As someone who listens to way too much music, I find myself asking several unnecessary, and super broad questions, that often result in overzealous opinions or statements. The first, and probably largest of which is “Who is the greatest rock group of all time?”. After several years of thought, and a very helpful History of Rock and Roll college course, I believe I have found an answer that will suffice for the time being. And if I can change at least one mind with this, I’ll consider it a success.
What Determines Greatness?
When thinking about this question, I explored several aspects. First of which was musical flexibility. While there is not anything wrong with being one dimensional per se, there is something to be said about a group that can produce high quality sound in several different areas. Being able to use a wide variety of instruments, tones, moods, etc, shows a lot of skill as a musician.
Another aspect I wanted to review was their success in several different markets. Once again, there is nothing wrong with being underground, or appealing to one particular audience, but I felt that it would be a bit strange for the “Greatest Rock Band Ever” to have little or no widespread success. If you’ve ever had a conversation with me about music, you know I don’t really think one’s musical skill has much correlation with their popularity (with today’s radio helping prove that), but if you are able to reach out to numerous, very different groups of people, that provides some evidence that your music contains something that makes it very special.
Going along with the first two aspects, is the group’s influence on the rock genre going forward. I think this one sort of explains itself, but when a band has a large influence on their genre (or music as a whole), it helps solidify their greatness by increasing their importance. Being able to have a long-lasting impact immortalizes their work when it’s reflected in others’. This is actually incredibly helpful at identifying greatness, as bands like the Ramones showed very little musical flexibility and enjoyed little to no success in their time, however, we were able to track their enormous influence after the fact, and finally give them the recognition they had always deserved.
The final large piece I looked at was “What did they make out of who/what they had?”. This one may seem a little strange at first, but there is a logic behind it. Some may think of the “Greatest band of all time” and think they must have the most skilled musicians at each instrument, but I take a different approach to the idea. I instead look at how skilled they were, what help they had, and what they made of it. The reasoning I have behind this is it shows great creativity and musical ability to make something great out of nothing. It also just fits the rock and roll aesthetic so well. There are entire sub-genres preaching these exact ideas (punk, grunge, etc.), and there’s nothing more “Rock and Roll” than showing “the man” what you can do when you’re at a disadvantage. Maybe it’s because I love an underdog, but I just think the crafty, scrappy team who utilizes everything they have to the greatest effect is more impressive than those who have it all naturally, and just use that.
1. Genre-Shifting and Musical Flexibility
One of the more impressive feats the White Stripes were able to accomplish is the ability to quickly shift between genres and moods from song to song. While several other bands have had the ability to do this as well, what’s most impressive to me is that they were capable of doing this from the start. Most bands (especially in the rock/punk rock scenes) begin with a somewhat one dimensional sound on their first few albums, and they will slowly develop it throughout their lifetime as a band (sometimes as a result of personnel changes as well), eventually expanding their repertoire to include several other aspects.
The White Stripes did also most likely became better at this as they matured, but their first album was nothing close to one dimensional. I would say most songs on the album seem very similar on the surface, but they experimented with different instruments (using piano on “St. James Infirmary Blues”) that directly contradicted a lot of their harsher, more “punk” sounds present in their other pieces. That song specifically was the start of a trend of basic blues songs they featured on all their future albums, and if you pay attention to their other songs on the album, a strong majority are blues-based as well.
The blues influences are felt strongly in all of their albums, but they also got more an more folksy as they continued to create music. This eventually got to the point where on their final album, Icky Thump, they were switching from blues, to hard rock, to folk (and even experimenting with more spoken-word) in each successive song. The range of genres they were able to cover actually reminded me of Led Zeppelin a lot, where although they’re thought of as a hard rock band, they often featured several blues and folk songs as well.
While they may not have the MOST diverse sound in the world, I think they shifted around a lot for a band that seemed to manage to maintain their identity the whole time. Starting from their first album in 1999, their musical flexibility shined through all their albums, until they officially broke up in 2011. The entire time, they were able to switch styles from song to song, without skipping a beat. One of the only blatant things that they added later was more and different instrumentation, through certain instruments such as the harmonica. The rest might as well have been cut and paste from their genius formula.
(I could probably extend on this a lot more, but to make it much easier on both of us, listen to the first 4 songs of their 3rd album White Blood Cells. The only two songs that are arguably similar are “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground,” and “I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman.”)
