Believe the White Stripe hype

Jack and Meg White are the story of the moment. Are they siblings - or former lovers? Steve Jelbert picks through the myths to reveal the true White Stripes
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The Independent Culture

It's difficult to remember the last time an unsigned, almost unknown band have created such waves, even during the silly season. But on their short visit to these shores, the White Stripes, from Detroit, have found themselves the object of fascination beyond their wildest expectations.

They've been mentioned on Radio 4's Today show, been eulogised in the music press – for once caught off guard by the sheer speed of their rise – and even been the subject of hurriedly cobbled-together reviews in the tabloids.

It's an unprecedented situation for a supposed brother-and-sister combo who might normally have expected their appeal to be restricted to the die-hards who snap up obscure imports from the fertile Detroit rock'n'roll scene. But Jack and Meg White are worth every bit of the hysteria. Their classic, sunny pop constructions use chord changes every bit as artful as the Kinks and the Beatles, while Jack White, a talented slide-guitarist, is familiar with the fundamentals of country blues, which never did the the Stones and Led Zeppelin any harm in appealing to American teenagers. The sheer effectiveness of their image – all red and white, like the American sweets from which they take their name – even has the audience dressing up to match, looking like a convention of effete revolutionaries.

They're erudite, too. Their lovingly, coherently packaged second album, De Stijl, is dedicated to the Atlanta bluesman Blind Willie McTell and the Dutch modernist architect Gerrit Rietveld, a potent pair of minimalists. Then there are the rumours regarding their true relationship. Even if Jack and Meg are really former lovers, as has frequently been suggested, they look uncannily like siblings. (Although touring with an ex may seem like a highway to hell to outsiders, there are direct precedents, such as Janet Weiss and Sam Coomes of Quasi, another US two-piece. And let's not forget the Eurythmics, though they could probably afford separate tour buses.) It's been suggested that the origin of the sibling story was an off-hand remark to a despised local journalist, or just lazy presumption on the part of early reviewers.

But Jack White is quite happy to indulge in a spot of myth-making. The Stripes' cover of McTell's "Lord, Send Me an Angel" is adapted to become a plea to "those Detroit women" to "leave Mr Jack White" alone. And his tales about growing up as the youngest in a family of 10 in central Detroit and about still living in the family house at 1203 Ferdinand Avenue (the home is featured on the cover of their debut, The White Stripes, though White has since moved) are guaranteed to delight the curious.

He does seem to have worked as an upholsterer, if that counts for anything, and his previous musical career included a stint in a local band called the Go, signed to the venerable Sub Pop label, which pioneered Seattle's grunge scene more than a decade ago. His role was restricted to lead guitar on already-written songs, though, a situation that he admits led him to concentrate on his own material. His name has also featured regularly as a producer for other Detroit bands, a scene that includes acts such as the Soledad Brothers, Bantam Rooster, Immortal Lee County Killers and the Bon Bondies, who all boast reputations for similarly incendiary live shows.

But just why the Stripes should become the subject of such obsession is peculiar. In the absence of any British record company or PR to smooth their way, the resulting scenes of music-business types being forced to pay for their own records and tickets (and no, touts don't give receipts) stand out as unusual. Potential press officers were required to, yes, write a letter explaining why they were the company for the job. And rumour has it that hopeful major labels, keen to pick up their back catalogue, pleaded with NME not to put the band on their front cover until they could claim some of the action.

It's not as if the band are a secret. They've toured the States more than once, notably with the now-defunct Pavement and Sleater-Kinney, the post-Riot Grrrl favourites. They've made the pages of Entertainment Today and even Time and have appeared on such TV staples as The Late Late Show.

It's quite the opposite of the situation the similarly fêted Strokes find themselves in. Despite recently signing to BMG in the States, the New Yorkers are widely regarded as coming from the UK, probably because so much of their press has originated from here.

Although the metropolitan music industry and media have only recently become aware of the White Stripes' existence (notably after an ecstatically received and widely publicised performance at the annual South By Southwest festival in Texas last spring), the music-loving public have long been aware of John Peel's championing of the band. Simon Keeler of Cargo, the British distributor of their label, Sympathy for the Record Industry, says, "The support and passion of John Peel and the likes of the Rough Trade shop made this happen." So keen were the staff at their Covent Garden branch to push the band that for months they've been greeting punters with the words: "White Stripes album.'' Which certainly beats, "Big Issue."

There's no reason the phenomenon shouldn't continue. With no press liaison to clarify matters, delicious rumours of paparazzi trying to discover the time of their outbound flight (perhaps to check their real names on the passenger lists) or Jack White's alleged fling with the sometime rock-star girlfriend Winona Ryder abound. The band's distinct reluctance to sign up with The Man helps, too, so this one could run and run. As for the records, which is ultimately what it's all about, they are simply fantastic, and the live show is even better. Believe the White Stripe hype.

'White Blood Cells' is out now on Sympathy for the Record Industry