I still remember when I first heard the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl” on the radio in the spring of 2002. I was sitting alone in the car for some reason, and the song pulverized the car speakers for its all-too-brief one-minute-and-fifty-second length. I remember just sitting there, absolutely transfixed by it, and when it was over the DJ came on and said, “I just want to say that song kicks ASS!” And I just nodded and said, “Yep.” The Strokes, their album Is This It, and especially their hit single “Last Nite” brought back garage rock in a big way in the fall of 2001, and when stations looked for something similar, the Detroit-based White Stripes were one of the first candidates. The White Stripes were a bass-less duo comprised of Jack (guitar/vocals) and Meg (drums/occasional vocals) White, who used to be married to each other. (Jack actually took Meg’s name, interestingly enough.)
They branded themselves as brother and sister though, and recorded three lo-fi albums in quick succession, The White Stripes (1999), De Stijl (2000) and White Blood Cells (2001). “Fell in Love with a Girl” was from White Blood Cells, which I bought and remember not liking a whole lot. Back then, I had never heard something that wasn’t a big-budget, major-label production, so when I first listened to White Blood Cells, I immediately thought, “Well, this sort of sounds like shit.” As the White Stripes’ career progressed, they were eventually snatched up by Warner Bros. Records prior to the release of their final studio album, Icky Thump, in 2007. Long before that, however, while still signed to independent V2 Records, the duo reconvened to release Elephant in April of 2003. Always preferring to work quickly, 13 of Elephant‘s 14 tracks were recorded in just two weeks in April of 2002. (“I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” was recorded the previous November.)
The album wouldn’t be released until a year later, but the lead single “Seven Nation Army” shook the world with thunderous force. It has the most recognizable guitar riff of the past twenty or thirty years, and can still be heard at just about every sporting event all around the world. The riff is that universal. Elephant was hailed as an instant classic upon its release in the spring of 2003. They had expanded their sonic palette beyond the simple garage rock of White Blood Cells, incorporating more piano and acoustic guitar to create a more full-bodied sound that fit more comfortably on alternative rock radio. Elephant is easily one of the best albums of the ’00s, a definitive record that set the bar too high for the other garage rock acts to possibly reach.
Garage rock was really only in the mainstream for just a couple of years, but we saw bands like the Hives, the Vines, Jet, and the Strokes all come and go quite quickly. For one thing, none of those bands lasted in the public consciousness for more than one album. The Strokes, for instance, have spent their entire careers living in the shadow of Is This It. But the White Stripes kept on trucking until quite recently, when they finally decided to call it quits after going on hiatus following the tour for Icky Thump. Jack White has been one of the major artistic forces of the past decade, participating in a number of side projects. He co-founded a band called the Raconteurs, who released a couple of albums in the second half of the ’00s, and contributed some bluegrass tracks to the Cold Mountain movie soundtrack as a solo artist. (White also acted in the film.) He’s also launched a full-fledged solo career with the 2012 release of his excellent album Blunderbuss, which was well-received.