The White Stripes: Detroit’s Rock Heroes Remembered

THERE WAS AN outpouring of grief this week when the White Stripes announced they were to split. Stevie Chick explains their magic while photographer Ewen Spencer talks about working with them

Whether you're a fan or not, the massive outpouring of grief this week in response to the news that minimalist rock band the White Stripes were to split up might seem puzzling. In their exit statement on Thursday, the Detroit duo said they hoped the news would not be "met with sorrow by [our] fans", emphasising that the split was not due to health issues or artistic differences. Prolific singer/guitarist/songwriter Jack White will continue to write, perform and record with his other groups the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather, and is indeed likely putting the finishing touches to another such project as you read this. And if rock history has taught us anything, it's that bands only stay split up until the first date of the lucrative reunion tour.

Yesterday, however, fans registered their dismay in countless threads on the internet, while others went shopping — according to Amazon, the White Stripes' 2010 live album and documentary Under Great White Northern Lights have seen an increase in sales of 2,644% on the site. And I understand why, because Jack and Meg White's decision to call time on the Stripes' 13-year career formally marks the end of one of the most memorable groups in recent memory.

I first saw the White Stripes almost a decade ago, at the Texas music industry showcase South By South-West in March 2001, playing an afternoon barbecue party in a parking lot across from a tattoo parlour. Their songs were great — wild and alive with subtle weirdness and ageless riffs — and they played a cover of Dolly Parton's 'Jolene' that was anything but ironic, delivering its tale of heartbreak with a captivating sincerity. I couldn't take my eyes off them, the atmosphere between Jack and Meg was electric, as he hollered into a microphone next to her drum kit, holding eye contact with her at all times. They arrived at a moment when rock'n'roll was experiencing one of its periodic lulls in inspiration; there seemed to be no real icons, no personalities, no larger-than-life heroes left. But the White Stripes filled this void with incomparable style.

Jack White, an inveterate record collector, understood the pleasures of being a fan better than most other musicians. With the White Stripes, he and Meg created a band alive with the myth, ambiguity and idiosyncrasy that legends are hewn from and fans adore. The first time I interviewed him, back in spring 2001, Jack told me, "Success won't change us, or the way we do things." It was this very idiosyncratic way of doing things that helped win them their success, made them a band people believe in, and a phenomenon they identify with.

Later that summer, their first UK tour became the unlikely subject of mainstream press attention: front-page stories in the music press, copious coverage in both the tabloids and the broadsheets, even a feature on Radio 4's Today programme that quoted their earliest champion, DJ John Peel, declaring Jack "the most exciting guitarist since Hendrix". In their red, white and black livery, they were instantly iconic: you could dress up as the White Stripes for Halloween, and they were recognisable even when rendered in Lego, as Michel Gondry did for the video to their breakthrough single, 'Fell In Love With a Girl'.

The duo made for great copy, especially after evidence surfaced of their 1996 marriage and subsequent divorce in 2000, putting the lie to the brother/sister myth they'd propagated since their first record. At the dawn of the internet age, Jack was a man from another era: he bemoaned bad manners and the death of the gentleman, and bad-mouthed modern technology, especially the motor car. He might have seemed curmudgeonly, if not for the verve with which he declared his passions: the Delta bluesmen he covered, such as Son House and Blind Willie McTell, and his forlorn hometown's rich garage-rock heritage. Meg said little in interviews; all you needed to know about her you could glean from watching her perform, the glee with which she pounded skins and cymbals, the way she drained the bottle of whiskey next to her kit over the course of a show. She was the heart of this group, the engine, the inimitable groove.

Success only amplified all the qualities that made the White Stripes unique, bank-rolling their grander ambitions, and they continued to do things not as rock musicians typically did them, but the way Jack and Meg wanted them done. Despite their then-newfound success, 2003'sElephant album wasn't recorded in some lush modern studio, but in a pokey garage in Hackney, while their 2004 concert movie, Under Blackpool Lights, was filmed on retro Super 8mm film. Even the merchandise they sold at their gigs was unusual, and of a piece with their aesthetic: there were White Stripes-branded Holga cameras, and hand-made phonographs (called Triple Inchophones) designed to play special 3" White Stripes vinyl records.

In the summer of 2005, I travelled across Brazil with them on their first South American tour, which they booked after a Peruvian fan named Claudia wrote to the Stripes' record label, begging them to finally perform below the border. Before the week was out, Jack had stroked the belly of a baby crocodile while travelling up the Amazon river, unwittingly started a small riot at an opera house deep in the jungle, and married Oldham-born supermodel Karen Elson three weeks after first meeting her. Resembling a Mexican mariachi as imagined by Tim Burton, he sat backstage at the opera house, pondering the possible mortality of the White Stripes.

