white stripes de stijl 20th anniversary

Ben Blackwell’s Thoughts on The White Stripes’ De Stijl After 20 Years

At the time The White Stripes began the process of home-recording their second album, I just remember thinking that everything seemed to be happening so quickly.

Their first album had just been released only a few months prior and the out-of-town tour dates behind that could be counted on one hand. How could you even gauge whether or not there was demand for another record?

It didn’t matter. Jack White had a headful of songs, a trusty Tascam half-inch 8-track tape machine, and the comfort of the front room of his humble Southwest Detroit home to tackle the task.

the white stripes de stijl album cover

The White Stripes ‎– De Stijl (2000)

Release date: June 20

Whether conscious or not, I always thought the album was Jack and Meg’s attempt to “distill” the differences between the stylized Dutch design movement of De Stijl and the rudimentary, folk styling of acoustic blues performances in the American South. Both in their prime at roughly the same time though thousands of miles away, the way the band melds these two inspirations together is subtle, easy to miss, but nevertheless, beautiful and novel.

Of particular interest to me was the concerted approach to overcome the dreaded “sophomore slump”— you know, you spend your entire life working towards recording that first album, then three months later you’re expected to record your second.

After the release of the White Stripes self-titled debut album, I was surprised certain songs weren’t on there. Turns out Jack had a plan to purposefully omit songs from the first album that were written at the same time as those that were included on said album. Thus, you take a little bit of that “magic” and extend it, ever so slightly, onto your second album.

But dude was right, and the stone-cold rocking gems that power side two of the second album were all originally tracked for album one. “Let’s Build a Home,” “Jumble, Jumble,” and “Why Can’t You Be Nicer to Me?” are all better-realized on their De Stijl appearance, as the public was finally able to hear their skeletal, earlier renditions on the recent Third Man Vault release to accompany the White Stripes’ first album.

(Side note: In my estimation, Jack has done this across almost every album where he’s the primary songwriter. I can’t think of one where the music is entirely of a single time/place/mind. It seems to work well for him and I cannot argue against the logic.)

Beyond that, the album has always loomed large in my head for the slower and more somber songs. I have a hard time separating out “A Boy’s Best Friend” from “I’m Bound To Pack It Up” to “Sister, Do You Know My Name?” and “Truth Doesn’t Make a Noise.” I have no insight to back any of this up, but in my mind, this quartet in the order of “Sister,” “Truth,” “Bound,” “Friend” has a nice storytelling arc.

I’m pretty sure the titular “Sister” here is a nun, as we found that out in the classic interview where 5-year-old Lucas interviews Jack that the line “break a couple rules so that you notice me” was referencing a teacher who’s a nun. It’s also worth noting the bus mentioned in this song is blue.

Upon inclusion on his Acoustic Recordings release, Jack shared the story that at the time of recording, Meg had questioned whether or not they should include “I’m Bound to Pack It Up” on the record because, in her words, “it sounds a lot like Led Zeppelin.” Jack didn’t seem to mind. Also, for those keeping notes on their color wheel, the bus mentioned in this song is gray.

Worth calling out here is the beautiful violin accents provided by Paul Henry Ossy — Jack’s cousin, who lived just a block away — on both “I’m Bound to Pack It Up” and “Why Can’t You Be Nicer To Me?” His subtle nuance in both electric and acoustic iterations of the instrument paint the tracks with a welcome timbre that otherwise would be missing from this album.

Though I don’t think it was specifically during tracking, I was in the room for either a rehearsal or a loud-volume playback of “A Boy’s Best Friend,” which still resonates with me two decades later. Laying on the couch in the weird state of consciousness that’s neither sleep nor meditation but somewhere between the two, the reverberation and overtones of the slide guitar were enveloping in a manner I can only liken to seeing Spiritualized live. There wasn’t any disorientation, just clear-headed, room-soaking ambiance, like you could deconstruct an entire wool blanket to fill all the negative three-dimensional space in your living room and swim amidst it.

