LegendaryMonkey: No sense wasting time on BS today, Alberto, though I know that’s hard for you. Let’s get right down and dirty and all up in it with:
”Sugar Never Tasted So Good”
The White Stripes, 1999
Generalissmo Alberto: The White Stripes started out framing themselves as some kind of “punk rock.” That serves several purposes in image making, and stressing some idea of rock’s primal values. However, “punk rock” is only marginally useful in specific musical terms, probably even less so than descriptions a generation earlier of Elvis Costello as “punk rock.”
This song makes a good example. About half the DNA for early White Stripes comes from old, pre-electric blues like this. “Sugar Never Tasted So Good” is a simple acoustic blues, and well outside the range and palette of punk. No big name punk classic like the Clash, Sex Pistols nor even the Ramones could have ever approached this.
LM: Hold up there, Generalissmo Fascismo. I would like to interject here that there is, in fact, something that links punk rock and the blues most intimately (though I wouldn’t classify this song as punk… I’m just sayin’). Whereas rock and roll took the electricity and unpredictability of the blues and ran with it, many traditional blues songs are simplistic and repetitive… one sound around which the lyrics wind and wail and sob, if there are even lyrics. And that’s where punk came in, taking its cue from both rock and its Big Mama Blues. The simplicity of old school punk was boiled down to a few chords and a wall of sound, screaming, crashing lyrics laid over those few repetitive sounds. It’s the repetition that links punk with the blues, though I may get tarred and feathered for saying so.
GA: Oh, punk rock certainly relates to the blues. For starters, nearly all rock music is built on basic blues scales and chord changes. But to most punk rock types, it’s all from a removed distance, heard through Who or Zeppelin records or such. Especially, most punk rock types wouldn’t be listening to really old acoustic blues. I doubt John Lydon ever paid any mind to Missisippi John Hurt, for example.
LM: Good point. Punk is a cousin to the blues, twice-removed via marriage and sluttery. I’m digging it.
GA: This is a pretty good basic blues melody with a decent simple hook. But what really makes the song is the way that they play with the time and the rhythms behind it. That sounds like the Robert Johnson coming out, subtle stuff that doesn’t register on the bludgeoning minds of most punk types.
Meg also gets some of this in her own stripped-down way. She’s had number of strong hooks based on the tiniest, simplest few beats. Those three little beats that open the record really work, and the recurrences usefully mark off restarts after Jack slows it down and stops. Other than that, she’s mostly the bass drum, plus a bit of tambourine and Jack tapping his acoustic guitar. That’s old school.
LM: Definitely old school – and draws that further connection to punk. Blues, punk, rock, whatever… it’s all as incestuous as a European monarchy. Meg’s sparse beats, despite the vicious remarks of all the hatas out there who haven’t fallen in with the democratic movement, are and have always been pure punk-inspired, though she was more restrained on these earlier tracks, as counterpoint to the wail of Jack’s guitar. Alberto my man, you know you’re not as up on punk… you’d better just leave that part to me.
GA: Womanchild, I was all up in that punk rock while you was still up in your mommy. I’m OG– or perhaps just old. Either way, respect my authori-tah!
Also, respect Jack’s authori-tah as one who — like Jesus — came not to bring peace, but a sword. The lyrics further outline the blueprint for the revolution to come.
Sugar never tasted so good
Sugar never tasted good to me
Until her eyes crossed over
Until her mind crossed over
Until her soul fell next to me
If the wrinkle that is in your brain
Has given you quite a steam
Your fingers have become a crane
Pulling on these puppet strings
The intoxicating sugar candy of revolution never tasted as sweet as it should until the proletarian monkey gave her soul to Jack and the revolution. Now she has become as a God, pulling the puppet strings, making politicians and captains of industry do our revolutionary bidding.
LM: I’ll give something to Jack White… is “soul” what the kids are calling it these days?
GA: Restrain your lustful thoughts, womanchild. Jack White is the leader of a revolutionary movement, and he does not have time to indulge your whoredoms. Besides which, Jack needs to remain chaste, protecting the purity of his essence and preserving his strength for battles to come.
LM: Get with the times, Albert. A little sugar never damaged any modern revolution… at least, not any worth having. And ain’t nothing wrong with purity through a sexual higher consciousness. But this isn’t just coming from my, dear friend — take another look at the lyrics. Where you see the puppet strings of power, I see desire and flirtation.
Sexual innuendo is old hat when it comes to the blues. All the good old music is full of it, and the White Stripes leave no stone of the blues unturned. All I’m saying is, it works! And what better way to convince the masses than to get them panting for more?
All I can say is… I got your sugar right here, Jackie boy.
GA: Alright then, the monkey is ready for rock and roll, dope, and humping in the streets. I say that’s too much monkey business.
Plus, we got barricades to man. So get out and kill a commie (or a Nickelback fan) for mommy (or Meg), and we’ll be back soon with another communique.
Viva la revolution!
LegendaryMonkey Alisha Karabinus provides the inner voice of sweet reason for evolved primates at Sudden Nothing.
Al Barger plots the overthrow of the government and his continuing crusade for Moorish dignity at More Things.