"Sometimes, things are only supposed to exist within a certain space in time, and they don't make sense outside of that," he mused. "It's hard to know when to stop. Your friends are too polite to tell you, maybe you should stop and do something else. You have to be really self-aware to know that what you're doing isn't relevant any more."

"I think we'll know when to stop," laughed Meg, and maybe they did. Maybe the White Stripes' final flourish of genius lies in quitting before they made a bad record, before they sold out or bought in, and while their fans still love them enough to be heart-broken by their exit.


Ewen Spencer, photographer: "Jack's a pain to photograph"

I was a huge fan of The Go, a Detroit garage band Jack used to play guitar with, and so I got the first couple of White Stripes albums. Then someone put White Blood Cells [their breakthrough third album] on a tape for me, and I just listened to that all the time; it was magic, the way it drew on the past, but gave us something new. I emailed a few editors I knew and said I wanted to shoot this band; Alex Needham, then at NME, sent me out to Bristol, and I began photographing shows from their first UK tour onwards.

The theatrical nature of the group, and how they dressed, was absolutely integral to their appeal. That had been lost in rock'n'roll; things had gotten dowdy post-Oasis, a bit soccer hooligany, but the White Stripes were theatrical in their performance, like a great 60s garage-rock band. And they were a bit cryptic: you weren't sure who they were, what exactly their relationship with each other was. That mystery, that ambiguity, is so important to rock'n'roll.

People always love "behind the scenes" rock photography; with Annie Leibovitz's classic photos of the Stones, the ones of Mick on stage are fine, but the ones of Keef asleep in a hotel corridor, they're what you really want to see. Whenever the Stripes weren't wearing their red-and-white clothes, Jack would say, "The pictures have to stop now." And I totally respected that; it was like, the charade is over, the curtain has been closed. But pictures I got of Jack and Meg backstage, just hanging out, it was like they were completely unaware I was there. I'd been with them for so long, it was like I was invisible.

They trusted me to do something worthwhile with the photographs. They approached me to shoot the sleeve for [their 2005 album] Get Behind Me Satan. Jack called me before I flew out to his house in Detroit; I thought he'd want to discuss the concepts for the sleeve, but he just wanted to chat about the more technical, scientific side of photography, strange old cameras with multiple lenses and weird mechanics. Anything quirky and retro, he loves it. He became art director for the four or five days we worked on it, and was excellent, because he's genuinely a very creative person, he had a vision. He gave me a lot of room, but he'd debate with me if we disagreed on something. It was a real collaboration.

Jack's a pain to photograph, though. He can't stand still, he wouldn't give you more than five minutes before he'd bugger off, and I'd have to track him down. He'd be at the piano, improving a middle eight or something. It was lovely to see and be a part of. I think I started smoking again because of Meg; we smoked together, just to kill the time while Jack was off indulging his creativity. She seemed wise beyond her years, a drummer with a lot of soul and a massive knowledge about music.

I went out on tour with the group in Brazil in the summer of 2005; they played an opera house in the Amazon jungle in Manaus, and the gig was incredible. Their tour manager, John Baker, had called me first thing that day and said Jack was going to get married to his girlfriend Karen [Elson] that morning, and that he wanted me to photograph the wedding. I'd never wanted to be a wedding photographer, but I jumped in the shower, and off we went, up the river and into the jungle. They were married on a boat, where the Ponta Negra and the Solimones merge into the Amazon river. It was wonderful, a really beautiful day.

A year later, they were playing Alexandra Palace, and I went and took Jack a bound copy of all the photos from the wedding that I'd made for him. I walked backstage, and he was sat in what looked like a throne, talking to Alice Cooper. I thought, things have moved on; he's become an epic rock star, an icon, in that way.

How do I feel now they've split? Satisfied. Jack was obviously distracted, involved in his other projects. That's the nature of Jack, he's restless, always off working on another idea, putting it down on tape or on paper. He doesn't hang around, and I don't see why he would dwell on the White Stripes any longer.

He'd done what he wanted to do with them, and now we can look back at a decade of the White Stripes. No one's died, they've just finished, and it was a great career that they had.

© Stevie Chick, 2011

The White Stripes: Detroit’s Rock Heroes Remembered The White Stripes: Detroit’s Rock Heroes Remembered

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