This is the 38th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
At a soundcheck during The White Stripes’ tour of Australia, guitarist Jack White stumbled upon a riff. He played it for bandmate Meg White and Ben Swank, an executive at Third Man Records, Jack White’s label. Swank thought it was OK, but nothing special. Jack White decided to hold onto it in case he was ever asked to record a song for a James Bond film. To distinguish it from other ideas he had, he named it “Seven Nation Army,” which was what he mistakenly called the Salvation Army when he was a child.
By the time he and Meg White worked on the duo’s 2003 album “Elephant,” Jack White had given up on the possibility of ever being asked to record a song for a James Bond film. As such, he was willing to use the “Seven Nation Army” riff for a song. He kept the name and incorporated it into the song itself:
I’m gonna fight ’em off
A seven nation army couldn’t hold me back
They’re gonna rip it off
Taking their time right behind my back
And I’m talkin’ to myself at night
Because I can’t forget
Back and forth through my mind
Behind a cigarette
Jack White has since said song was about gossip, specifically the rumors about Jack, Meg, and the people they dated.
Released in March 2003, the “Seven Nation Army” single peaked at Number 3 in Italy, Number 4 in Germany, and Number 7 in the UK. In the US, it hit Number One on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart and Number 12 on the Billboard Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. The single was certified Gold in Germany and Silver in the UK. “Elephant,” the album on which “Seven Nation Army” appeared, peaked at Number One in Ireland, Sweden, Norway, and the UK, and cracked the top ten in the US, New Zealand, Belgium, France, Australia, and Canada.
The iconic riff in “Seven Nation Army” sounded like a bass, but was actually performed on guitar. To create that bass sound effect, Jack White ran his semi-acoustic, 1950s-style Kay Hollowbody guitar through a DigiTech Whammy pedal set down an octave. That riff, which formed the foundation of the song, took on an almost folk-like status after it became a staple at sporting events across the world.
And to understand how that happened, we begin with alcohol, of course.
The story goes that on Oct. 22, 2003, a bunch of fans of Belgian soccer team Club Brugge K.V. were in Milan to watch the team face A.C. Milan. While pre-gaming at a bar, members of a Club Brugge fan club called the Blue Army heard “Seven Nation Army” and decided to sing along with it. They apparently kept singing it after they left the bar and made their way to the stadium. The fans turned the seven notes into a chant — “Oh…oh-OH-oh oh OHH OHH…” — that continued throughout the game, which Brugge won. The fans took the song back to Belgium, and after the chant became popular at home games, “Seven Nation Army” was played on speakers any time that Club Brugge scored.
Then, in 2006, A.S. Roma played Club Brugge in Belgium in a UEFA Cup match. Roma fans adopted it themselves and took it back to Italy, replacing the “oh” part of the chant with “po.” Even the team’s captain, Francesco Totti, became a fan, telling a Dutch newspaper, “I had never heard the song before we stepped on the field in Bruges… Since then, I can’t get the ‘Po po po po po poo pooo’ out of my head. It sounded fantastic and the crowd was immediately totally into it. I quickly went out and bought one of the band’s albums.”
Since then, the song has been played at not just soccer games, but at football and basketball games, both pro and college. In the summer of 2011, the Baltimore Ravens polled fans to play before the fourth quarter at home games. “Seven Nation Army” won, beating out Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and Joe Satriani’s “Crowd Chant.”
The chanting aspect of the song goes well beyond sports, as we’ll see that a few of the covers turned that iconic riff into a series of ohs and bum-bums.
One of the first covers of “Seven Nation Army” was a collaboration between Alice Russell and producer Benedic Lamdin, who uses the moniker Nostalgia 77. With a full, flexible voice, Russell blows away not just many singers of today, but also many of the singers of the classic soul era that influenced her. Whereas Jack White blitzed through the song on a tear, Russell sauntered through it slowly, with purpose. The song was first released as a single in 2004, then on Nostalgia 77’s 2005 album, “The Garden.”
Electronic dance project D-Me released a Eurodance version of “Seven Nation Army” titled “Oh O O O Oh Ooh” in 2004. As the song’s title implies, the cover turned the riff into a chant, and when sung over a thumping bass line, it sounded like Kernkraft 400’s “Zombie Nation.” It didn’t sound like a song you’d hear at a dance club so much as the song you’d hear in a TV show’s montage at a dance club.
