There is a scene in the classic 2000 film Almost Famous, where Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing legendary rock journalist Lester Bangs, describes Stillwater, the fictional band in the film, as “a mid-level band struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom.” While the quote was referencing a band trying to reach success in the early seventies, for me it has become an eerie premonition for the musical landscape we find ourselves in at this moment in time.
It was when I caught a glimpse of the Brit Awards last week that it really dawned on me just how bad things are. Like a b-list celebrity who travels to Africa for Comic Relief, and somberly announces to the camera that “I knew it was bad, but I had no idea it was this bad”, it was only when seeing the absolute shower of shockers that kept winning awards that I felt the gloom rise in my ever so musical heart.
People like Ed Sheeran and Ben Howard are just about enough. I get that they’re for teenage girls and people who pretend they were never bullied, and that’s fine; everybody deserves to listen to something. But it was the constant sightings of a certain band called Mumford And Sons that really bought everything home. I’m sure they’re lovely guys, and I’m sure they have a place in the world of music, but, putting aside their tunes, which to me all sound like a glorified version of those jokers who released Cotton Eyed Joe back in the nineties, when you think about the band as a ‘band’, everything starts to go wrong.
Image is everything, and in the world of music, it’s more than everything, it’s omniscient. Does anybody get excited when they think of Mumford and Sons? They look and sound like the sort of boys who whipped each other for fun at Eton, and their lead singer is called Marcus. Marcus for fucks sake! It’s not just the Mumford’s though, when you look and hear the rest of the so-called independent and alternative bands that populate the mainstream at the moment, you have to ask yourself, are any of these people important, and are any of these people cool?
A question which rather neatly leads me to the band who I believe, are not only the last ‘cool’ rock and roll band we have experienced, but more importantly, the last great rock and roll band. The White Stripes released their first, self-titled album in 1999, but it was 2001’s White Blood Cells which started their assault onto the charts, with songs like Hotel Yorba, We’re Going to Be Friends, and my personal favourite, Fell in Love with a girl charting all over the world. Great Lego based video as well.
Fell in Love with a Girl chalks in at just one minute fifty seconds, and is a definite contender for one of the greatest sub two-minute songs ever. It’s ferocious, it’s intense, but it’s melodic, catchy, and memorable. I don’t want to spoil the film for anybody, so if you haven’t seen Silver Linings Playbook, and don’t want anything ruined in the film, skip this paragraph, and the video below it. The film centres around two people, both of whom are suffering with mental illness. Bradley Copper and Jennifer Lawrence are both excellent in the film, and one of their best moments in the film is in the dance scene towards the end, a scene which out of nowhere features Fell in Love with a Girl, taking the scene into a completely new level.
I could go on forever about The White Stripes, and their songs. Every single one of their albums is fantastic, and it’s fascinating to explore the journey from the pure garage rock of their early efforts, to the more textured and complex songs that was prevalent in their later albums. Personally, I prefer their more raw songs, with Jack’s cheap as fuck guitar making wild noises to go with his animalistic voice, as Meg’s rudimentary, yet right drumming added a charming accompaniment to Jack’s racket.
I could go on about that, but that’s obvious. There are a million bands that have made good music, and some are even still around today. However, it’s not just music that makes a band great; there are so many more variables required to turn a band from ‘good’ to ‘great’. Everything from back-story, to mystique, to the clothes, and is important, and there is so much more in-between.
The White Stripes filled all of these holes and more. The beauty of The Stripes is their timelessness. Their music could have fitted into any time period over the last fifty years, and their image – especially at the start, with their strictly red and white attire not succumbing to any ‘current’ fashion of the times. You can see them causing a storm on Ed Sullivan in the fifties, chilling with The Beatles in the sixties, Woodstock in the seventies, being the outsider act at Live Aid in the eighties, appearing on The Word and blowing people’s minds in the nineties…
The dynamic of the band is the same reason that people still listen to The Rolling Stones, David Bowie or The Smiths, there was a natural coolness that wasn’t forced or desperate even in the bands flamboyant latter days (although, let’s be honest, that mustache was dog shit!)
