Few rock musicians over the past 15 years have managed to sell millions of records, gain sustained approval from indie-doms’ critical academy, and maintain a relatively unwavering artistic vision with more regularity and confidence than Jack White. As a member (and for all intents and purposes spiritual leader) of indie rock supergroup the Raconteurs, scuzz rock passion project the Dead Weather, and, most importantly, garage rock iconoclasts the White Stripes, White has been at least partially or wholly responsible for churning out some of the most indelible rock songs of this young century.
It’s surprising then, that he is just now getting around to releasing a solo album considering how integral he was in creating, performing in, and basically controlling all aspects of, artistic or otherwise, his various musical projects. And with the release of Blunderbuss on XL on April 24, Jack White has finally stepped out from behind the collective moniker of a “band” and given himself sole credit for writing, recording, and producing an album’s worth of songs (every song in the White Stripes catalog possesses the writing credits “White, White”). It’s the beginning of another chapter in an important career, one where White has changed his center of musical influence (and residency) from Detroit to Nashville, presides fetishistically over his boutique label and pet project Third Man Records, and is being slowly forced to accept the mantle of rock’s primary idol of worship.
One of the main, and most discussed, reasons White’s career has been exalted in such a fashion is his maniacal, luddite devotion to the music, practices, and culture of rock and roll’s earliest era. His signature sound remains a juiced up version of the Chess Records back catalog, frayed in analog glory, laced with Detroit’s snarling garage rock heritage. His equipment is almost always vintage, his recording techniques are unbelievably simple and usually live to tape, and his live setup is always adorned with tube amps and a couple of pedals to make his guitar sound fall somewhere between Muddy Waters and a 747 taking off.
"We have to go back," White insisted in 2002 to Chuck Klosterman for Spin Magazine. "The last twenty years have been filled with digital, technological crap that's taken the soul out of music. The technological metronome of the United States is obsessed with progress, so now you have all these gearheads who want to lay down three thousand tracks in their living room. That wasn't the point."
"The point," added Meg White pointedly, "is being a live band."
And with White’s music philosophy and modus operandi laid out repeatedly over the past decade, it’s safe to call him a revivalist of sorts, preaching the virtues of rock and roll’s (and in turn, R&B’s) golden age while railing against the new movements in modern music that seek to dehumanize and lobotomize the sexy, rebellious, tortured, hedonistic howl of rock in its purist form. It's interesting then that history has relatively forgotten White’s virtues as a preservationist when he was responsible for producing and assembling arguably the most cohesive document of Detroit’s fabled garage rock scene; the music scene that effectively turned John Anthony Gillis into Jack White.
In early 2001, White compiled and produced, with the help of legendary local studio hound Jim Diamond, the Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit compilation in the attic of his Detroit home. The gimmick of the album was to take 14 of Detroit’s most talented “garage rock” bands and record them using the same drum kit, guitar amps, and microphones in the same room. And while there were other compilations of Detroit bands floating around the motor city at the time, Sympathetic Sounds was to that point the most “official” collection, created in part because White’s record label Sympathy for the Record Industry implored him to get a chunk of their roster on one release to capitalize of the small modicum of notoriety the White Stripes were garnering outside of Detroit.
The Detroit Scene
At the time of Sympathetic Sounds’ recording, the White Stripes’ breakthrough album White Blood Cells was still about five months away from release and Jack and Meg were dealing with the fact that they were a recently divorced couple playing in a two person rock band. They had battled their way through Detroit’s rock and roll ranks since forming in 1997, improving drastically as musicians and performers along the way, to become fixtures in the thriving local scene. Their sophomore album De Stijl, released in June of 2000, received glowing reviews among the underground music press, including a small write up in Rolling Stone, and they had just finished a national tour with alternative rock legends Pavement. The White Stripes were well known in Detroit, but, due to the high concentration of talent in the 313 area code, were still considered members of a strong phalanx of like minded bands rather than leaders of a scene. Regardless, early 2001 marked the period in which carpetbagging record labels/hype-making music press, inspired by the resurgence in Lower Manhattan’s art rock scene were slowly starting to become aware of Detroit had to offer.
