How to produce a classic

By Paul Rigg

Anyone who has ever dreamed of making a hit album might look at White Blood Cells (released 3 July, 2001) and wonder how the American duo, known as the White Stripes, did it.      

and Meg White spent just one week in a studio in Memphis to produce these 16 songs, which Rolling Stone magazine later placed in the top 20 albums of the 2000s. Their third studio effort built upon the relative success of De Stijl, and it is plausible that this gave them the confidence to produce this masterpiece. Jack White and Doug Easely shared the production credits, but it was the former who reportedly kept insisting that the sound should be kept rough and raw; one can only imagine that heady mixture of vision, intensity and self-belief. The consequence is an album that shows a band comfortable with itself and defining a sound that is singularly theirs.

The lyrics touch on a number of emotions but they all revolve around love. The sound encompasses a mix of garage rock, country, pop and punk, but the album kicks off with a dirty blues riff that immediately grabs the listener by the throat. That track, Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground, sounds like it could almost be a first attempt, but it doesn’t take much for the listener to see it as a rough diamond.

This leads into the folk-tinged Hotel Yorba, which proved an unexpected hit. The lyrics were based on ‘a really disgusting hotel’ that in fact was very close to where Jack White grew up. And in the rock n roll tradition of repeating a legend rather than the truth, White said at the time that: "There was a great rumour when I was a kid that The Beatles had stayed there. They never did, but I loved that rumour. It was funny."

The high tempo and cheery Fell in Love with a Girl became another hit single, despite its dark vibe: "My left brain knows that all love is fleeting." The accompanying video, which represented the duo as lego characters, helped ensure the songs runaway popularity.

More dark cynicism follows on The Union Forever, with White singing rather directly: "It can't be love, Because there is no love”.
"It Can't Be Love" he repeats in an increasingly manic style before the song takes a leftfield direction that many would describe as simply genius.

The rock ballad The Same Boy You've Always Known, played on White’s delicious 1964 ‘JB Hutto’ Res-o-Glass Airline guitar, is full of existential angst and may possibly relate to the relationship between the two siblings (only joking).

The track We're Going To Be Friends is a deliberately naive song about very young relationships, and on which White plays a Framus 5/59 Sorella. Many liked the song but it was heavily panned by most critics at the time and it certainly reminds this reviewer of the worst of Paul McCartney’s sickly-sweet excesses. At least it nicely sets up the more punk-inspired following track, I Think I Smell A Rat, with its biting lyric:
“All you little kids think you know where it’s at… Using your parents like a welcome mat.” The song represents another change of direction on the album starting, as it does, with an Eastern style guitar sound.

The three songs I Can't Wait, Now Mary and I Can Learn, which focus on different aspects of intimate relationships, are all strong tunes as they play with the classic loud/soft formula; but again contain some unexpected turns. They set up the album’s closing track, This Protector which, backed only by piano, sees Meg taking the mic at the start, before the duo sing together. It almost has a spiritual air about it, is incredibly powerful, and is a fitting end to what has become a classic album.