Hello Operator is to Rock 'n' Roll what You're Pretty Good Looking is to pop music. After opening the album with a newfound pop accessibility, Jack and Meg show how they can also reconfigure the few components they have to create a chunky rock swagger. It sounds kind of silly to say this now when we all see Jack White as the pre-eminent example of the modern-day rock god but you have to remember how many standard rock tropes the Detroit garage scene rejected. The first album was certainly loud and heavy but it lacked a key ingredient that is now so essential to Jack and his music: an irresistibly cool sense of confidence. There's an earnestness that pervades the bands early recordings, an extreme effort put into avoiding anything dishonest and superficial. It's at the heart of any offshoot of punk rock (garage revival being one of them) and The White Stripes, wacky colour scheme aside, obeyed this rule reasonably carefully early on.
To me this makes Hello Operator the White Stripes' 'original sin', the first signs that they would be come a universally compelling rock act. If you want to be dramatic, and you know you do, you could call this analogues to Dylan's 'going electric' moment. Of course it's not an extremely jarring shift, we're still a long way away from the extended solos and on-stage theatrics, but it's a big step nonetheless.
I think it's immediately noticeable that something has changed as soon as Jack starts singing, it stands out more than anything else on De Stijl. There's a real character being inhabited in this song, a playful sense of swagger in the way he spits out the verses. If you think about the bluesy sing-speaking he'd go on to master in Ball & Biscuit and I'm Shakin' you can see the origins of that forming here. I don't think this is a really conscious choice necessarily, it's just something that probably naturally progressed as the band played on and new songs were written. Of course we can probably guess that Jack's love for the blues is what's really driving this. There's always been a sexual, playful and escapist element to the blues that a lot of 'soulful' white boys overlook and perhaps this new performance style is a result of Jack acknowledging a point of conflict between his heroes and his contemporaries. Who knows? But there's definitely the beginning of something here.
It's also worth noting that we get one of the first proper White Stripes guitar solos here as the now familiar high-pitched staccato bursts cut through the power chords. It's an arresting beginning that shows another point of development for the band; compare the formality of it to the much looser riffing that begins Red Bowling Ball Ruth for instance. But of course this is all colouring in what is still firmly a standard White Stripes song. Meg robotically pounds out the rhythm while the brief bursts of power chords provide the only 'melody' to grab onto. And the break? Is it meant to be some kind of morse code allusion to the lyrical subject? I've always like to think it was the band providing a bit of a tongue and cheek answer to the question 'what does a Meg White drum solo sound like'?
Hello Operator may be on of the few early Stripes songs to make it onto the radars of non-fans, it's use in a recent Converse commercial come to mind. I think this is because it gives fair representation to their distinct early garage days while also possessing enough of that rockstar crossover appeal that would later make them famous.
One of the most telling moments of the song isn't actually on the album but hidden on an alternate mix that doesn't fade out. Gradually the two begin to speed up the outro until they just let rip and take it to an absurd extreme. It's almost like they want to break out from the limits they set for themselves, yet they can't quite yet. But they will eventually.
So obviously this blog has a stupidly drawn out time between posts and I won't make another promise I'll break but I will say this: I was being really slack about replying to people's comments and I think that's really poor form. So I hereby make a commitment to reply to comments from now on... assuming people still readd this thing.