Once described as the Willy Wonka of rock and roll, Jack White is the quintessential bluesman of our times. His commitment to the genre, its historical preservation as well as its continued development, is staggering and commendable on basically every level. Which is why its so interesting to delve into his back catalogue, bootleg and B-Side collection. There are unexpected covers, unusual originals, and unsung live recordings. Let's dive in.
Before he teamed up with his big sister Meg, Jack White worked in an upholstery business with Brian Muldoon. Muldoon not only taught him how to fix furnishing, he was also one of his mentors in music. Together they formed a band called The Upholsterers and released one single, titled Makers of High Grade Suites. Legend has it that they hid copies of it in the couches they upholstered. To date only two have been discovered. On that record was the song Apple of My Eye, a prototypical White Stripes song. Simple, loud, punk-blues chords, caveman drums, and White's trademark raucous vocals. Also listen up for the sounds of a worm-gear saw.
White is an avowed fan of Captain Beefheart, the avant-garde 60s rock and roller. To that end, it's not surprising that he released a series of covers of Beefheart's songs in the 2000s. Interestingly, the best of the covers is of a song off a Beefheart album considered to be his weakest. Off Bluejeans and Moonbeams, the album is considered to be Beefheart's sellout. However, Party of Special Things to Do is a psychedelic marvel, and covered here by The White Stripes, its surreal imagery takes on an apocalyptic bent.
This live recording shows the White Stripes in distilled form. A three chord song, simple drums, a shrieking solo, and rock and roll lyrics so simple they may as well be moonshine. In the hands of a lesser band, this would be a dull song… in the hands of the White Stripes, it is electrifying.
Most notable for the circumstances under which it was created. Written and recorded in less than an hour by White as part of the movie It Might Get Loud. He records it in a cabin, using his oldest guitar, an amp, a microphone, and a tape recorder. The track is haunting in its simplicity, and speaks to White's obsession with fuzzy, rickety tone, and indefinably eerie lyrics. Listen and hear Jack White prove a point about how modern music is overproduced.
In 2001, Jack White put together an album called Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit, featuring a compilation of Detroit's best punk rockers. Naturally, one of his tracks went on there, this White Stripes b-side that speaks to the bands eccentricity. The song plays with volume dynamics, flirts with being nonsense, and ends up sounding like racing sports cars. A fan favorite, but not widely known, also featured on The Green Hornet soundtrack, which was directed by long time White Stripes friend and collaborator Michel Gondry.
Fun fact, Red Death at 6:14 was the B-Side when Hand Springs was released as a single. Hand Springs is another eccentric Stripes number, though for different reasons. A loud, simple, repeated power chord riff forms the song's chorus, then over a muted E chord, Jack tells a story about jealousy in a 1950s bowling alley. It speaks to The White Stripes identity as a band out of time, and their obsession with childhood, and teenage-hood lost.
Another eccentric cover, only seen played live. This recording is from the Blackpool Lights show, when the band was touring Elephant. Here Jack performs a partial cover of Screaming Lord Sutch's greatest hit, Jack The Ripper. He plays the riff from the Peter Gunn TV theme over the songs basic blues progression, and shrieks lyrics that vaguely resemble the original. Then he caps it off with a whammy solo. A spectacular example of The White Stripes' ability to mash up songs on the fly, and give a wholly unique performance, the likes of which are rarely seen in the mainstream sphere these days.
As great as The White Stripes are when they turn it up to eleven, when they strip the sound down, they know how to kick you right in the feels. This sentimental song is terrifyingly funny and sad, and speaks some of the often ignored truths of being poor, whilst fighting for a success that seems impossible and yet certain. Played on an old piano, and an even older slide guitar, with the requisite Meg White stomping beat in the background, this is song is just beautiful. Released as a B-Side on the single version of Conquest, it is arguably one of the Stripes' best humanist tracks. Notable also because it is the only song they recorded which an outside producer worked on. Namely Beck, who also plays the slide guitar in the song.
And this only scratches the surface. The further you dig into Jack White back catalogue, the more you find. A highly recommended activity for the music fan in your life. Lucky for us, he shows no signs of stopping his work any time soon, so there will lots more to dig through in years to come.
Thomas Burns Scully is a PopDust contributor, and also an award-winning actor, playwright, and musician. In his spare time he writes and designs escape rooms. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter
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