From the opening screech of feedback on ‘Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground’, White Blood Cells grabs your attention and just doesn’t let go. Blurring genres, defying convention, and flying in the face of music critics the world over, this album rode a storm following its release and has gone on to become recognised as a rugged blues-rock masterpiece, and arguably the high-point of the White Stripes career.
It was an album that shocked the world of music on its release. There had never been a sound quite like it before. It tore up every rule book. Mainstream critics argued that no credible rock band could survive without a bass guitar. Others saw the duo as pretentious and childish, and slated the overly simplistic drumming style of Meg White (“is she or isn’t she his big sister/wife/ex?”), Jack’s sole bandmate.
They never did convention, though. Jack – the guitarist, vocalist and songwriter of the band – enjoyed starting gigs with his guitars left out of tune to “make it more of a struggle” and to pressure himself into uncovering greater depths of creativity. Throughout their breathless career, they also maintained their self-enforced rule that only red, white and black clothes and props be used on stage and in the composition of each album cover.
As a band who fiercely guarded their privacy and struggled in the uncomfortable territory of their growing fame, White Blood Cells was the first time the band publicly responded to the hype surrounding them. Jack admitted in an interview soon after its release in July 2001 that the album title was based around “this idea of bacteria coming at us…foreign things coming at us, or media, or attention on the band”. The iconic album artwork echoes this sense of unease with the pair being forced against a wall by a gang of encroaching black silhouettes, only for the reverse of the sleeve to reveal the silhouettes to be adoring media desperate to take their photograph.
From the frenetic, punchy punk rock of ‘Fell in Love with a Girl’ to the jaunty country-tinged ‘Hotel Yorba’ right through to the sinister instrumental ‘Aluminum’ – punctuated only by a series of agonising screams – this is a record with so many diverse components, it shouldn’t ever have worked as one cohesive album. That it not only works, but flows from start to finish in such spectacular fashion is a massive compliment to the bravery and vision of the band.
There are so many album highlights. ‘Fell in Love with a Girl’ is without doubt one of the most significant rock songs of the past 20 years. The release of that single, along with its superb Lego-themed video and the consistent championing of Radio 1’s John Peel, catapulted the band into the British mainstream like never before. ‘Dead Leaves…’ went on to become a regular gig-opener with Jack’s pulsating guitar riff and Meg’s cymbal-thrashing. ‘The Union Forever’ is haunting and fearless, with lyrics lifted entirely from Jack’s favourite movie, ‘Citizen Kane’. And very few songs have ever been written that capture the naive, simple joys of childhood and growing up quite as delightfully as ‘We’re Going to be Friends’.
White Blood Cells wasn’t the first thing the band had created. Their first two albums were also sensationally raw and vibrant, but it was only through their explosion onto the global scene with this third record that people sat up, took notice, and started to delve into their back catalogue. The White Stripes didn’t give the world anything new with their musical style – they never tried to – but by taking contemporary rock back to its primal, bluesy roots, they had more of an influence than many people might have realised at the time. As the hysteria around them continued to swell, other ‘garage-rock’ bands came to prominence such as The Libertines, The Hives and The Strokes.
Greater success would follow soon after, with the release of Elephant, featuring mega-hits like ‘Seven Nation Army’ and ‘The Hardest Button to Button’. Two additional albums further cemented their iconic status in the music history books, before the shock announcement came on February 2nd 2011 that the duo were officially calling it a day – in their words, “to preserve what is beautiful and special about the band and have it stay that way”. And nothing captured this “beauty” better than White Blood Cells, which remains a pivotal record of its time. As Jack White himself put it, “Even if the goal of achieving beauty from simplicity is aesthetically less exciting it may force the mind to acknowledge the simple components that make the complicated beautiful.”
White Blood Cells was released on July 3rd 2001 via XL Records.