Tuesday, September 8, 2009

22. The White Stripes "Seven Nation Army" (2003)

U2's lead guitarist, the Edge, recently admitted, with a bit of embarrassment, that he almost plagiarized the main guitar riff of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army." It's a testament to how a great guitar lick becomes part of the musical language, like a word in the spoken language (for example, "Satisfaction," or "Louie, Louie"). You forget that it had to have an origin. It's an eloquent example of how a mere seven notes can be swallowed by a great canon.

The news must have come with a small amount of pleasure for Jack White, who, like Keith Richards, is as notable for being a fan of music as he is for being an actual musician. Not that he needed the validation. Upon its release, "Seven Nation Army" (and its accompanying album, 2003's Elephant) was hailed by many critics as an instant classic.

The White Stripes had already managed to squeeze a great deal of sound from a guitar and drum kit. Still, that did not prepare listeners for the great leap forward of "Seven Nation Army." Using only an antiquated 8-track tape machine to multiply the guitar tracks, Jack White was able to create the roar of a full rock band. Even the opening lick, which mimics a bass guitar, was produced by using an octave pedal to lower pitch of an acoustic guitar.

The audacity of White's recording methods would be meaningless if the end result wasn't so assured. "Seven Nation Army" finds the band at the height of their powers. Meg White, who would never be confused for a John Bonham, gives the song a menacing thump. Jack White's guitar exhilarates, as he pushes the iconic riff up three full octaves.

"Seven Nation Army" is not the White Stripes' best song, but it remains their great statement of purpose. And while they have subsequently expanded their sonic palette, they have yet to match the song's ferocity and grandeur.

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