Editor’s Note: Shining a light on the more prominent artists of the passing decade; we’ll be taking a look at the artists who made a monumental impact on the 2010s and landed several albums in our 200 Best Albums Of The 2010s list in a series of pieces through the end of 2019. Today we’re taking a look at Jack White with four of his solo releases making the Top 200. Luckily, Third Man Record‘s Ben Blackwell was available to give us some behind-the-scene takes on a decade of Jack White… including a half-baked scheme with Third Man’s Ben Swank to cash in on some of that mailbox money!
Not bad for an indie label that started with two employees…
Third Man Records has released over 600 titles and pressed over 5 million pieces of vinyl in the past decade. Not bad for an indie label that started with two employees. While we’ve had plenty of amazing successes… from Margo Price to Sleep to Captain Beefheart…it’d be downright criminal to ignore the fact that this entire enterprise is built upon the gargantuan amounts of hard work and laser-focused creativity emanating from the founder, owner, chief prankster, Jack White. As some number-cruncher in the Discogs salt mines has determined, all FOUR of his solo releases made the “200 HOT SHIT RELEASES FROM THE PAST 3652 DAYS” list currently making the rounds on the Dark Web. To find the weird way that Al Capone, sex with bread, TOOL, and Billy Fields have to do with it all, just peep my decidedly first-person recollections below.
“Blunderbuss” was the first record that Third Man released where I personally felt an “oh shit” moment. The supply was scarily out of whack with the demand, a precipitous jump in necessary production the likes of which we have never seen before or since. Billy Fields at WEA had given me an insightful heads-up BEFORE we started production (they having been caught unprepared for the demand on The Black Keys “El Camino” record) and said (without knowing Jack’s first solo album was in the can) “The next time you have a BIG release…you’re really going to have to increase your numbers.” Our initial press was originally set to be 35,000 copies and I very quickly knocked it up to 50k and it still wasn’t enough. The comparisons to Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” felt apt, a reinvigorating entry into his canon, hitting on all the previously established musical touchstones in his career while also breaking into a few new ones. Despite balloon launches and records completed in three hours time and all the other craziness we’ve concocted, “Blunderbuss” is still my favorite Jack White release. As solid as the day it was released.
Ben Swank and I concocted a half-baked scheme to try and buy the publishing rights on Jack’s cover of Little Willie John’s “I’m Shakin’” in hopes of reaping untold thousands of dollars in mechanical licensing royalties…but we ultimately got lazy and forgot about it. I later bought the domain name www.thedaytheclowncried.com in a similar bout of “show me the money” but I think I’ve let the registration expire.
You know it’s a good album when the fact that I played drums on two songs is not even the focus of my remembrance.
Five years later, I am still absolutely astounded that we were able to make this album work. The directive from Jack was, “Let’s take all the little tricks and secrets we’ve learned in pressing vinyl over the past five years and put ALL of them into one record.” Some had been around for over a hundred years…a side playing from the inside out, parallel grooves…while others had been first implemented by us on previous Third Man releases (hiding playable grooves underneath the center labels). Others proved particularly tricky. Side B starts with the song “Just One Drink” and depending on where you drop the needle, you will get either an acoustic or electric intro to the song. This is employing the known parallel groove technology, but our one-upping it comes from having both those introductions join together for the start of the first chorus of the song. As we understood, parallel grooves meeting had only ever been done on the b-side of Tool’s “Opiate.” But apparently those joining of grooves is all a mish-mash of loud live recordings and you can’t really tell what’s going on. But trying to get the grooves to land together on a down note was, as our cutting engineer George Ingram described, “like trying to take a flying fuck at a donut. It took Ingram literally 24 hours of cutting to get to the point where the grooves worked…even though it was not perfect, it was still cool enough for us. When the LP crossed over the 100k pressed mark and the pressing plates were worn out so much so to necessitate recutting the master, well, that was scary having to replicate all these tricks, the least of which being George’s attempt to aerially fornicate with sundry pastries. To our luck, the second cut was BETTER than the first, landing exactly where it needed to. Only just now have I checked the Discogs entry to see that the variations don’t have their own listings (which kinda pisses me off as one who loves the minutiae), but maybe the community here can rectify that.
Beyond that, the struggle to get the little holographic angel to levitate above the b-side of the disc came together WAY quicker than we could have ever expected. Originally brought to our attention by Dean Blackwood as TMR collaborated with his label Revenant for our Paramount Records omnibus collections (and eventually used on the discs in Volume 2 of that collection) we didn’t even know if the hand-cut hologram process could even transfer to pressed vinyl records. I specifically remember telling Dean “Don’t worry…there’s no WAY we can figure this out in time to get it on Lazaretto.”
The main genius behind the hologram process, Tristan Duke, was deeply engrossed in all kinds of quantum scientific research and theory to try and make this happen…figuring out if you cut into a lacquer or a pressing plate (surprise! you cut into the mother!) and learning, the hard way, that permanent marker notations left on a metal mother cause the entire electroplating process to straight up RUIN the disc you thought was ready to crack the whole case wide open.
One of my fondest memories of the past ten years is when I rolled into URP to collect the first batch of hologram test pressings. I pulled the disc out of the sleeve, held it underneath the light at just the right angle and saw that beautiful, glorious, luminous angel dance…my verbatim reaction was “Holy…fucking…shit. It worked.”
I lost count at 200,000 copies pressed a few years ago, but this album is as perennial as a tulip. The best vinyl seller in Third Man history, I can’t imagine what we’d have to do to outsell this one.
I wholeheartedly accepted the challenge of tracking down the earliest, analog masters for all of the songs compiled here. I think this record helped change the conversation from “Jack White – ROCKER” to “Jack White – SONGWRITER” by properly highlighting the attention to craft that Jack has shown through the entirety of his career. Not just the beginning. Not just recently. With the remixes and alternate versions and previously unheard gems, I still think this collection is insanely slept on, yet the fact it makes it on this Discogs list has me thinking it may be appropriately appreciated. The White Stripes “City Lights” is a previously unreleased outtake from the “Get Behind Me Satan” sessions and not until Michel Gondry surprised the world (Jack included) with an uncommissioned video for the song did I truly understand the weight of it all. The clip brought me to tears and my 3-year-old daughter eventually singing along makes it all the more beautiful and memorable.
As wide a left turn Jack has ever taken in his career and it felt so invigorating. We thought it would take FOREVER for folks to discern that there were NINE different versions of the song “Get In The Mind Shaft” but I think most of them were sussed out approximately three days after release. And to finally hear LYRICS for “Over and Over and Over” which had been attempted by Jack in almost every possible way through the previous twelve years, a more bombastic riff he has not written…well, I was grateful. Add in the sublime brilliance of a Dvořák cover (via Al Capone) and I think folks are still trying to wrap their heads around this one. In twenty years time, THIS will be the Jack record the real fans claim is his best. A litmus test if there ever was one.