14 years ago, The White Stripes released ‘Seven Nation Army’, and pop music would find itself a little bit changed forever. It’s debatable whether or not the prowling lead single from ‘Elephant’ is their best song – we’d be here all week with that one. But it’s definitely their defining tune, the song which pushed them up from their garage rock beginnings to an entirely new level of acclaim. Over the years it’s found itself taking on new leases of life and relevance, from football stadiums to The X Factor, all the way to the Arab Spring. Here are 20 things about this classic tune that you might not know…
Nerdish tech fact: It’s well worn that the Stripes weren’t down with using bass guitars. The riff, which sounds a lot like a bass guitar, was created by running Jack’s semi-acoustic 1950s style Kay Hollowbody guitar, through a DigiTech Whammy pedal, set down an octave.
The ‘seven nation army’ is how a young Jack White used to mispronounce the Salvation Army.
And that was just a fun working title for the music, which Jack had written before he came up with the lyrics, to allow him to identify which song he was talking about. The title only developed a deeper meaning later.
The song is rare in being a very good song about that titanic cliché, the pressures of fame. Feeling frustrated with the level of scrutiny they were getting, White came up with a storyline about a guy who rides into town and finds all his friends are gossiping about him. “He feels so bad he has to leave town,” he said, “but you get so lonely you come back. The song’s about gossip. It’s about me, Meg and the people we’re dating.”
It reached number seven in the UK Singles Chart, 76 in the US Billboard Hot 100 and number one in the Billboard Alternative Songs chart. Its best performance in a mainstream chart was Germany, where it reached four.
People who have covered ‘Seven Nation Army’: Living Colour, Hard Fi, The Flaming Lips, The Pretty Reckless, Kelly Clarkson, Metallica, Audioslave, Kate Nash, and of course, smiling scouse X Factor runner-up Marcus Collins.
Of the trolling he received from White Stripes fans after his cover, Collins said: “I know I can’t please everyone. A lot of people have got their opinions on it, but they can always listen to the White Stripes’ version. Why are they listening to me if they don’t like it? Listen to the original if they don’t like my singing. It’s just the X Factor connection, but, you know, why are people kicking off about it now?” Clearly poor Marcus is not schooled in the ways of indie dogma.
But Collins’ soul-tinged arrangement is itself actually based on the version recorded by French singer-songwriter Ben l’Oncle Soul in 2010.
Neither the US or US labels wanted to go with ‘Seven Nation Army’ as the first single, relenting at Jack’s insistence. They had wanted to go with ‘There’s No Home For You Here’, which seems a bit daft looking back.
Jack once said that he had once intended to use the riff if he was ever asked to write a James Bond theme. Thinking this unlikely, he kept it for the Stripes. Which was probably for the best, but the other course of action would at least have saved us from ‘Another Way To Die’.
Jack composed the riff during soundcheck for a show at the Corner Hotel in Melbourne. As he remembered: “There’s an employee here at Third Man named Ben Swank, and he was with us on tour in Australia when I wrote that song at soundcheck,” he said. “I was playing it for Meg and he was walking by and I said, ‘Swank, check this riff out.’ And he said, ‘It’s OK.’ ” Ben Swank, by the way, is a former member of Stripes garage contemporaries The Soledad Brothers, and one of the nicest men in ‘the business’.
The track has been adopted as an unlikely football anthem, first adopted as a theme for Italy’s World Cup 2006 win, and then became used to soundtrack teams walking onto the pitch in Euro 2008, and quickly spread across Europe. It was played when a goal was scored at Euro 2012 and is now known in parts Europe as ‘The Po Po Po Po Po Po Song’.
Jack said of the song’s new sporting lease of life:
I am honoured that the Italians have adopted this song as their own… Nothing is more beautiful than when people embrace a melody and allow it to enter the pantheon of folk music. As a songwriter it is something impossible to plan. Especially in modern times. I love that most people who are chanting it have no idea where it came from. That’s folk music
Fans also use the tune of ‘Seven Nation Army’ to chant the name of popular players. Liverpool fans for Javier Mascherano, Arsenal for Santi Cazorla, Manchester United for Robin Van Persie and Reading for Adam le Fondre.
The song, and the ‘Elephant’ album itself, made a legend of Hackney’s Toe Rag Studios, a mecca for old school analogue equipment. Founded by Liam Watson, it only houses equipment from pre-1960.
Of course, Jack is famously suspicious of a robot uprising. The sleeve for ‘Elephant’ proudly states: “No computers were used during the writing, recording, mixing or mastering of this record.”
Here’s a quite scary industrial remix from LA electro three-piece The Glitch
Mob. It’s one of the better things about the movie it featured on, GI Joe: Retaliation.
In the iconic video, when Jack points to his hand at the start of the third verse, he’s actually showing you where he is from. The state of Michigan is shaped like a mitten, and a local custom is for people in the state to point to a spot on their hand to show from where they hail.
The track was also adopted by some involved in the Arab Spring. It featured in a February 2011 edition of independent global news hour Democracy Now!, where it was linked with the historic pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt which ousted Mubarak.
Speaking on the web show, Egyptian journalist Mona Elthahawy told host Amy Goodman:
Every time I hear the opening lines – ‘I’m gonna fight them off, a seven nation army couldn’t hold me back’ – it just takes me to Egypt, where people – I’ve never seen anything like it. Literally, nothing can hold them back. Mubarak shuts down the internet, shuts down the train system, shuts down almost the entire country, and still they come. It’s beautiful