Jack White can claim to be one of the most innovative guitarists of his generation. The squealing wails of an unrepentant rock god can be heard desperately trying to escape his amplifier throughout most of the guitarist’s work with both The White Stripes and his solo projects. That said, even he would agree that sometimes simplicity is the key to longevity, and one of his most imposing and memorable riffs may well be his greatest. Of course, we’re talking about The White Stripes’ anthem ‘Seven Nation Army’.
In Britain, there aren’t many forms of higher praise for one’s song than the belting out of said tune on the football terraces. Long have the stadiums up and down England reflected the music of the day, and while the Italian FA can claim to have seen the brilliance of White’s effective tune first, the song has now become a part of the football lexicon. For Jack White, it is perhaps the ultimate compliment: “Nothing is more beautiful in music than when people embrace a melody and allow it to enter the pantheon of folk music.”
As a guitarist, we’d imagine that there’s no better feeling than hearing a crowd not only sing back your lyrics but also belt out the notes of your guitar riff too. Despite what you may think, it very rarely happens, especially when the band is so established (Arctic Monkeys enjoyed a brief moment of this following their gigs around the country, as diehard fans used it to differentiate between themselves and the newbies). So, with this release, White put himself and The White Stripes into an almost untouchable position.
The song was conceived while The White Stripes toured Australia and was originally recorded in 2002. But wouldn’t find placement on The White Stripes’ discography until their fourth album Elephant arrived with aplomb. On a record that can boast ‘Black Math’ and ‘Ball and Biscuit’, the fact the song can still boast the most memorable guitar lick of the entire record truly says something.
Speaking to Robert Webb of The Independent, White confirmed that despite its mass appeal, the singer stumbled upon the landmark riff: “I played the riff again, and it sounded interesting,” plugging in an octave pedal and beginning to manipulate the otherwise bass-led riff, he continued, “I thought if I ever got asked to write the next James Bond theme, that would be the riff for it.”
Rather than rely on James Bond turning their attention to Jack White, his turn would arrive some years later with Alicia Keys; he instead began to create his own world. White picked an all-too-familiar storyline, with his protagonist struggling to deal with the idea of his friend speaking badly about him. “He feels so bad he has to leave town, but you get so lonely you come back,” White continues, “The song’s about gossip. It’s about me, Meg and the people we’re dating.”
It’s led many to align this feeling with the band’s sudden increase in fame. Over a quick three years, the band had grown from a Detroit duo capable of shaking a small club to its core to suddenly performing for 100,000 people at Glastonbury Festival. No matter how much they resisted, things had changed. ‘Seven Nation Army’ was White sharing that destructive experience.
Even with this indication, White’s lyrics are still difficult to decipher. Speaking with David Fricke at Rolling Stone, the guitarist tried to clarify the point of the piece a little further: “‘Seven Nation Army’ started out about two specific people I knew in Detroit. It was about gossip, the spreading of lies and the other person’s reaction to it. It came from a frustration of watching my friends do this to each other.
“In the end, it started to become a metaphor for things I was going through. But I never set out to write an expose on myself. To me, the song was a blues at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The third verse could be something from a hundred years ago. It won a Grammy for Best Rock Song. [Laughs] Maybe it should have won for Best Paranoid Blues Song.”
In truth, there is no need to focus on the lyrics of the song. They are largely superfluous to the grandeur already on display when White plugs in his guitar. A simple riff can sometimes have the most impact (ask Deep Purple), and when this one landed in 2003, there was no stopping it infiltrating every fabric of our society. Few can boast such a commanding riff, but few are as inherently gifted as Jack White of The White Stripes.