2. Widespread Success
I think the White Stripes are my ideal example of a lessER known band finding success, but sticking to their original game plan despite that. Coming out of Detroit in 97, they weren’t known by anyone, and it wasn’t until about 2001, with their hit “Fell in Love with a Girl,” that they found much mainstream success at all. Although that song marked a turning point in their success, they didn’t seem to change their style. Many bands, such as Nirvana, have a quite obvious style switch as soon as they found success. The style switch from Bleach to Nevermind is quite clear, and while they maintained in the overarching genre of grunge, it wasn’t NEARLY as heavy as their sound once was. Instead, the White Stripes continued their classic garage/blues rock, and the natural success followed.
That initial success, was of course followed up by their 2003 smash hit “Seven Nation Army,” which we’ve all heard one million times at least. This was what truly catapulted them into the mainstream, and to this day is what most people know about them. From that point onward, they were incredibly relevant, winning several awards (including multiple Grammys for Best Alternative Music Album) and probably becoming what some would describe as a “household name.” But throughout all of this, their sound didn’t shift besides the natural maturation/development all bands go through from album to album. It’s this natural progression of their music (that combatted typical mainstream shifts (I’m looking at you Metallica)) that most likely allowed their success and appeal towards their original fan base to continue.
Widespread mainstream success is impressive enough, but with the White Stripes, their success seemed to continue through all their fans. What makes this great to me is the fact that their original fan base existed within a counter-culture of a garage rock revival. The ability to balance success within both mainstream culture, and counter-culture is outstanding, as their ideologies are directly conflicting. The best example of this is most easily illustrated through my father. He doesn’t listen to today’s radio (rightfully so), and does not really like today’s “mainstream” music taste (I don’t know if that’s conscious or not), but the White Stripes were his favorite band at the time when they were together. This just goes to show how they can truly appeal to everyone, proving their greatness once again.
3. Influencing Others
One of the less obvious aspects of the White Stripes is their influence. This is understandably difficult to see, due to their style being a call-back to older music, as well as the fact that they were created only roughly 20 years ago. That being said, they do have a decent amount to show for their musical efforts and influences.
Firstly, they were one of the leading forces behind the revival of garage music in the late 90s to early 2000s. They lead this movement, along with some other popular bands such as the Black Keys and the Strokes. All those that followed after them were most-likely influenced by them at least a little bit.
Along with this, iTunes was nice enough to create a playlist titled “Inspired by the White Stripes,” and here are just a few of the notable bands featured: Arctic Monkeys, the Orwells, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Killers, Black Lips, and Kings of Leon. They seem to have actually influenced a lot of today’s popular rock/indie bands (assuming iTunes is a trustworthy source), and if so, that’s impressive. Not bad, Meg and Jack. Not bad.
4. Making the Most
The last, and most impressive/important of the four main points is their ability to make the most out of what they had. When you think of great rock bands like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, etc, they most likely had around four or five members, all skilled at their instrument, and with great song-writing ability. When you take a quick look at the White Stripes, there’s two people, one didn’t know how to play their instrument when they formed, and while they both seemed to be extremely talented at song writing, the lack of others’ input makes it more difficult to expand.
Firstly, let’s look at the fact that there’s only two of them. This limits the amount of instruments they can play at once, and almost pigeon-holes them into a more basic sound, as well as limits their song-writing abilities. This makes their musical flexibility, and widespread success even more impressive, as their music was almost forced into being one dimensional from the start. Yet somehow, their beautiful minds were able to be creative enough to expand without the help of many others, eventually resulting in their mass success.
Also, Meg White couldn’t drum! While I didn’t notice it until it was blatantly pointed out to me, the percussion in 99%, if not all of their songs, is extremely basic. While this is mostly due to a stylistic choice, Jack White didn’t want a drummer. (While I can’t cite the specific interview) Jack White has talked at least a few times about how he was originally searching for someone who didn’t know how to drum, so he could get the simple, DIY sound that you will find in most garage rock. He didn’t want to be fancy, he wanted someone to hold the beat and get the job done. No matter if it’s a stylistic choice, or lack of skill, the amount of styles they can play with an untrained drummer makes it that much more impressive.
Finally, they often didn’t have much production money or time to create. The White Blood Cells album was recorded in four days, kept “as unorganized as possible,” and remains one of their best albums to this day, receiving much critical praise. It even has their first large hit on it. It was produced by Jack White, and I do not believe they were signed to a large label at that point. It’s almost like they were best when they should have been at their worst.
What the White Stripes were able to accomplish with just Meg White and Jack White is incredible. That, combined with all of the aspects listed before make me believe that they may be the best rock band of all time, or at least in the 21st century. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t, and maybe this just makes you want to listen to the White Stripes now. No matter what, if you made it this far, congrats, and I’ll see you soon for another music review, overzealous opinion, or something else.