, bagpipe drone and finger-in-ear folk singing. This ostensible novelty achieved a heartwarming resonance on what turned out to be the pair's last tour: the exhaustive 2007 jaunt taking in every nook and cranny of Canada, as documented in Emmett Malloy's gorgeous, poignant film Under Great White Northern Lights. 'Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn' sent emotions skyward at the group's tenth anniversary show in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. Accompanied by a local piper, this performance couldn't be more removed from the 100 Club media crucible that helped Jack and Meg on the path to stardom a decade ago, yet retains the unabashed enthusiasm and eccentric charm which enabled them to connect with - and be adored by - so many listeners the world over. Manish Agarwal

'Cannon' from The White Stripes (1999)

Call it 'Cannon', call it 'John The Revelator', call it what you like: the 60 seconds in the middle of it when Jack White starts yelling "John the Revelator tell me who's that writing/ John the Revelator wrote the book of the seven seals" is when the demons are unleashed. It's also the moment you realize The White Stripes don't care about normal band stuff, concentrating instead on referencing a song originally written by blues dude Blind Willie Johnson in 1930 about a Christian concept of death born in the Book of Revelation. Obviously! Come on, rock bands! Keep up! You bunch of illiterate monkeys! You're into 'girls'? And 'pretending to be sad'? Do better please! Then, right, when White's done with spewing out Biblical references and calling on his "disciples" to "meet me in Galilee", the song ends with a smash of Meg's cymbal, a crunch of Jack's axe and a wretched scream of the word "EVIL". Mighty, mighty, mighty music. Tom Howard

'In The Cold, Cold Night' from Elephant (2003)

Strictly speaking Meg's first lead vocal was a Jack-disrupted a capella rendition of 'Silent Night' on the flipside of their Christmas single, but this Peggy Lee-esqe come-on finds Mr Red & Black Magic Trousers properly ceding the spotlight to his softly spoken drummer. Backed by nightcap-jazz guitar and a few bass notes on the organ, her clear-voiced invocations of flickering flame carnality exude a shy, eye-of-the-storm poise which contrasts beautifully with the high voltage drama that hallmarks the song's chart-topping parent album - a womanly perspective amid boyish derring-do. Unsurprisingly, it became a firm crowd favourite on subsequent tours. Manish Agarwal

'Jolene' B-side to 'Hello Operator' (2000) and live single (2004)

We could hardly leave this off now, could we? OK, so technically it was released as a live single in 2004 (reaching #16 in the UK chart) and first appeared as a B-side to 'Hello Operator' in 2000. But 'Jolene' was fan fave from the band's earliest days, on which Jack snatches the formidable Ms Parton back from the claws of country-music-cliché hell, like the dashing young gentlemen he used to be. White inhabits the cuckolded protagonist scarily well — all wheedling, shrill desperation like a drunken scene going off at a hillbilly wedding — punctuating his anguish with some of the most effective quiet/loud dynamism this side of the Pixies (themselves an underappreciated influence on the band). It's like he's having his heart torn out of his chest right before your eyes: "He talks about you in his sleep / and there is nothing I can do to keep / from crying when he calls your name, Jolene". Pure bottled lightning. Al Denney