On July 3, 2001, Jack and Meg White saved rock and roll. Twenty years ago today, just a month before The Strokes released Is This It, The White Stripes saved rock and roll. They saved it from the cold recesses of thrift shop dustbins. They saved it from savage and miserable popist critics who were ready to officially call the genre dead at the turn of the new millennium. They did it alone. They did it without fanfare or flash. They did it with minimalist aesthetics, maximalist sound, and a childlike wonder. They did it with White Blood Cells.
The opening clicks of ‘Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground’ don’t exactly suggest anything new with the band’s third album. The indistinct noises and found sounds that start the album proper can be found all over both The White Stripes and De Stijl. But once the guitar comes in, it’s clear that this record is different. It’s thicker, noisier, and louder than every single White Stripes song layered on top on one another to this point. The same goes for Meg’s drums, finally filling the expansive space that the band’s limited membership leaves open. But it never feels reverberated or gated or artificially larger. It just feels bigger.
So what’s the same? Well the blues approximations, for one. ‘Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground’ even quotes Son House’s ‘Death Letter Blues’, in case the band’s early releases didn’t convince you of their genuine appreciation. The twee sensibilities that the band defaulted to when they weren’t attempting to approximate classic blues riffage are here too, in the form of the acoustic songs ‘Hotel Yorba’ and ‘We’re Going To Be Friends’. The sound collages? Check out ‘Aluminum’ or ‘The Union Forever’ if you’re looking for a cut and paste Orson Welles references. The songs with “little” in the title? Yup, here too: ‘Little Room’. The somewhat guarded and misunderstood crutch of masculinity sometimes interpreted as misogyny? ‘I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman’ could fit the bill. The simplistic yet awesome garage rock? You practically can’t get away from it: ‘Fell In Love With a Girl’, ‘Expecting’, and ‘I Can’t Wait’, just to name a few examples.
The real importance is what’s different. An increased recording budget and studio set-up was a necessary step forward, as the band’s previous two releases had been recorded quickly within the band’s native Detroit on subpar recording equipment. The band decided to retain the speedy recording process but, instead, upgraded to a 24 track console in a professional recording studio that included reserved time for mastering. Whatever The White Stripes were going to produce, it was going to be the most polished version of the band yet.
That said, it doesn’t take a professional music ear to hear that “polished” isn’t exactly a proper descriptor for White Blood Cells. Still, for every fingerpicked flub or rhythmic inconsistency, it’s impossible to understate just how absolutely massive the album sounds. Retaining the rough and ready sensibilities that made them unique, Jack and Meg just explode out of the speakers on every single song. The thunderous clap of ‘I Think I Smell a Rat’ somehow has the same amount of oomph as the half-acoustic ‘Now Mary’ and the atmospheric lament of ‘The Same Boy You’ve Always Known’. Perfection isn’t the aim of the record, and none of the band’s songs here show any signs of wanting to change or evolve drastically from their incredibly impactful comfort zone.
For what it’s worth, the band were, in fact, attempting to separate themselves from the blues revival moniker that had been their bread and butter up to this point. Simplified riffs that favour chunky chords frequently replace the pentatonic soloing of previous records. What the album achieves is a sort of directness and immediacy that no other act could convincingly provide. The group are already impossibly stripped down, but by taking away most of their influences and references, they lean instead on raw feral power.
The band wouldn’t simply let themselves be defined on White Blood Cells either. Even here, the group is indicating their direction towards the future with album closer ‘This Protector’, which precedes the experimentation and keyboard-driven nature of Get Behind Me Satan by a full album: the in-between release, Elephant, made a bid for stadium rock supremacy with a single song. I’m guessing you know which one.
But every time you feel like you’ve got White Blood Cells figured out, it takes a left turn. The quieter moments where Jack talks about making friends at school and getting married in a big cathedral are tender and wholesome, while the ferocious foot stomping energy of Meg keeps him in line. There is never any room for any Meg White slander around here, and her animalistic drive, uniquely atypical time keeping, and barbaric thump are what affords the band credibility. She always added more than she gets credit for. Always.
Obviously, rock and roll was in no danger in 2001. Previously mentioned New York darlings The Strokes, along with their peers like Interpol and British admirers like Franz Ferdinand, The Libertines and, later Arctic Monkeys, would fundamentally change the way the world viewed rock bands in the new millennium. But the very essence of rock and roll, namely the stripped-down, authentic, no bullshit and no pretences push and pull of riffs and crashing cymbals combined with one foot on the distortion pedal and the other on someone’s throat, was saved, preserved, and perfected by The White Stripes.
Real rock and roll is never being worried about being cool. Most bands that came out of the 2000s boom, plus most bands that ever existed, never wound up figuring that out. The White Stripes, it goes without saying, were never worried about being cool — and that’s what made them so cool. White Blood Cells, both in the contemporary music scene of the time and the current music scene of today, was and is not cool. And that’s what makes it so cool.