The White Stripes: Under Blackpool Lights Review

The White Stripes are two people who make a lot of noise. From their earliest albums (the first three were all released in the UK in 2001) they’ve drawn on a variety of influences. It’s clear just from his guitar-playing, that Jack White is steeped in classic blues, to the point of including Sun House and Blind Willie McTell covers on his records. Country too: that cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” didn’t come out of nowhere, and White produced and played on Loretta Lynn’s new album Van Lear Rose. In their insistence in lo-fi authenticity – analogue recording equipment, short simple songs, and so on – it’s clear that the punk ethos is in there too. It’s not often mentioned, but a certain childlike faux-naivete in some of Jack’s lyrics reminds me of Jonathan Richman. Yet there’s a postmodern spin to this: an awareness that this authenticity of approach is as much a fabrication as the most blatant artifice. Check out the red, white and black theme of their clothes, their instruments, even the covers of their albums and this DVD. It’s even there in the story the band put about that they were brother and sister, though marriage and divorce papers can be found on the Internet. Look at the way they gaze into each other’s eyes as they play “Jolene”.

For all the attention paid to Jack, let’s not forget the other half of the band, drummer, percussionist and occasional vocalist Meg White. Female drummers are not exactly plentiful, and there have been comments on Meg’s lack of technical ability. But Meg is a drummer in the tradition of her great predecessor, the Velvet Underground’s Mo Tucker. Like her, Meg does not indulge in flashy stickwork, but contributes a simple, but powerful pulse that acts as a foundation to the duo’s songs. That’s all that’s needed.

There are several bands around aiming at a stripped-down basic rock and roll ethic – guitar, bass, drums, three chords. Others include The Strokes and The Von Bondies, the lead singer of the latter having a very public fight with Jack White. The White Stripes go even further, eschewing a bass guitar (that riff on “Seven Nation Army” is played on a standard guitar, lowered an octave through a pedal), though Jack occasionally exchanges his guitar for a piano. But somehow it all works: the fourth album, Elephant was a best-seller, powered by a Top Ten hit single in “Seven Nation Army”.

This DVD captures the White Stripes in incendiary form at the Empress Ballroom, Blackpool in January 2004. Jack White talks briefly to the audience in between songs, but for most of the time he and Meg don’t waste time, powering through twenty-six numbers in an hour and a quarter, including most of the best-known songs on their first four albums.

When I Hear My Name
Black Math
Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground
I Think I Smell a Rat
Take a Whiff on Me
Outlaw Blues
Jack the Ripper
Hotel Yorba
Death Letter
The Hardest Button to Button
Truth Doesn’t Make a Noise
The Big Three Killed My Baby
Wasting My Time
You’re Pretty Good Looking (for a Girl)
Hello Operator
Apple Blossom
Ball and Biscuit
Let’s Shake Hands
I Fought Piranhas
Let’s Build a Home
Goin’ Back to Memphis
Seven Nation Army
De Ballit of De Boll Weevil

Most concert films these days are shot on high-definition video, but in keeping with the lo-fi approach noted above, Under Blackpool Lights was shot on Super 8mm film. The results are as grainy as hell. I didn’t catch this film on its brief cinema release, but the grain must have been the size of footballs on the big screen. But I can hardly mark it down, as this is the way the DVD is intended to look. The aspect ratio is 4:3, so not anamorphically enhanced.

The soundtrack is available in three options: Linear PCM and Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 mixes. All are pretty powerful in their own right, though the two 5.1 mixes are sharper – and certainly slightly louder. The subwoofer gives Meg’s drums more of a kick. I didn’t detect any significant difference between the Dolby Digital and DTS mixes, and the PCM track is certainly none too shabby. Whichever you choose, you’ll be able to quite effectively deafen yourself in the comfort of your own home. The surrounds are mainly used for crowd noise.

There are twenty-nine chapter stops, one per song plus a brief introduction showing Jack and Meg arriving at the Empress Ballroom, their bowing and thanking the audience at the end, plus the final credits. There are no subtitles (not unusual on music DVDs) and the disc is encoded for all regions.

The DVD is packaged in a plain white plastic case inside a cardboard slipcase designed in – you guessed it – red, black and white. It contains a booklet featuring a track listing, credits and a one-page essay by one Brush Thomalson, “longtime friend of the band, mathematician, musician”. It also contains illustrations which are also reproduced on three transparencies, each in one of the band’s three trademark colours. For the Easter Egg, highlight “Let’s Shake Hands” on the song-selection menu and click right, to play a quirky little piece of backstage footage.

Already one of the most influential bands of the new millennium, The White Stripes’s reputation for playing live is confirmed by Under Blackpool Lights. Beginners might be best advised to start with the albums, but fans will find that the hour and a quarter will be up too soon.

8 out of 10
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out of 10

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