Unfortunately, like a junkie, I’ve been chasing that feeling from “Friend” since and have never been able to get back to it. I bet if you really cranked the volume on a smokin’ system, turned down the lights, and did 15 minutes of deep-breathing exercises, you’d get pretty close.

All that being said, I still think the strongest moments from De Stijl are the top-heavy A-side jams. “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl)” is as perfect a song as could ever be divined. By the time the band got out on tour behind the album, though, it seemed like they’d pushed the tempo just a tad bit faster and I’ve always preferred it that way. The fact that they’d later do an Auto-Tune version dubbed the “Trendy American Remix” made this song all the more juicy. At the time, folks were predicting that Auto-Tune would be a fad that would die out quickly, but it’s still around!

“Hello Operator” is just undeniable bombast with swagger, and when you think it couldn’t get any better, a bonkers harmonica solo comes through like a rooster in a henhouse and ups the ante even more. Speaking with John Syzmanski (who played the harmonica on “Hello Operator”) just recently, I was surprised to learn that because of an odd key change on the guitar in the middle of the song, he had to quickly switch between two different harmonicas on the track. I dunno, something about envisioning him doing so in Jack’s living room for this record — one that never really seemed like many people would know — yet here I am later finding an outlet to even tell the story. It’s all a bit amazing.

As you may or may not know, each White Stripes studio album has a song with the word “little” in the title and here we are graced with “Little Bird.” A slide number in open E tuning, the song contains one of my most cherished couplets in a Stripes song:

“I’m gonna preach the word
I want to preach to birds”

I just always thought that the idea of preaching to birds was indicative of some madman on a street corner and the only creatures who’ll lend an ear are the pigeons at his feet. I have a faint recollection of Jack once introducing this song live and saying it was about St. Francis of Assisi (the patron saint of animals), but I could just as easily be making that up.

“Apple Blossom” is deep and endearing, and it’s quite possible the idea is spiritually influenced by the pop vocal standard “(I’ll Be With You In) Apple Blossom Time,” which Jack covered solo on a piano in the middle of the live performance for Under Amazonian Lights.

Also, surprisingly, this is the first song the band ever performed on television (Detroit public television’s Backstage Pass program, shortly before the album came out):

At some point, Jack started playing the last two bars of the “Apple Blossom” guitar solo with an engaging fuzz and a string-sliding technique that I can only liken to the way a classical stringed instrument like a cello or violin would be fingered in an almost staccato manner. Dare I say, almost silk-like. Somewhere there’s an interview where Meg specifically mentions her appreciation of this solo, but my brain is just old enough where I cannot find that specific reference.

Seemingly the cover that the White Stripes would play the most throughout their career, their version of Son House’s career-defining song “Death Letter” is outright staggering, to a level which the band would only intensify during live performances. While the source material is inarguably one of the most stunning examples of Mississippi delta blues ever recorded, the White Stripes manage to reverentially proffer it in a different contextualization. I don’t dare say it’s “better,” but it’s quite likely the version they played on the 2004 Grammy Awards was responsible for directly exposing more people to Delta blues than Son House himself ever did while he was alive. “Seven Nation Army” aside, the White Stripes versions of “Death Letter” are as a defining touchstone in the saga of the band as I can imagine. It just fully encapsulates everything to love and wonder at with the thunderous interplay between Jack’s devilish slide and Meg’s booming kick drum stutter. Perfection.

All in, I love De Stijl for its transitional nature; the way that the pummeling rock songs battle with the somber, melancholy songs; and the way that they all tie together with the album-ending Blind Willie McTell cover “Your Southern Can Is Mine.” The time was a moment, which didn’t last very long, where people still weren’t totally paying attention to the band — right before the big break. I’ve heard wiser minds postulate that’s the best time to experience, just before things go stratospheric. The lead-up. The hard work. The toil. The time when it’s just barely visible what kind of opportunities lay ahead.