Jack White was a perfect rock star, all hair and skinniness, and his gimmick of recording and playing all of their songs on his dirt cheap airlines guitar just added to his myth. When blues icon Robert Johnson was allegedly selling his soul to the devil in return for perfect guitar playing back in the thirties, he wasn’t playing a thousand dollar pristine Martin acoustic guitar, he was bloodying his hands on anything he could find. Music, like life, can often be a struggle, and it’s how we deal with the struggles that defines us as people. Jack’s ability to make such strong sounds out of such average equipment was all part of the appeal.
As his career with The White Stripes progressed, it was interesting just how impressively he kept his mystique in the face of new media. He even managed to make succumbing to an obvious rock and roll cliché – the supermodel wife, look cool, by choosing one of the most distinctive and alternative supermodels ever seen in Karen Elson. You can see in this video, as he plays Seven Nation Army with Jimmy Page and The Edge, that he belongs in that echelon of guitarist and rock star. Can you imagine the fiddle player from Mumford, or the straggly haired nobody from The Vaccines sharing their tunes with Keith Richards and Johnny Marr? Can you fuck, because there is nothing about those guys to inspire any interest in them whatsoever.
It takes two to tangle as the saying goes, and The White Stripes mystique and story would have been nowhere near as intriguing without the ‘are they, aren’t they?’ dynamic between Jack and Meg. While the initial stories of them being brother and sister was an interesting enough proposed dynamic, the actual truth that they used to be married added a whole new realm of emotions into the mix. All of a sudden, every gaze they shared, every song they played had much more depth and meaning.
As I mentioned earlier, Meg White has never been a brilliant drummer, but as a persona, she was, and still is, an incredibly interesting person to read about and examine. It baffles me when people go on and on about people like Rihanna being ‘cool’ and ‘interesting’, because I find it impossible to believe that considering everything we know.
Yes, the media are at fault for constantly shoving her down our throats at every opportunity, but the fame game is a two-way street. Rihanna is an ‘in the moment’ icon, but if she stopped hanging out with the prick who knocked her about, and instagramming pictures of herself pretending to smoke a spliff while covering her modesty with the barest of attire, and went and made some more records as good as Umbrella and We Found Love, maybe people with some semblance of intellect would take her a bit more seriously. The quest for desire and acceptance in pop stars like Rihanna is completely desperate, and cheapens her music and her image.
Compare and contrast Madonna, and Stevie Nicks for an example of this. Madonna tried every single trick in the book to stay relevant, but attempting to be controversial can only take you so far. The majority of the current crop of singing talent should take note of Stevie Nicks instead. Concentrate on the music first, before the image, and if in doubt they should follow Stevie’s lead, and just pop into the studio with their partners and a couple of balding blokes with beards, do a load of coke and make some classic songs. Or replace the coke with Pepsi if you prefer.
I asked a singer whose opinion on coolness I wholly respect about their interpretations of what makes someone cool. Their response to me was simply “people that are free are cool to me.” And when you look at Meg White, in front of at least a hundred thousand people at Glastonbury singing a song which includes the lines “Women, listen to your mothers, don’t just succumb to the wishes of your brothers” you have to appreciate the freeness and coolness of a situation like that.
The singer I spoke to also said “People that are free are cool to me, because everyone is so in their heads, including myself. But I know maybe two people who live in the moment, and I always want to hang out with them. They are addictive because they don’t care.” I think that statement can sum up the appeal of The White Stripes, because Jack and Meg didn’t care about anything other than making brilliant music, and maintaining a brilliant image.
It takes more than words and music to make a song worthy of anybody’s time. Anyone can grab a guitar, strum some chords and bark out some words. It’s easy to do badly, and it’s easy to do it average. But to make something of worth, something that goes behind simply the recordings you hear is a skill that arguably can’t be taught, and is one you’re born with.
Somebody once praised Oasis more than I ever could, by simply stating that “Nobody stands still quite like Liam Gallagher.” In terms of The White Stripes, nobody since their heyday has come close to matching their style, their swagger, and their songs. Although I am slightly pessimistic by nature, I hope that in time that a band comes along with the full package to join the legends that have already been there and done it.
So for the time being, embrace your folky nonsense, and your moaning acoustic nerds, and even your Gangnam Style’s and your Harlem Shake’s, because it’s the best we have at the moment. As a pivotal point in Almost Famous, the band’s lead singer asks despairingly, “Is it that hard to make us look cool?” If only he knew just how difficult it was.