“Even Better Than The Real Thing” was a series of compilations of cover songs performed on Irish celebrity Ray D’Arcy’s radio show. The second volume, released in 2004, included a cello-heavy version of “Seven Nation Army” by Vyvienne Long. Though the substitution of a cello for a guitar stood out, the instrumentation did not overpower Long’s pretty but commanding voice. Her voice might sound sweeter than Jack White’s, but it was abundantly clear that the narrator in her version was not to be messed with. At all.
The Flaming Lips recorded a cover of “Seven Nation Army” for a 2005 installment of the “Late Night Tales” compilation series. It wouldn’t be a Flaming Lips song if it weren’t at least a little weird, and this song did not disappoint, as it replaced the original lyrics with the story of a weird trip to the Sunshine State:
I’m going to Florida
I’m going to bowl me a perfect game
I’m going to Florida
I’m going to cut off both my legs
And if Sidney Poitier is a blind man
And he made love to Chairman Mao
Then the world would be a whole lot of nothing
Like an abortion when there ain’t no child
And the second verse invoked Colin Powell, John Ashcroft, and Donald Rumsfeld, which were topical at the time but now seem dated. But that’s forgiven, because it’s delightfully bizarre.
Hard-Fi released a version of “Seven Nation Army” on its “Tied Up Too Tight” single in 2005. This slower, more textured cover played up the grit and grime of the original while imbuing it with a reggae vibe that sounded similar to The Specials’ “Ghost Town” or The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton.”
If D-Me’s “Oh O O O Oh Ooh” is the song you’d expect to hear in a TV show’s montage at a dance club, then German band Obscenity Trial’s 2006 cover of “Seven Nation Army” is the song you’d expect to hear in a TV show’s montage of a goth-themed club night. The sinister undertones to the original were played up to create a Halloween vibe, thanks in no small part to singer Oliver Wand’s eerie, almost spoken word delivery.
Formed in 2003, The Dynamics has combined reggae, dub, and soul music to create stylized covers of modern pop songs and beloved pop culture staples. Its 2007 album, “Version Excursions,” had a slowed-down funky cover of “Seven Nation Army” that had an equally arresting video. The Dynamics’ “Seven Nation Army” demonstrated the band’s ability to take modern songs and so convincingly play them in the styles associated with the ’60s and ’70s that you question whether this version is not the original as opposed to the version by The White Stripes. The band did the same with Madonna’s “Music.”
Australian singer-songwriter C.W. Stoneking contributed a cover of “Seven Nation Army” to the fourth volume of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Like A Version” compilation series. Though released in 2008, it sounded like it could have been recorded 60 or 70 years earlier, as it was done in a blues style reminiscent of the legendary Lead Belly.
Country/gospel quartet The Oak Ridge Boys covered “Seven Nation Army” for its 2009 album, “The Boys Are Back.” It’s hard to decide what was the coolest part of this version. The low piano? The way the backing vocals kick in at “And I’m talking to myself at night”? Or the way the riff was turned into a loud chant of “bum, bum bum-bum, bum BUM bum”? Kodak photo finish between those three, but the “bum” chant narrowly wins.
French singer Benjamin Duterde, who performs under the name Ben L’Oncle Soul, covered “Seven Nation Army” for his debut album, 2010’s “Ben l’Oncle Soul.” He brought a soul and character to this funky version, adding layers of horns, pianos, and drums. It stands out not just because of its catchiness and swagger, but because it functions as a bookend of sorts to the version by Russell and Nostalgia 77. They are at opposite ends of the funk/soul spectrums(s), with Ben L’Oncle Soul as a foot-tapping yin to Russell’s dark and emotional yang. The single version of Ben L’Oncle Soul’s “Seven Nation Army” peaked at Number 16 in Belgium, and also charted in Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.
After Conan O’Brien left “The Tonight Show” in January 2010, he reached an agreement with NBC that stipulated he couldn’t appear on television until September of that year. So he embarked on what he called “The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour” of 30 cities. While it was a comedy tour, O’Brien performed songs as well. One of the staples of the tour was “Seven Nation Army,” which he and The Legally Prohibited Band performed as a horn-driven instrumental.
When the tour reached Nashville, O’Brien and The Legally Prohibited Band played at Jack White’s Third Man Records. The result was a live album called “Live At Third Man.” In 2015, while visiting US troops in Qatar, O’Brien and Grace Potter performed the song, sans Legally Prohibited Band.
