Home / White Stripes Nation Manifesto V: “Hello Operator”

White Stripes Nation Manifesto V: “Hello Operator”

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LegendaryMonkey: Welcome, music fans, to part five of White Stripes Nation, wherein the Generalissimo and I attempt to convince — or in his case, force — you to accept Jack and Meg White as your personal saviors. Or at least, as a really, really good band. Today’s offering?

“Hello Operator”
De Stijl, 2000

Generalissimo Alberto: Right here’s my top favorite from anything on the first two albums. One good point of reference for this hard guitar pop would be your early Who. Those nice, hard clean guitar chords would sound right in your iPod next to, say, “The Kids Are Alright.”

But an even closer comparison stylistically would be the immortal 1977 Ram Jam classic “Black Betty.” That Leadbelly song became a rock hard guitar record, yet still totally catchy radio bubblegum. Likewise, “Hello Operator” rates as one of the most direct fulfillments of the whole candy-cane aspect of the White Stripes idea.

Note also how the Ram Jam recording speaks prophetically of the White Stripes revolution to come: “Black Betty had a child, bam a lam. The damned thing’s gone wild, bam a lam.” Thus, Ram Jam foretell how the black man will soon be rising up against the current regime, helping to sweep Jack White into power, becoming the first black president.

LM: Al? Honeychile? I think you done lost your mind there. Jack White is about as black as a little blonde nymphet from Livonia, Michigan. And while Livonia is technically part of Detroit… well, that ain’t the point. Point is, the boy may have soul, but ain’t no law as says a white boy can’t have soul. It just don’t make him black. But the music, Alberto… talk about the music!

GA: Jack’s at least as black as Bill Clinton. At least there’ll be no damned whitebread Fleetwood Mac crap at this inaugaration.

LM: Mama’s gonna confiscate your weed and send you to bed with no dessert if you don’t hush this foolishness and get back on track.

GA: Yes, ma’am. This record speaks well to Jack’s strengths as a guitar player. He is often rightly touted as one of the all time great rock guitarists. But many people scoff at this claim, saying that Jack just isn’t all that technically.

Technically, that’s right. “Hello Operator” has some of Jack’s best playing- but it’s not all that fancy or athletic. Any decent local bar band should be able to more or less reproduce what he’s doing.

Theoretically, Yngwie Malmsteen can play rings around Jack White. He can certainly play faster, more precise flurries of notes than Jack ever will- and you probably won’t remember a lick of it five minutes later.

But you’ll likely be struggling to get these relatively simple chords of “Hello Operator” out of your head so you can try to think of something else. It’s the same principle as classic Chuck Berry: It’s how meaningful and memorable the lines are, not how difficult they are to play. The hard part is thinking them up, not the actual playing.

LM: Oh, please, allow me to retort. For those of us younger folk who love, y’know, punk… we’ve all learned that less really can be more. From the Sex Pistols and The Ramones to right here in “Hello Operator” — which is a whole different brand of music, but with a little punk dribbling down the side like extra hot fudge — simple arrangements have been proven to produce some of the most fantastic songs, well, ever. And as for difficulty factor… well, anyone who’s seen Jack bust it live can testify that the boy can play. But please, continue. You’re the expert. I just add the spices to taste.

GA: Meg gets some of that meaningful rather than difficult dynamic in the classic percussion gimmick of this record. Twice, all the guitar stops, leaving just a few taps on the rim of her snare. The childlike simplicity of this little move comes straight out of the Jonathan Richman playbook.

It’s really quite clever. It’s a catchy hook itself. Also though, it brings it all down, and cleanses the palette for Jack to come charging back with the big guitar chords.

LM: There’s more to the playful aspect than just the music, too. As a child in the 1980s (along with Jack and Meg themselves), I remember a little playground rhyme: “Miss Susie went to heaven / Her tug boat went to HELL-O operator / Give me number nine.” The first time I heard “Hello Operator,” that old rhyme floated back up into my memory and it was stuck in my head for days. But even more than that, the words “hello, operator” are a cultural staple, something we’ve all heard in old movies or old television shows. Even those of us who grew up long after direct dial are familiar with the phrase. It prefaces a plea; the connotation is inescapable.

So what is the plea here? It seems to tie in with Jack and Meg’s well known disdain for over-produced records. Look at these two lines: “Find a canary / a bird to bring my message home.” What happens when the phones fail? Or, the deeper message… without technology, where is music? How many bands out there could function and produce anything worthwhile without a producer cleaning up the vocals, or hell, without anything more than an old guitar and a set of bongo drums?

The Clay Aikens and Nickelbacks of the world would be in a sad, sorry state. And why, dear music fans?

‘Cause they ain’t got soul.

GA: Or basic talent. Up against the wall, Clay Aiken!

LM: Yes, Al. Time for your meds.

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.


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