Eventually the early part of this century might be looked on as a vital time for rock and roll music. There had been a static period between the death of Kurt Cobain and the following years in which everyone had been worried about being the next big thing rather than just plugging in. Slowly but surely however, things started to ramp up again. First The Strokes came bursting out of New York with a self assuredness and a fistful of great songs. This would usher in a new wave of bands, most notably on this side of the Atlantic, The Libertines were the sound of an energy flash passing through, ready to take on the new millennium with a grubby, closed fist.
In many ways however the most incendiary band of this whole period had already been building their momentum on a slower fuse. Detroit's White Stripes had arrived in 1999 in a blaze of critical acclaim. Their sound was a blistering mix of the blues and the more esoteric elements of American punk rock. Bands like the Gun club and the Cramps twitching shadows with old stalwarts like Roky Eriksson and Link Wray. It made them stand out instantly and not just in terms of their influences. For a start, there were only two of them. Like two characters from a '40s B-movie their primal attack of guitar and drums gave them a heavy duty edge that threatened to break down like a car wreck. It was deliberate of course but the art of falling apart only to regroup again mid song became the blueprint to which they created their musical fury.
It was this stripped down to bare bones ethic that would see the band unleash a modern masterpiece. Retiring to a studio in London in 2002, Jack White had began working on a new White Stripes album that aimed to further pare down their already raw sound with brutal efficiency. The resulting record (Elephant) which was cut in 10 days flat and recorded on analogue equipment without the use of computers delighted even the usually self critical White, but one track in particular made everyone in the studio sit up and take notice. It was a song called 'Seven Nation Army', a brilliantly immediate piece that carried all the usual White Stripes attributes of tribalism and attack with one major difference. It's incessant, hypnotic guitar line. Much like the Rolling Stones 'Satisfaction' or The Kinks 'All Day And All Night' it was a riff that seemed simple in its execution but had an almost physical effect on anyone who heard it. Originally written during a sound check in Melbourne it had been a piece White had been carrying around for a while and one he'd jokingly referred to as his future James Bond theme. Now however, as the band and various members of a Hackney studio listened to its final cut, everyone was in agreement: 007 would have to wait. The White Stripes had a killer on their hands.
Despite odd record company reticence both here and in the US, the band insisted it was the lead off single from the new album. It was released in the UK in May 2003 and it's effect was seismic. It instantly managed to cross over to both a pop audience and receive massive radio airplay, becoming the first alternative song since Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' to do so without losing a single shred of integrity. It catapulted the White Stripes from the margins of punk rock into household names overnight. It was both a critical and commercial success, topping both the Billboard rock chart and reaching the top ten in three countries. It also created a huge wave of expectancy around the 'Elephant' album too. By the time it was released the White Stripes were without doubt the most exciting and well received rock and roll band on the planet. By the time the dust had settled it went on to sell an astonishing 5 million copies, all thanks it seemed to the release of 'Seven Nation Army' and the gateway to international success it made possible.
Culturally however, the song didn't end there. Its second coming a few years later wasn't achieved through a record company re-release or through traditional methods. It was something a lot more unexpected: the football terraces. In 2006 during the World Cup, Italian football fans adopted the track as their official song as their team went on to win the tournament. Brilliantly they'd had to defeat seven nations on their way to lifting the trophy which made it seem even more poetic. Quickly other teams followed suit both home and abroad, and from then on in it has become a sporting folk song of sorts, heard everywhere from Brentford to Brazil. It's a journey that no other rock song before or since has really achieved with such universal acclaim. For a blues band from Detroit who never sold out an inch or wavered in their belief that great rock and roll could change the world, that's some justification of their talent.