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The White Stripes: Raw Rock Revivalists

BBC Online
08/10/01

The British music industry has been bowled over by its first sighting of a rock duo who have made a name for themselves in their native Detroit. But as Chris Jones of the BBC's News Profiles Unit discovers, The White Stripes are wary of the hype.

The British music industry believes it has seen the future at a North London pub, and is in a lather of excitement about its discovery.

Nothing new about that then, except that the growing media frenzy over The White Stripes seems to be happening without an attendant promotional and marketing machine, or even self-promotion.

Jack and Meg White claim to be brother and sister, two of 10 children of a Catholic family from the Mexican district of Detroit. But they have fought shy of publicity, so much so that the rumors that they are really former husband and wife, are still waiting to be disproved.

Whatever the truth, by the final show of their brief British tour, the jungle drums of the music industry had spread the word of their appeal far and wide, and some journalists and music business representatives had to be turned away from the crowded Boston Arms in Tufnell Park.

The New Musical Express put The White Stripes on its front cover, acclaiming them as the rebirth of rock and roll.

But then, says the NME's Stevie Chick, who first saw The White Stripes at an independent music jamboree in Austin, Texas, "it's the NME's job to blow things out of proportion".

However, the NME is not alone in its admiration for The White Stripes' blend of blues and punk. The veteran Radio 1 DJ John Peel says they are "a revelation", and adds: "I've not been affected by anything as much as this since punk, perhaps even since I first heard Jimi Hendrix."

And Andrew Male of Mojo was also exhilarated: "They were sexy, they were frightening, they were sweaty, they were exciting and people were standing, mouths agape."

Yet on the face of it, there is precious little that is new about The White Stripes' music, with a repertoire that includes Dolly Parton's Jolene and the Bacharach and David standard, I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself. One fan dubbed them "The Carpenters possessed by the spirit of Led Zeppelin".

Meg, 23, is a drummer with the aggression of a Keith Moon, pigtails swinging, reducing the art to its primary components. Jack, 25, plays in an equally committed manner, and sings, for the most part, his own songs, in a high, anguished voice.

Their music is loud, louder than anyone would expect from a duo. It is deliberately primitive, stripped-down, back to basics, though sometimes melody creeps in.

One US newspaper described it as embracing "everything from country-tinged ditties to Black Sabbath-style fuzzbuckets with the Paul McCartney songbook tossed in to throw the dogs off the scent".

Always performing in red and white like the popular American peppermint sweets from which their name is derived, The White Stripes' look also harks back to the past, to childhood memories.

"When we played we decided we wanted to dress up in our Sunday best like a kid would," says Jack White. "If you tell a kid that they are going to church, they'll always come down in a red outfit or something and be told 'No, you can't go to church in that'."

The White Stripes are almost alone in rejecting the media hype. They have resisted overtures from major record companies, sticking with their independent label, Sympathy for the Record Industry, and just a few months ago, Jack White said they were "beneath the media radar".

Now the media have targeted them and with the modest 12,000 copies of the band's latest album, White Blood Cells, virtually sold out, they are tipped to become the next superstars, although Jack White says they are not "MTV material" and would not allow anything to change what they are doing.

Some believe they could even trigger a revival of raw rock that would sweep away the manufactured boy and girl bands of the charts. But then, that might be stretching the imagination too far.


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