The White Stripes, of course, didn’t just spring from a vacuum. And you don’t just jump out of the gate playing Son House covers and nothing else. We take for granted that the White Stripes are huge fans of Bob Dylan, Loretta Lynn, Blind Willie McTell, the MC5 and the Stooges. But there’s music that falls between the cracks when thinking about influences of the Stripes. A collision of cultures that all collude to make them as musically elusive as they are accessible. After all, they certainly weren’t listening to strictly Detroit-made music as they laid out the blueprint for what would become their signature sound. They were plundering their pasts and filtering the sounds through their unique sensibility. In fact, a faction of the Stripes’ naysayers are fond of mentioning that the band isn’t doing anything that hasn’t been done before. That’s part of the point. Through homage, the Stripes find their unique synthesis.
“Jack is really great at articulating and justifying their shameless referencing of their heroes,” says Steve McDonald, one-half of the seminal L.A. power-pop group Redd Kross and creator of the White Stripes tribute project Redd Stripes. “Maybe in time he’s got to think about it enough that he’s really defined why it’s relevant to him and why it should be to other people. I think there’s a lot of relevance to looking to the past, especially things that have been discarded by the mainstream and paying homage and drawing inspiration from that.”
So here’s a warts ’n’ all mix tape into which, ideally, any old Stripes song could be plopped and it wouldn’t feel out of place.
“Outta Here” — The Gories
One of the seminal Detroit garage-blues band’s most primal moments. Big, fat, dead-simple floor toms, sparse guitar strikes, Dan Kroha’s desperate, high-pitched tale of being sick to death of the same people in the same places and longing for a place where he can really let down his hair. If that doesn’t sound like a template for some of the Stripes’ work, then you aren’t listening hard enough.
“I’m So Tired” — the Beatles (Lennon)
If you adhere to the theory that every songwriter is a John, Paul, George or Ringo, then Jack White is a classic John. And this piece of seemingly-tossed off confessional speaks to the exposed emotional nerve that White makes effortless. Slow, naked confessional jams from a rock band? Yeah, that’s the Stripes.
“Dignified and Old” — the Modern Lovers
The Modern Lovers were one of the bands identified by White early on as an inspiration. And it’s easy to see why. JoJo’s ever-more-sophisticated faux-naif persona became more and more infatuated with simplifying to its essence American music while still injecting a healthy dose of unhealthy strangeness to his lyrics. One has to wonder who would win an arm wrestling match for Jack White’s songwriting soul: Jonathan Richman, Bob Dylan or Leadbelly. My money’s on Leadbelly, but that’s just because he’s bigger and has done time.
“Vision of Love” — Mariah Carey
Hell, even the best rock ’n’ roll drummers have to start somewhere. Miss Carey’s poly-octave histrionics may not have found their way into the Stripes’ sound, but as one of the artists whose music Jack had to re-create while at Cass Tech High School at least she was a benchmark against which Jack and Meg could measure their derision for modern recording technology’s trappings.
“King of the Rambling Spires”/“20th Century Boy” — T Rex
Both for Bolan’s dandy persona as well as T Rex’s influence on White’s glammy/arena guitar progression. Its medieval tale of a king’s return touches on the Stripes’ mythologizing, theatricality and progressive rock underpinnings. The latter choon’s multi-tracked vocals, gut-punch guitar attack and loose groove anticipate a sound to which the Stripes would later strive.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” & “Another One Bites the Dust” — Queen
They don’t make rock bands any more theatrical than Queen, from Freddie Mercury’s leonine strut to Brian May’s outsized riffery. While at first people compared the Stripes to Led Zeppelin by saying White was like Plant and Page rolled into one, Queen’s core duo are more and more the appropriate touchpoint as the Stripes grow more confident. And “Seven Nation Army” co-exists nicely with “Another One Bites the Dust” as a jam readymade for sampling.
“Psycho” — The Sonics
Volume, intensity and perversity in the face of normalcy. The Seattle proto-punks made frat and garage rock obsolete by redlining it only to have it mainlined by every would-be Detroit rocker worth his salt. These guys let the Detroit garage scene know the real rock ’n’ roll score.
“Jack on Fire”/“She’s Like Heroin to Me” — Gun Club
OK, so the name of the first one makes it an obvious choice, but this bleak tale of man gone astray from his own soul is riveting. Its neighbor on the Gun Club’s Fire of Love record was a cover that White busted out when he played solo back in the day giving the original’s sinister malevolence a hiccupy urgency all his own. More importantly, the Gun Club’s records point to a punk rock-informed path for Dylan-obsessed rockers. And obviously White studied it well.
“Fly Me to the Moon” — Peggy Lee
Why not the Peggy Lee version? You gotta figure that’s the one that White would pick. Or maybe he would add his foppish theatricality to the Frank Sinatra template. Either way, the fantasist and the romanticist are both engaged by this infectious classic.
“Minnie the Moocher” — Cab Calloway
It was Cab Calloway that influenced the White Stripes’ version of “St. James Infirmary Blues” and it was Calloway who could be seen grinning from the stage before the band took the stage at some of the more recent White Stripes shows (as well as the sound track to The Music Man). It was Calloway’s old-school style, presentation, drama and classy theatricality that inspired the Stripes crew’s ’20s-style suit uniform and it’s his feline storytelling that inflects White’s vocals. Plus, Cab’s older sister was named Blanche. Go figure.
“Lazy”/”Space Truckin’” — Deep Purple
Machine Head cuts, the epic former track designed to blow your mind, the latter to knock your block off. The majesty of rock in all its pomp and circumstance, Richie Blackmore’s volume and Ian Gillan’s flash seem to dovetail nicely into the latter day Stripes output.
“You’re So Mystifyin’” — the Kinks
Perhaps the songwriter to which White tips his hat the least and tips his hand the most is Ray Davies. You could pick any of the master’s songs, really, but this one’s got good rhythm and is a smart attempt at speaking to a girl who confuses the song’s protagonist, who won’t admit that, despite his confusion, he’s trying to charm her.
“Song 1” — Fugazi
There’s little doubt that a young White, exposed to Fugazi to the extent that he actually recorded “Song 1” in his bedroom, was inspired by Ian McKaye and company’s DIY politics. And laying ears on the visceral stop/start dynamics of “Song 1” it’s no wonder. “Out of the ashtray/Into the ashtray!”
“It’s Too Darned Hot” – Cole Porter (writer)
I’d love to be with my baby tonight, but it’s too darned hot. Talk about conjuring up an image with minimal words! Cole Porter was the master and White certainly absorbed a thing or two from the show tunes that his folks sung around the house throughout his childhood.
“Cross-Eyed Girl” – Brendan Benson
Released in 1996 before White really hunkered down on crafting his conflicted modernist neo-romantic persona, Benson already had it mastered — and he had nailed the pop song craft with one hand tied behind his back, to boot.
“Mill Stream” – Flat Duo Jets
From their debut record, this proto-Stripe-ian North Carolina duo layered the raunch of rock ’n’ blues on top of this depression-era sunshine romance tale. The result was the kind of cognitive dissonance that would characterize the entire Stripes career. And the Hentchmen did a decent cover of it in 1993 too.Chris Handyside writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]