Top 10 De Stijl-Related Rareities

“Lord, Send Me An Angel” mispressing (2000)

Lord Send Me An Angel mispressing 2000

Freshly uploaded by me to Discogs just for this occasion, there can be no more than a handful of copies of this single with the run-out etchings of LP-9-A and LP-9-B. I had touted for years on Stripes’ message boards that this was the run-out on an original copy, handed directly to me from the band straight off their Three Island Tour. No one else — not even people who’d purchased the same single from the band’s merch table on that run — had the same etching. Nearly a decade after having been given the single, I finally dropped the needle on it and was surprised to find that the record had no White Stripes audio on it. I think it’s hilarious that it’s actually hardcore emo songs and only now, another 10 years later, can I confirm that the audio is from this release (thanks for search customization, Discogs dev team!).

And since I’ve got you all here, let me pontificate for a second. This single has all sorts of chicanery of the different sleeves and different vinyl colors. Don’t be fooled by this shit. There were a handful of black vinyl copies that ended up in leftover tour sleeves, but come the first few months of 2001, someone put one on eBay that went for beaucoup bucks. From there, it seemed like the label was fucking with people and purposefully making said iteration available and claiming it “rare” in addition to putting tour-only colored vinyl copies in the non-tour sleeves. Just so I know that I’ve said it here: If you’re gonna pay big money for this, do it for the proper tour version sleeve with the red vinyl. Don’t buy any mix-match variation out there.

De Stijl Texas-sized 13-inch pressing (2010)

De Stijl Texas-sized 13-inch pressing 2010 (1)

For our third pop up store in less than ten months, Third Man Records stormed South By Southwest in March 2010 with the slogan “Y’all’s Turntable Ain’t Big Enough” as we did editions of all of our standard release 7-inches as 8-inch singles and three of our 12-inch LPs as 13-inch monstrosities. Such a simple idea and in hindsight surprisingly simple to execute. The wise vinyl souls at United Record Pressing made these happen as if they did such fantastic feats every day. I am unaware of any previous commercially-available 13-inch records in the modern day (though I’m sure someone here will be happy to bring them to my attention).

The White Stripes/The Dirtbombs split-single test pressing (2000)

The White Stripes The Dirtbombs split-single test pressing

Another gem I had to upload to the database myself for the express purpose of this list. There are maybe, what, five of these out there in the world? Oddly enough, even though I am depicted on the picture sleeve of this record and have been in the Dirtbombs for over twenty years now, I am NOT featured on the recording of the song “Cedar Point ‘76.” Interestingly, the red text generic United Record Pressing test label seems to have not been used very long. The personal copies in Jack’s archive actually have handwriting on the labels. This would be the last time the Dirtbombs would ever be listed above the White Stripes.

De Stijl Indonesian cassette (2000)

white sripes de stijl cassette indonesia

Man, these things were sooooo hard to find back in the mid-2000s. I feel like I paid $100 each for Southeast Asian cassettes of the first three White Stripes albums. I still have no idea how many of these would even be out there, but I just always love when different geographic locales are seemingly two formats behind the rest of the world. See also: original Beatles 78 rpm pressings from India.

“The Party of Special Things To Do” test pressing (2000)

white stripes The Party of Special Things To Do test pressing (1)

One of the few White Stripes records I’ve had to buy in my life, but oh so worth the $353 I paid for it back in 2005. Shit, versions of the REGULAR pressing of this single have sold for more since then. A test pressing on Sub Pop, with them beautiful Erika Records yellow labels. To die for. Again, out of the selflessness of my heart, a prime release added to the database by me for all the fans out there. You’re welcome.

“Lord, Send Me an Angel” test pressing (2000)

white stripes lord send me an angel test pressing

Credit where credit’s due, Sympathy gets much respect from me for creating their own custom test pressing labels. I’ve tried for years to get plants to do this for me, but it’s always some sort of excuse that it will take you longer to get your test pressings if you don’t just take the generic plant-branded labels. Oh well. Another release uploaded to the database specifically for this article!