Dutch pop group Hermes House Band became somewhat well known in Europe for its covers of “I Will Survive” and “Country Roads.” In 2010, the group released “Champions! The Greatest Stadium Hits,” a compilation of covers that included “Sweet Caroline,” “Na, Na, Hey, Hey, Kiss Him Goodbye,” “Hit The Road Jack,” and “Go West.” The version of “Seven Nation Army” seemed to take “stadium hits” literally, as it included what sounded like a full crowd chanting along with the riff.
British singer and former “X Factor” contestant Marcus Collins covered “Seven Nation Army” for his self-titled debut album. It will sound familiar, because it was done in the style of the Ben L’Oncle Soul version. In past posts, I’ve waxed philosophical as to whether it was possible to cover a cover. I’ve often disliked that phrasing, in part because it erases the originating artist. But to simply call this Collins version a White Stripes cover leaves out that the reinterpreting and restyling was done by Ben L’Oncle Soul. Listen to it for yourself.
Peaking at Number 9 on the UK Singles chart, Collins’ version of the song charted in Ireland, Scotland, and Hungary. Collins told Digital Spy he had been criticized by White Stripes purists. “I know I can’t please everyone,” he said. “A lot of people have got 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 you don’t like my singing.”
Singer-songwriter Zella Day released a folky “Seven Nation Army” in 2012 when she was just 17 years old. Her age belied the strength of her voice, which was on full display thanks to the stripped-down guitar. It’s a straight-forward cover for the most part, except for some parts where she brilliantly alters the delivery to put her own stamp on the song.
Ska band The Holophonics has done an astounding number of ska cover albums, and in such a short time: the band’s “MaSKArades” series has nine volumes already, and the first one came out at the end of 2012. The Holophonics’ cover of “Seven Nation Army” appeared on “MaSKArades Vol. 1” alongside covers of “Stacy’s Mom,” “Call Me Maybe,” and “Moves Like Jagger.” The beginning of the song won’t strike you as ska, as the horns don’t kick in until after the first verse. But when they do, they’re loud and heavy, like a marching band banging on your door.
Singer-cellist Erica Mulkey, who performs as Unwoman, recorded a cello cover of “Seven Nation Army” for her 2013 album, “Lemniscate: Uncovered Volume 2.” Her previous covers album, “Uncovered Volume 1,” was limited to songs written between 1980 and 1995, focusing on songs that were important to Mulkey during her childhood (and incidentally, to me during mine). “Volume 2” was not confined to any one time period, though she did want to limit herself to just her cello and her voice. And with “just” her cello and voice, she was able to draw a darkness out of the song that none of the previous versions had.
Funk and jazz saxophonist and flutist Karl Denson recorded a version of “Seven Nation Army” with his band, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, for the band’s 2014 album, “New Ammo.” “We’ve finally figured out how to capture in the studio what the Tiny Universe does live,” Denson wrote on the band’s website. “We move around a lot musically, but this record reflects who we are as a band and where we’re headed with our music!” The track moves around just as much, jumping from psychedelic to funk to jazz. Each new listen reveals a different layer and texture, indicating Denson’s genius.
Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox has made a name making stylized, old-timey versions of modern pop hits. Its cover of “Seven Nation Army” with Haley Reinhart on vocals turned the song into a sauntering jazz club number worthy of Cab Calloway. That’s high praise, I know, but listen to her swagger. She has earned it.
Singer-songwriter Jessica Martindale combined elements of jazz, lounge, blues, and country for her 2014 version of “Seven Nation Army.” If I were forced to give it a label, I’d call it a blues track, but that belies the all the great ways she pushes and manipulates her voice to do things I can’t adequately describe. Jack White sang the song with a fierceness to let you know he was not to be messed with, but Martindale lures us in her with playful delivery, almost like a black widow. She’s not to be messed with either, we learn, but she has a much better poker face than Jack White.
In the 2008 documentary, “It Might Get Loud,” there’s a scene where Jack White shows Jimmy Page and The Edge how to play “Seven Nation Army.” Even on paper, that’s an entertaining premise, seeing distinguished guitarists from three eras of rock holding court and discussing how to play one of their songs.
And though this riff never made it into a song for a James Bond movie, Jack White did get to a song for the storied franchise. In 2008, he appeared on “Another Way To Die” with Alicia Keys, for the movie “Quantum of Solace.”
That this riff that started in a soundcheck should now be firmly ingrained in sports and pop culture worldwide is not lost on Jack White. He seems at peace with the song’s status as a sports anthem, or so it seems. In 2006, as the song became associated with A.S. Roma, White said, “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.”