How The White Stripes Made Music Exciting Again

The new issue of NME is special tribute issue to The White Stripes, who split up last week. Here, Vice Editor Andy Capper, who worked at NME at the time, recalls how Jack and Meg changed everything

I’d just been made Live Editor of NME when the Deputy Editor John Mulvey came back from South By South West raving about The White Stripes. I remember reading his words and looking at the photos and thinking: “Well this certainly looks better than the Embrace album I’ve just had to interview the singer about.

The White Stripes, Glastonbury 2002. Photo: Andy Willsher

At the time, The Strokes were breaking but most of the stuff you had to write about at NME was crap British indie. Hangover records from Britpop and Radio 2 tracks from Travis were the front pages and the fun stuff was Liam and Noel reminiscing about their singles collection album.

The most exciting records were patchy Wu-Tang Clan solo records, Godspeed You Black Emperor (zzz), Mogwai, then underground rock like the first QOTSA album and things like The For Carnation record (a lost classic).

The White Stripes – their career in photos

But most of these bands were quite happy to plough their own furrow and while there’s nothing wrong with that, there was nothing that was going to change the world.

Officially I was the first person to ever play the first Strokes EP in the NME office and I think since then some people had felt like that they had to top that.

I remember to this day chief writer and soon to be Deputy Editor James Oldham walking up to the NME stereo, waving a CD in his hand, as he always did when he had something important to play. It was a gesture that said: “Ok children, everybody listen now. Please pay attention to this.”

And then he played ‘You’re Pretty Good Looking For A Girl’ and the first thing I said was: “He sounds like Paul McCartney”. He gave me a withering look, because it was still really un-cool to like Paul McCartney at that time.

The White Stripes live in San Francisco, 2002. Photo: Andy Willsher

As soon as the album had finished I found out that my friend Simon Keeler was distributing the record. Simon ran Cargo Records, and would send me packages upon packages of underground American rock all the time to review in the sidebars of the NME albums section. There’d be billions of stoner rock records next to stuff from Sympathy For The Record Industry and new things from Brian Jonestown Massacre.

Farewell to The White Stripes – their 10 finest moments

Keeler told us that The White Stripes had booked a few shows in London through Nirvana’s old agent Russell Lewis Warby and that we could meet them soon, and so we all got really excited.

By the time they arrived in London in July, they’d already scored themselves a Peel Session, and it was on that session that Peel famously declared them “more exciting than Hendrix.”

We’d arranged to follow them around the UK on their tour and hired the photographer Ewan Spencer to shoot them at the 100 Club, the day after the Peel Session.

The show was a typical 100 Club show, ie too packed, with a shit sound and totally over-rated. I mean, it was really great compared to most things I’d go and see, but it still didn’t have that “oof” feeling I have to get when I fall in love with something. At the risk of sounding vulgar I was also taking too many drugs for my mind to really concentrate on anything longer than ten minutes.

The White Stripes – all their albums revisited

Still, after the show I walked to the merch stall and remember being struck by the artwork of their 7’s and CDs. And so I bought all of the wares on offer and got the tube back to my flat in Hawley Road, Camden. This was when the Hawley Arms was still strictly a pub for non-celebrities, Goths and drug dealers.

The White Stripes – fans react to the split

I remember sitting there and playing the records over and over again, and devouring the lyrics and the artwork and the design and just the overall vision of this band.

I was always a punk/hardcore kid at heart who was raised on The Beatles and the blues, and so the purposefulness and clear-headed aggression of this noisey, poppy blues music really encapsulated all the things I loved.

The White Stripes – their career in NME covers

And the more I listened to those records that night and read the lyrics, the more I realised that the show I’d staggered and sleepwalked my way through was actually one of the best things I’d ever seen.

The next day I called up everybody I knew raving about how this was the best band ever. The singer had the presence of a Jeff Buckley but his band sounded more primitive than Black Sabbath but then had this weird Beatles-y twist as well.

My decade-long love affair with The White Stripes

I rang up Simon Keller again and he told me all about the scene connected to the White Stripes, which include Jack’s girlfriend’s band The Von Bondies. The next week or so, after having to beg for a two page feature about why the White Stripes and Detroit was so important, I was working on a feature about the scene and was on the phone to Marcie from the Von Bondies who told me about how she first met Jack, selling him shoes in the shop she worked at.

I also talked to Mick Collins from the Dirtbombs and the Soledad Brothers, who featured a young Ben Swank on drums, who is now Jack’s number two at Third Man Records.

The same night I met Jack at the Fortress rehearsal rooms/venue where the Chloe Sevigny-endorsed New York art band A.R.E Weapons were playing. Jack reinforced what Keeler told me about the Von Bondies, saying that they were the best band in Detroit — this was long before he kicked the shit out of the singer, who was always a bit of a dick IMO.

White Stripes split: read Jack and Meg’s statement

And so while preparing the article, we got to see The White Stripes again at Camden Dingwalls. I remember walking around the corner from my flat through a garage and my flatmate of the time, the well known British rock and roll figure Ray McCarville, said: “Capper, there’s ya man Jack White”.

I looked up and there was this hulk of a man walking towards us with red pants on and a white shirt and the bracelet that looked like it’d come off an abandoned car factory in Detroit.

“Hey Jack” I said, expecting him to bound over with some platitude or other. “Hey” he nodded, and strided away purposefully with a look in his eye like he was staring at something half a mile away.

At the show later that night, I found a space on my own somewhere near downstage left of the group and leaned against the wall drinking, totally blown away by the power and beauty of the performance. I remember thinking “it’s getting really difficult to not slide down this wall here” which was soaking wet from sweat and steam.

I went home and played all the records I’d bought at the 100 Club over and over again with Ray while yelling to him all night about how The White Stripes were the best band to exist and made The Strokes seem like Suede.

More on The White Stripes

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