De Stijl Third Man Pressing Plant opening variant (2017)

De Stijl Third Man Pressing Plant opening variant

In hindsight, I don’t think I initially gave this the credit it deserved. Pressed as part of the 2017 grand opening of the Third Man Pressing plan — along with choice titles from the Stooges, MC5, Destroy All Monsters, Carl Craig, and Derrick May — this version of the Stripes’ second album has a badass silk-screen cover. On opening day, folks could see the sleeves for these titles being screened, the discs being pressed, and then go buy them immediately. One day (30th anniversary?) I’ll share all the crazy mash-up sleeves — mixing and matching artists, overprints, different colors. These are too cool.

“Hello Operator” on black vinyl using picture disc plates (2000)

“Hello Operator” pressed on black vinyl using picture disc plates

This was handed to me by Long Gone John from Sympathy for the Record Industry at The White Stripes merch table in July 2001 before their two-night stand at the Troubadour. He explicitly told me “I pressed just a few of these using the original picture disc plates. It’s rare.” So I made sure to grab one and put a note in the sleeve that says “Pressed w/ pic disc plates, KEEP IT!” This is another new entry to the database just for this list.

De Stijl split-color variant (2010)

White Stripes De Stijl split-color variant

The database entry for this sumbitch lists 450 copies made, but I’m 99% certain we made 500. We tried to get copies available for sale in the Rietveld Schroder House in Utrecht, a landmark in De Stijl design, but for some reason, we couldn’t make it happen. Looking back, I don’t think it even has a gift shop. So instead, we got them to the insanely great De Capo record store in Utrecht.

De Stijl Vinyl Me, Please 20th anniversary (2020)

White Stripes De Stijl Vinyl Me Please 20th anniversary

This version isn’t even out yet! Ion’t know when exactly it’s supposed to start landing in the hands of Vinyl Me, Please subscribers, but the fact that we were able to cut and press this record through Third Man Mastering and Third Man Pressing, giving this album it’s first-ever “all Detroit” process,feels pretty good. The shiny red foil on the front cover is boss and there’s just something hypnotizing about a black on red vinyl splatter effect.

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Ben Blackwell
Ben Blackwell has spent the last 22 years of his life doing all he can to weasel his nose into as much music-related trouble he can rustle up. In 1998, he was interning for Detroit-based independent label Italy Records and selling merchandise for the White Stripes. By 1999, he would join the ranks of garage rock mediocrity as the drummer in the Dirtbombs. In 2003, Blackwell would start his own vinyl-focused imprint Cass Records, run from his high school bedroom. Right after he dropped out of journalism school, Rolling Stone magazine bestowed upon Blackwell their 2004 College Journalism award. By 2009, Blackwell had moved to Nashville to help start Third Man Records, a label, venue, storefront, and stadium soccer chant royalty laundering operation. Since then, he's overseen the release of nearly 700 titles at Third Man, from Billboard chart-toppers to sellers of 20 copies. In 2017, Blackwell was instrumental in the opening of Third Man Pressing, a brand new vinyl pressing plant in the city of his birth, Detroit. He's lucky to be married to his, wife, Malissa and they live in a (metaphorical) yurt amidst the chaos of their three (literal) daughters, Violet, Mabel, and Navy.
2 Comments
  • Jun 30,2020 at 12:01

    Hello everyone, Ben mentions that 3 – 13″ albums were pressed for the sxsw festival in 2010. Other than De Stijl and White Blood Cells, does anyone know what the third one was as I can’t find a listing for it?
    Thanks
    Bill

  • Jun 20,2020 at 00:09

    Great post! Loved the videos. What an incredibly talented artist, the sound he wrenched from that guitar was unbelieveable. Thanks for this, and keep them coming!

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