The lineage of the Detroit’s garage rock sound can be traced back to the mid sixties, when bands like Detroit natives ? and The Mysterians and Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels blew up American radio with the garage classics like “96 Tears” and “Walking the Dog.” The late '60s and early '70s saw proto-punk radicals the MC5 (which stood for Motor City 5) set Detroit’s Grande Ballroom on fire with the recording of their legendary live album Kick out the Jams, while the Stooges, an unusually loud and vicious band from Ann Arbor, were getting noticed around town for the batshit crazy stage antics of their lead singer Jim Osterberg Jr., who later changed his name to Iggy Pop shortly after witnessing the MC5 in concert.
The late '80s saw the emergence of garage rock monsters the Gories, who were led by legendary Detroit front man Mick Collins (who later would form the Dirtbombs). The Gories reveled in their love of straightforward, Bo Diddley-like burners, but also imbued their amalgamation of rock n’ roll classicism with waves of distortion, and a bevy of apocalyptically nihilistic overtones. The Gories' guttural garage sound laid the groundwork that would empower the Detroit scene to flourish throughout the '90s.
Many of the bands that followed the Gories in the next decade, like the Electric Six, the Go, the Dirtbombs, the Von Bondies, Bantam Rooster and the Detroit Cobras, lived in and around the Cass Corridor, one of Detroit’s most economically depressed neighborhoods, and thrived while playing an endless stream of shows at suitably bombed out venues; the most famous concert space was a now defunct venue (and host of the White Blood Cells release party) called The Gold Dollar. Live performance was the main goal for many of these bands, and the music they produced was a primal strain of the garage rock of their Detroit forefathers: a raw, mutated version of rhythm and blues, imbued with punk’s edginess and glam rock’s androgynous sexuality.
With the Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit compilation, White managed to maintain the intensity and spontaneity of a Saturday night showcase at the Gold Dollar, while capturing a relatively clean, somewhat unmuddied mix that would sound leagues better than any bootleg recording could manage. The 19 track compilation (composed of 13 songs and six 20-30 second blues interludes by six of the featured bands) vibrated at white hot frequencies with all the lo-fi edginess that one of White’s tube amps could contain, giving many of these bands a chance to roar through their performances and say “hello” to the world in the most Detroit way possible. White even included this little message in the liner notes: “No suit from LA or New York is going to fly to Detroit, check out a band, and hand out business cards.”
And while every band featured on the compilation does fall in line in some way, shape or form with the collective aesthetics of Detroit, getting them all together on one album recorded live to tape shows off not only each band’s impressive musicianship, but the ways in which they distinguish themselves from the group. But, for the most part, even with the “historical document” label this essay is placing on the compilation, Sympathetic Sounds is just a shit-kicking collection of impressively messy rock songs, that howl and scratch without the baggage of underground music scene pretension.
“Black Girl,” the opening track by the Paybacks, was notable for highlighting lead singer/guitarist Wendy Case’s androgyne personality and husky vocals (which provide a throaty roar for the chorus “She’s a reeaaaaalll black girrrlll!”) , but also being one of their earliest recorded and released songs. The Dirtbombs became the second project of lead singer/guitarist Mick Collins after the dissolution of the Gories, and picked up where his former band left off. But, the Dirtbombs weren’t quite as dedicated to the primal garage blues of the Gories and that allowed for more harmonies/compositional variations in their catalog. Their relatively tongue-in-cheek contribution “I’m Through With White Girls,” has Collins, backed with sludgy distortion and a lurching rhythm section, fantasizing about watching the dancers on Soul Train, and compares that experience in the next verse to stopping at a discotheque populated by mostly white kids (“Open the door and what do I see?/A lot of white girls trying to smurf like me”).
