Jack White – 10 of the best

He gained fame with the blues and garage-rock group the White Stripes and has since worked with everyone from Loretta Lynn to Beyoncé. Here’s a tour of White’s eclectic catalogue

1. The Big Three Killed My Baby

After playing in local Detroit bands while working as an upholsterer, Jack White formed the White Stripes in 1997 with his then wife, Meg. They presented themselves to the public as brother and sister and released their self-titled debut album in 1999. Album highlight The Big Three Killed My Baby is an early sign of what would become the band’s trademark sound: garage rock riffs, Meg’s simple but effective drums and Jack’s howling blues vocals. More political in tone than most of their material, this song has White rallying against the “big three” – 1950s motoring giants Chrysler, Ford and General Motors – when he finds himself penniless after paying to have his car fixed. Simplistic in its nature, the song introduced listeners to the duo’s take on garage rock and was an early nod to White’s interest in numerology.

2. I’m Bound to Pack It Up

By 2000, the White Stripes were part of Detroit’s booming garage-rock scene alongside bands including the Von Bondies and the Dirtbombs. Solidifying their position as Motor City’s most promising act, Jack and Meg released their second album, De Stijl; a reference to the early 19th-century Dutch art movement that stripped its subjects down to key elements and colours. On De Stijl, the White Stripes grew their raw sound, adding country twang on I’m Bound to Pack It Up and hinting that White was more than a mere MC5 revivalist. It’s a melodic but bittersweet kiss-off to a lover he has abandoned after deciding she no longer cares for him. “I’m sorry to leave you all alone, you’re sitting silent by the phone,” White sings over strummed chords and evocative strings, “but we’d always known there would come a day.”

3. Fell in Love With a Girl

Fell in Love With a Girl was the point at which the White Stripes went from local notoriety to global stardom. Taken from their 2001 album White Blood Cells, it had a Lego-style video directed by Michel Gondry and a parody by Weird Al Yankovic. The song arrived during a boom in garage rock when bands like the Strokes, the Datsuns, the Hives and the Vines were gatecrashing the charts and climbing festival bills. NME dubbed the movement “the new rock revolution” and Fell in Love With a Girl was arguably its calling card. Simple songwriting with big hooks that sounded fantastic on sticky indie-disco dancefloors; a new generation of music fans had their anthem.

4. Hotel Yorba

Another White Blood Cells highlight, Hotel Yorba catches White “thinking of a place down by the lake”, where he and his lover can be alone to stomp their feet on the wooden boards and never worry about locking the door. White’s habit of romanticising eras he is too young to have experienced is easy to mock, but when it’s running alongside lovable country-pop tunes like this one it’s no surprise the music world fell for the duo in 2002.

5. I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself

Elephant, the White Stripes’ first album as a big band, arrived in 2003 and was introduced with their lead single, Seven Nation Army. That song’s second life as a chant heard at sporting events around the world perhaps gives an undue weight to its greatness. Much better was this cover of Dusty Springfield’s I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself. An underrated skill of White’s is to imbue songs with melodrama (also listen to the band’s stirring live rendition of Jolene by Dolly Parton). He nails a high-pitched shriek, making tangible the hurt in a line as simple as “planning everything for two / doing everything with you”. You won’t hear it at a World Cup final anytime soon – but maybe that’s a good thing.

6. In the Cold, Cold Night

Meg White got a raw deal during her White Stripes days. She learned the drums to join a band with her husband and then had her rudimentary skills derided by fans and critics alike. All along, her one-time husband told people she was his sister. Let’s hear it for Meg then on the Elephant cut In the Cold, Cold Night, where she lends a delicate and airy vocal. The innocence of Meg’s voice disguises a subtly sexual song about a more mature lover who makes her feel “like a full-grown woman might”. She has all but vanished from the music scene since the duo officially retired in 2011, but an album of songs like this one would always be welcome.

7. Steady As She Goes

Having released five albums in six years, Jack White was a prolific writer. The Raconteurs, a side project featuring Brendan Benson, allowed the tireless White to flirt with prog and country for the first time. More indulgent and maximal than the White Stripes’ fiercely analogue leanings, the Raconteurs signalled the eventual end of the band. Steady As She Goes was the Raconteurs’ introduction to the world, and remains their strongest statement. Opening with a plodding bassline courtesy of Jack Lawrence, White’s sinewy guitar riff soon gives way to a huge singalong chorus. This was the song long-time friends White and Benson wrote together on a whim and immediately started the band, so impressed were they by their creation.

8. I Cut Like a Buffalo

The Dead Weather were darker, dirtier and keener to get to the point than the Raconteurs. Listed as the band’s drummer, White took a backseat for the garage band with the Kills’ Alison Mosshart on vocals. A domineering presence like White can only back off slightly before getting itchy feet, however, and his presence (and voice) was felt all over the band’s 2009 debut Horehound. “You cut a record on my throat,” White, a vinyl lover, sings here, “but the record’s not broken.” Like all of his best songs, I Cut Like a Buffalo delves into the past for inspiration, this time adding elements of funk and goth and coming up with something that feels equal to what came before.

9. I’m Shakin’

For such a domineering and charismatic star, it was inevitable that at some point White would ditch the monikers and release music under his own name. I’m Shakin’ is a highlight from his warmly received debut solo album, Blunderbuss (2012). Lyrically, it picks up on an old theme of White’s writing, painting an old-timey take on romance. “When you touch my hand and talk sweet talk, I got a knockin’ in my knees,” he sings, like a sailor from the 1920s writing love letters home to his sweetheart. Lyrical tropes aside, I’m Shakin’ showed White’s ability to develop his sound, blending in elements of funk and gospel to his blues-pop style.

10. Don’t Hurt Yourself

White’s collaborations with female artists led to some of his best work, from the early days with Meg White to his production for Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson (let’s not mention his 2008 Bond theme Another Way to Die, featuring Alicia Keys). When Beyoncé released the album Lemonade in 2016, it wasn’t a huge shock to see White credited as a guest artist – like Beyoncé, he is an investor in the music-streaming service Tidal, but it was perhaps unnerving for members of the Beyhive that it proved to be a highlight on the album. With a sample of Led Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks running through it, this primal empowerment anthem centres around Beyoncé angrily asking, “Who the fuck do you think I am?” and threatening to leave her cheating man. White provides the chorus, ramping up the drama as he instructs: “When you hurt me, you hurt yourself.” Beyoncé’s husband Jay Z probably isn’t a fan of the song, but it is the most relevant Jack White has sounded in years.


David Renshaw

The GuardianTramp

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