Trunk Rock: The White Stripes, Elephant, and the seven note riff that shook the world

(Image credit: XL)

On Friday, August 21, 2002 Jack and Meg White concluded their mid-afternoon main stage slot at the Reading Festival with a gloriously noisy, dismantling of Buddy Holly classic Peggy Sue. Jack climbed up onto the drum riser alongside his “sister” and the two of them, nose to nose, attacked their instruments whilst staring intently into each other’s eyes one before tossing their kit to one side and walking off. 

Captured tightly for the cameras, it looks like the kind of intimate, spur of the moment happening that you’d see at any tiny, basement garage rock show... except when the camera pans back it reveals a headliner sized crowd of tens of thousands. The White Stripes, ragged, unrefined, minimalist, really shouldn’t have worked in this environment, but the enormous crowd erupted, and the band stole the day from The Strokes, Pulp, Janes Addiction, Weezer and anyone else unfortunate enough to have to share a stage with them that afternoon.

A year later they would be back at the festival, catapulted to almost the top of the bill, with only headliners Blur above them. The rise, and the pace of the rise, from this scrappy, blues rock duo was astonishing, but this time they came with a new collection of songs that had propelled them from an upcoming cult rock act into one of the most recognisable artists in music.

The retro-garage rock big bang of 2001, which saw key releases from The Strokes, The Hives, Ryan Adams and The Von Bondies, was a scene that embraced The White Stripes, even if the band themselves didn’t ever musically fit in with those artists mentioned previously.

Whilst there was a louche swagger, cool, panache and obsession with 1970 New York in the work of their peers, The White Stripes always seemed to reach far further back, incorporating influences from Woody Guthrie-style American folk, Delta Blues, surf rock and rockabilly into their sound. It meant that their own 2001 effort White Blood Cells, a brilliant record in its own right, recorded in just 3 days in Memphis, Tennesse, was swept up in the hype of garage rock, despite being markedly different from just about everything it was associated with.

The normal procedure for The White Stripes during their career prior to this level of mainstream attention would be to record an album, release it, and get ready to record and release the next one immediately. But the success of White Blood Cells, an album that went Platinum on both sides of the Atlantic and saw the group awarded 3 MTV Video Music Awards for their ingenious, Michel Gondry-directed video for the brilliant Fell in Love with a Girl, meant that the band were forced to continue to tour the record throughout 2002. This despite the duo spending two weeks in London’s Toe Rag Studios in April, where they would record 12 of the 13 songs that would make up their definitive album.

Like much so much of their approach, the recording sessions were deliberately modest by design, the album only cost £5000 to make and was recorded on one-inch-thick, old school, reel to reel recording tape using equipment no younger than from 1963. 

"If we can't produce something that sounds good under those conditions, then it's not real to begin with,” Jack White, who also self-produced the album, told The Guardian in 2003. “Getting involved with computers is getting involved with excess, especially when you start changing drumbeats to make them perfect or make the vocal melody completely in tune with some programme - it's so far away from honesty. How can you be proud of it if it's not even you doing it?"

So, for a year, The White Stripes were forced to sit on Elephant, and as they did, so their reputation began to grow, thanks to high profile performances at Reading and Leeds, Glastonbury and a slot on The Late Show with David Letterman. By the time their fourth album was ready to be released the anticipation for it was at fever pitch, and though these events all played their part, Elephant’s first single was the essential component to setting the bar sky high.

In 20 years time all that people will remember is the music

Jack White, in 2003

Released on February 17, 2003 in the US (it didn’t get a release in the UK as a standalone single until April 21), Seven Nation Army has gone on to become bigger than anyone could ever have comprehended.

You’ve heard it a million times now, but taken on face value alone, Seven Nation Army is a hell of a tune. The psychedelic promotional video added to the overall package of the song, Jack White sounds cool as fuck throughout, but, really, it’s that simple riff (the one that is repeating itself in your head right now) that cemented it into the highest heights of popular culture. Be it fans in a football stadium chanting the riff to the name of their favourite player, Glastonbury goers using it to acclaim Jeremy Corbyn or an arena of wrestling fans using it to greet WWE Champion Roman Reigns, Seven Nation Army is as recognisable a piece of music as just about any you care to mention. It’s the drum fill in In the Air tonight, the horns in You Can All Me Al, it’s the chorus to Happy Birthday. Love it or loathe it, you cannot escape it.

It may have only charted at number 7 in the UK and a very surprising number 76 in the US, but it’s gone on to achieve multi-Platinum status in both territories and has a frankly unfathomable 1 and a quarter billion streams on Spotify. A reminder, the entire album cost around 5 grand. That’s some serious profit. 

When Elephant was released on April 1, 2003, it went in at number 6 on the US Billboard Top 200 and knocked Linkin Park’s Meteora from the top of the UK album chart. Critics loved it, Rolling Stone said the record was a “work of pulverising perfection” in their 5/5 review, NME’s 9/10 claimed “the eloquence, barbarism, tenderness and sweat-drenched vitality of Elephant make it the most fully-realised  White Stripes album yet.” At the 46th Grammys the album won the Best Alternative Album Award, with Seven Nation Army picking up Best Rock Song. 

You’d imagine all this hype, all this fuss, would be something of a confusion to The White Stripes. “It’s been a rollercoaster,” Jack White told Kerrang! just prior to the release of the record. “That’s the way to describe it, a rollercoaster. It’s been quite insane.”

It’s rare for any band to achieve this level of success, but a band as well worn, irregular and disinterested in the music industry game as The White Stripes? It was practically unheard of.

Looking back, it surely couldn’t happen again today that a group who are so unassuming could cause this level of craziness. But Elephant caused it because it really is such a faultlessly superb record. Filled with character and deceptively simple, yet expert songwriting. The trademark sound of Jack’s riffing and wailing on a song like Black Math coupled with Meg’s loose but relentless pounding drums has a wonderfully classic, timeless feel. As does all of the album; the euphoric gospel of There’s No Home For You Here, the loose blues drag of Ball and Biscuit, the Detroit garage attack of Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine, the glammy The Hardest Button to Button and the perfectly deconstructed version of Dusty Springfield’s classic I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself, there is barely a wasted second or an ounce of fat on Elephant.

You can see why people lost their minds for The White Stripes, crucially though, the band themselves never did. Even though they’d be thrust even higher by the record into a Glastonbury Pyramid Stage headline slot in 2005, they always remained the odd, intimate little garage rock duo.

“In 20 years time all that people will remember is the music,” Jack White told Kerrang! roughly 20 years ago. “Everything else will be forgotten.”

Nailed it.

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.