The Hentchmen were banging around in Detroit since 1992, and became known for taking American garage rock and smashing it together with their amped-up, British Invasion mod-stylings. “Accusatory” radiates hotly, especially in the bridge where the lead guitar goes off the rails and the organ practically bursts into flames, and comes across like the Who’s “Can’t Explain” if it was sung by Lou Reed on the second half of White Light/White Heat instead of “Sister Ray.”
And while the Hentchmen sound like they could be from London, the Ohio born Soledad Brothers sound like Delta bluesmen on amphetamines, while lead guitarist/singer Johnny Walker makes his southern minister draw darkly compelling on “Shaky Puddin’,” which by far has the most twang on the compilation. The Von Bondies (listed on the track list as “The Bon Bondies”) follow “Puddin’” with the forest levelling squall of “Sound of Terror,” sounding like an altogether different band than the one who had small hit with the Rescue Me theme song “C’mon C’mon.” As the centerpiece of Sympathetic Sounds, “Sound of Terror” recalls Ron Asheton’s proto-punk guitar buzzsaw on the Stooges’ Funhouse, and pummeling its way through 3:38 of terrifying spiraling riffs, and lyrics about some vague evil (“Let’s burn down St. Peter’s and drive a stake through its heart!”) that more than earns its song title.
The two brightest highlights on the album’s second half were both provided by drum and guitar combos. Vocalist/Guitarist T. Jackson Potter and drummer Mike Alonso made up the psychobilly/garage duo Bantam Rooster, who had just released their raging, antagonistic third album Fuck All Y’all on Sympathy for the Record Industry a year earlier. It could be argued that Bantam Rooster were the loudest band in Detroit at the time, and their contribution on Sympathetic Sounds “Run Rabbit Run” was a sinewy blast anarchic blues-rock, and felt like collective history of the Motor City boiled down to a 3:00 minute rock song.
The second drum and guitar combo featured on Sympathetic Sounds was, of course, the White Stripes, who unleashed the quiet/loud dynamic of “Red Death at 6:14,” as the last track. “Red Death” isn’t necessarily a hidden White Stripes classic, but it reiterates the fact that Jack can always rearrange the basic ingredients of rock n’ roll into a thrilling, devastating concoction, more potent than the sum of its parts. And, in reality, “Red Death” could be any White Stripes song; bad ass lyrics (“She must be dead because the only sounds I hear are the devils by her bed”), snarling walls of guitar and reverb, with Meg’s clubbing tom hits and steel boot kick drum beat keeping time.
“Red Death” was a simple, effective thesis to conclude the Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit compilation with, and illustrates the lack of artifice and pretense the Detroit bands seemed to embody. It’s hard to see the significance of a particular musical movement when you’re right in the middle of it, and it’s easy to imagine the bands featured on the No New York compilation, or NME’s C86 mixtape would say the same thing. Sympathetic Sounds provided an amazingly concise primer for this insular music scene to curious parties outside of Michigan, but, just months after the completion of Sympathetic Sounds’ recording, the White Stripes released White Bloods Cells and effectively cracked open Detroit’s music scene for the whole world to take a long hard look.
The Cass Corridor bands got grouped in with the supposed “garage rock revival” groups in late 2001 that featured the likes of NYC’s the Strokes, Sweden's the Hives, and Australia’s the Vines, and the vitality of Detroit’s intense base of talent became relatively marginalized in the process. The Von Bondies were scooped up by Sire, and released their major debut Pawn Shoppe Heart in 2004, peaking on the U.S. Billboard 200 at #197, while many other bands, like the Paybacks, the Dirtbombs, and the Soledad Brothers, kicked around on independent labels for the next few years. And obviously, none of them matched the success of the White Stripes, who went on to become one of the world’s most revered rock bands.
For Jack White, the Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit compilation was a relatively small blip on his decade plus career, yet the record remains captivating 11 years later not just for the searingly intense performances it contained, but also because of its historical importance. By capturing these wildly talented bands at their respective creative peaks, and maintaining the reckless edge that made these bands so thrilling to witness live, White makes a strong case that Detroit jump started rock and roll’s decayed, diseased heart for the new millenium.
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