To coincide with Clash’s exclusive cover story with Jack White, we’re casting our Spotlight back exactly 15 years ago this week, to when The White Stripes released what many consider their masterpiece: ‘Elephant’. Join us as we revisit its greatness...
“No computers were used during the writing, recording, mixing, or mastering of this record.”
Released in 2003, the liner notes of The White Stripes’ fourth album 'Elephant' declared the band’s rebellion against the tech revolution that had been gathering momentum since the turn of the millennium. Released on April 1st of that year, this was no April Fool. The band had chosen to record the album at Toe Rag Studios, with an analogue set-up and all tracks recorded to magnetic tape. Less than four weeks later, Steve Jobs would launch iTunes and the music industry would change forever. Despite its retro-purist sound, ‘Elephant’ was soon available to download online.
Despite seemingly rebelling against the digital era, The White Stripes weren’t averse to trying new things. 'Elephant' saw them boldly go where they had never gone before: 'Seven Nation Army' had a bassline! [NB We know it wasn't actually played on a bass, fact fans.] It was and still is an anthemic earworm thanks to Match Of The Day and the PA systems of football stadiums nationwide. However, in 2003 the opening chords of this track would act as a huge magnet for indie kids; drawing them in a surge to sticky dancefloors, to toss their heavy fringes from side to side whilst rolled-up cigarettes dangled precariously from their lips.
Despite the fact that both band members were in their mid-20s when it was released, ‘Elephant’ had an adolescent air about it. This was their coming of age LP. From 'Black Math’’s rip-roaring chords to the hypnotic thump of 'The Hardest Button To Button', both alluded to themes of school, childhood and a desire to fit in. Jack White had cited more specifically that the album was about “the death of the sweetheart”, provoking us to question what words like “sweetheart” meant any more. He felt that we were in an age of angst for angst’s sake as he questioned what people were even rebelling against.
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'Elephant' was certainly the point at which The Whites Stripes matured as a band. Meg began to refine own her simplistic drumming style and play with a confidence never before seen in her years as an artist. 'In The Cold, Cold Night' was lyrically seductive, but sung in a childlike way. 'I Want To Be The Boy…' and 'You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket' were a huge departure from the the rawness of Jack’s earlier vocals: he was soft and vulnerable.
The release of the album was hailed as one of the defining moments in the garage rock revival, while the Detroit blues influence lurked throughout the album in songs like 'Ball And Biscuit'. At the same time, Jack White’s cover of Burt Bacharach’s 'I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself' kept the album firmly in the mainstream. The success of ‘Elephant’ was tangible: it topped the UK album chart, received a nomination for Album Of The Year and won Best Alternative Music Album at the 2004 Grammy Awards.
'Elephant' defined a moment in time for the music industry and The White Stripes: the shift from analogue recording to digital distribution, the move towards a fuller sound, the ability to embrace change. It accompanied many of The White Stripes’ young fans on the journey into adulthood. For that reason it is timeless. It will forever resonate with its now ageing audience, and some day their children too.
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Words: Becci Ride
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