White Blood Cells shows that the death-of-rock meme never dies
At the outset of the aughts, the conventional wisdom goes, rock and roll was hooked to its death-drip demise. Nu-metal bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit dominated the modern rock airwaves, grunge’s illegitimate offspring Creed was moving millions of records, and boy-band *NSync had landed the fastest-selling album of all time with No Strings Attached. On the artier end of the spectrum, Radiohead’s Kid A saw the one-time supposed saviors of rock abandoning the genre, and Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP was being heralded as hip hop’s arrival-of-Elvis moment.
But just when rock’s backbeat seemed to be heading for the archives, something changed. New York's the Strokes started catching hype for their avant-punk pastiche on their debut EP Modern Age. Perhaps more significantly, Detroit garage-rock duo the White Stripes—composed of Jack and Meg White—started receiving similar enthusiasm for the self-conscious grittiness of their third studio album, White Blood Cells.
It’s a period worth looking back on now, and not just because Sunday marked the tenth anniversary of White Blood Cells’ release. The death and revival of rock is an old trope—a trope that itself is undergoing a revival this very moment.
Though well-received by critics, White Blood Cells initially sputtered commercially in the U.S. It was English tastemakers who, by the end of summer of 2001, had formed the narrative of the “garage rock revival,” or “neo-garage,” or the “New Rock Revolution.” The praise for the White Stripes was lofty: The late, great BBC Radio One DJ John Peel called them “the most exciting band since punk or Jimi Hendrix.”
In 2002, after the White Stripes signed a deal with the imprint V2 and White Blood Cells was subsequently re-released, their frenetic lust paean “Fell in Love With a Girl” became an unlikely hit, in part due to the track’s Lego-powered video, directed by Michel Gondry. By then, the U.S. music press began to swoon as well, with Spin and Rolling Stone both calling them the “saviors of rock and roll.”
At the time, though, Jack and Meg were viewed in the press as a novelty, in part due to the gimmick of claiming to be siblings (they’re actually a divorced couple), their red-white-and-black color scheme, their lack of bass guitar, and their professed adherence to the aesthetic philosophy neoplasticism. But the band's shtick didn't develop in a vacuum. Indeed, according to Ben Blackwell, the band’s “official archivist” and Jack’s nephew, the Stripes’ singer had unveiled versions of the songs “Hotel Yorba,” “The Union Forever” and “Now Mary” in 1998 with another one of his then-groups, Two-Star Tabernacle, Blackwell said. Renditions of the White Blood Cells tracks “I Can't Wait” and “Offend in Every Way” debuted in 1999 with another one of his short-lived outfits, Jack White and the Bricks, and “This Protector” and “I Can Learn” were played by the White Stripes at their initial shows in 1997.
“To me, White Blood Cells was Jack finally wrangling in all of these loose, forgotten songs he had laying around from the previous couple of years,” Blackwell said in an interview. “Coupled with the bombastic tunes that make their debut around this time [‘Fell in Love With a Girl,’ ‘I'm Finding it Harder to Be a Gentleman’] and what you've got it what is essentially a perfect White Stripes record.”
Compared with 1999’s The White Stripes and 2000’s De Stijl, White Blood Cells represented a change. On their first two LPs, Jack and Meg played homage to their Chicago and Mississippi Delta blues idols, along with their Detroit heroes the Gories and the Stooges. But with White Blood Cells, these influences, while still present, settled to the background. “Far too often, it seems forgotten that White Blood Cells features no blues music, no guitar solos, no guest musicians and no cover songs,” Blackwell said. “This is the White Stripes album that doesn't fit in with the others, and is quite possibly so successful because of it.”