Spend enough time pouring over old interviews, and one might conclude that the implosion of the White Stripes still hurts mightily for the legend born John Anthony Gillis.
The singer-songwriter’s career has admirably been built on carefully controlling, well, everything—from the Stripes’ entire aesthetic to his Third Man Records headquarters in Nashville.
Don’t just stop at image, sound, colour schemes, and the importance of making sure there's lime juice on top of the guacamole—back in the day, even the White Stripes’ roadies were expected to dress like they’d just stepped out of a 1930s speakeasy. It was goddamn fantastic in the most retro-magical of ways.
The one thing that Jack White wasn’t able to manage?
Meg White and her tortured relationship with fame.
By the middle of the ’00s the White Stripes were one of the most famous bands on the planet. And the notoriously introverted drummer seemingly began to realize it’s hard to hide from the spotlight in a two-person project.
By the end of 2007—after the release of Icky Thump—the White Stripes were cancelling shows as Meg battled with acute anxiety issues. Four years later the band was officially done without ever having recorded another album.
The upside to that is the group went out like champions, never making a bad album, and leaving behind a collection of songs that are now cultural touchstones. And just as importantly, they were a devastating team to the end, with Meg’s thunderthump work every bit as important as everything Jack brought to the distortion-deluged party. Before you try denying that, listen again, closely, to "Seven Nation Army". And then admit you're wrong.
That Meg has disappeared from every radar—pop culture or otherwise—since walking away from the band speaks volumes about how much she doesn't miss the White Stripes. And that’s what makes just-released footage of an unearthed studio performance by the much-missed group so fascinating.
Part of a series called From the Basement, the session has been released to help promote the new compilation The White Stripes Greatest Hits.
From the Basement was shot live in 2005 at London’s Maida Vale Studios. In charge of the recording was the series creator Nigel Godrich, known for his production work with Radiohead and Beck. Behind the camera was director Sophie Muller, whose resume includes videos for, in no particular order, The Kills, Gwen Stefani, the Dead Weather, and the Raconteurs.
A number of things standout.
The Stripes were widely credited with sparking the great rawk revival of 2001, and indeed they totally kick out the jams with tracks like “Blue Orchid”. On that opening number Meg White doesn’t play the drums as much as beat the living shit out of them.
But driven home is that the White Stripes were always just as potent when taking things down to a deep-country-at-the-Crossroads crawl, as evidenced by the bongos being hauled out for “As Ugly As I Seem”. That’s right, bongos—which, incredibly, end up seeming authentic and necessary rather than cartoonish.
Because of all that he’s done as a solo artist and a member of the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather, history frames Jack White as the runaway star of the Stripes. But right from the moment that Meg walks into view—Jack greeting her with “Lady in red is dancing”—the two come across as a team. A team committed to wading into battle together, aware of the importance of being totally locked in, and grateful each has the other’s back.
The other revelation? At some point, before it all got too much, Meg looked like someone who was having fun.
Watch her during “Blue Orchid” where she’s every bit the showman as the guy in the black hat with the pencil moustache. Watching her sing along even though she doesn’t have to is fantastic, but the first gold-star shot comes at the 1:40 mark, when she practically oozes straight-from-'50s-reform-school attitude.
The White Stripes' session was part of the From the Basement pilot episode. Godrich knew instinctively that he’d captured something special with their mini-set, parts of which first aired in 2007.
“The dream of From the Basement is to capture great performances with the most direct and beautiful coverage possible, both sonically and visually,” he notes today. “We were so fortunate early on to have the support of Jack and Meg who instinctively understood the concept of the show and so came to be part of it. As a result we have this amazing snapshot of their fantastic energy and style. It’s an intimate and direct performance, something magic, powerful and special. A day I will not forget.”
He’s not the only one.
Now that the entire From the Basement session has been released, Jack White remembers things as follows:
“It was beautifully filmed and the sound quality makes a performance on a regular TV show sound like a wax cylinder recording. No host. Thank God.”
If the implosion of the White Stripes still hurts, it’s because Jack White knows, more than anyone, how beautifully he managed to catch white lightning in a bottle. Watch and be wowed.