Seven Nation Army (2003)
The White Stripes
From an after-hours, offhand riff ginned up while on tour in Melbourne, “Seven Nation Army” has kept growing like The Blob of science fiction renown. In 2003 it was a breakout number for Jack and Meg White, the sometime husband and wife and make-believe brother and sister, but it might have just as well been casually forgotten at a train station and considered only a nice infectious, slightly trippy song.
Along the way, the hypnotic one-octave-down bass-line, played on a 7-string guitar and the pounding, adamant tom toms, beat its way into the Rock world’s heart and not only stays there but seems to grow in stature. It is reminiscent of the opening of “Heard It Through The Grapevine,” especially the Creedence Clearwater Revival version, a connection missed by every mainstream review of the song that we know of. A different tempo, but surely the same musical idea.
From chimerical breakout hit to sports fight song
One can safely predict “Seven Nation Army” will be listened to in another 10 years like “Brown Sugar,” “Whole Lotta Love,” or even something more minor but crazily catchy like Sam & Dave’s “Knock On Wood.” In short, it will become a piece of the sturdier musical furniture in a grand room labeled “mega-hit.”
The song has the unmistakable noir-ish feel of Elvis Costello’s “Watching The Detectives,” or Johnny Rivers’ campy “Secret Agent Man.” Jack White says he was inspired by James Bond movie themes and you certainly can hear that sensibility resonate in “Seven Nation Army.” Except, jeez, The White Stripes are a whole lot weirder than the mainstream Broccoli extravaganzas could ever hope to be. Indeed, White wrote the theme for the $200 million Bond film, Quantum Of Solace. He and Alicia Keys collaborated on the writing and sang a duet for the song, called “Another Way To Die.”
Lyrics in “Seven Nation Army” are chimerical on every level. White is chasing something that probably doesn’t exist, a hooded jury judging his and Meg’s every move. The fox goes after the hounds, so to speak. The lot of the celebrity Whites is no different than most big shots; in fact, given their audience, the scrutiny seems much less. Touchy, touchy. But that’s part of the charm of the song – over-the-top reactions can work well in Rock-N-Roll.
The words are rife with paranoia, defiance, defensiveness, and staccato drop-ins of odd little images half yelped, half swallowed. The vocal approach is fascinating. It mixes a dash of Bowie with a sprinkle of Robert Plant, The Talking Heads and a few grains of Buddy Holly. Floating around, too, are the famous falsettos of Freddy Mercury and of Roland Lee Gift of The Fine Young Cannibals.
And I’m talkin’ to myself at night
Because I can’t forget
Back and forth through my mind
Behind a cigarette
Everyone knows about it
From the Queen of England
to the hounds of hell
By the end of the first verse, White’s trademark power guitar licks kick in, again with a retro feeling that handily summarizes all of old New Wave axe-playing. How retro are the riffs? Well, they grow out of Anton Bruckner’s 5th Symphony finished in 1876. Moreover, “Seven Nation Army” was recorded at Toe Rag Studios in East London on pre-1960s analog equipment, which may account for the richness of sounds, the depth, the slight antique mood found in the song.
There is something a bit more to extract from the guitar playing. Around 2:00 into the song up pops Eric Clapton (and Cream) of the Disraeli Gear album. Like Clapton, White’s guitar soars and swoops, but snaps as well. Take a listen to “Swlabr” and “Strange Brew.” “Sunshine Of Your Love” is dancing and thrusting all over “Seven Nation Army.” Both Cream and The White Stripes have minimal personnel; perhaps the kinship partially grows from the necessity for both bands’ members each having to be big, broad and as electric as possible.
The lyrics wind up tight, strong and interesting, leaving us with plenty to think about.
Make the sweat drip out of every pore
And I’m bleeding, and I’m bleeding, and I’m bleeding
Right before the lord
All the words are gonna bleed from me
And I will think no more
From the “Mustache on the Mona Lisa Department” – Musically, “Seven Nation Army” disappoints at its close. It doesn’t fade with the defiance of a beaten but proud fighting force and it doesn’t button up tightly. It spreads out like Jell-O left too long at room temperature. A small flaw, but someone took his eye off the ball.
Nonetheless, it ranks as one of the greatest Rock songs of the last 25 years and certainly near the top for the first decade of the 21st century.
Damned catchy tune.
- “Seven Nation Army” is the victory song for both the Italian National and Bruges (Belgium) football teams. It is sung both spontaneously and officially at the start and finish of matches. Literally dozens of sports teams around the world employ it as a “fight song.”
- It won the 2004 Grammy award for best rock song.