Alex Needham
May 09, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Woke up this morning and London done caught the blues. The White Stripes’ Elephant was No. 1 on the charts (White Blood Cells, their previous album, peaked at 55) and EMI had signed buzz band the 22-20s, a trio of white, middle-class teenage boys from the sedate English town of Lincoln, who holler and testify like Howlin’ Wolf.

The 22-20s deal — the conclusion of a frantic six-month chase by every A&R man in the capital — heralds the beginning of what looks to be London’s full-on blues revival. In early April, at a music-biz party where the 22-20s played with Detroit-based (but U.K.-signed) kindred spirits the Soledad Brothers, industry types thrilled to the sounds of honking saxophones, pseudo-soulful bellowing, and rudimentary guitar work.

Not since the ’60s, when Clapton and the Stones emulated Skip James and Robert Johnson, have the blues been so influential. Certainly, reviving John Lee Hooker is a welcome change from reworking the Beatles or the Velvet Underground yet again. And the blues are a touchstone for authenticity to musicians fed up with today’s heavily produced and marketed tunes.

Finally, there’s the influence of the White Stripes. Now hugely successful, seemingly without having compromised, the bluesy Stripes are role models for fledgling U.K. rockers. Visit East London these days and you’re likely to get run over in the rush of bands desperate to record at Toe Rag studios, where the Stripes made Elephant for just $9,500 and all of the equipment is vintage analog.

And that’s where the blues revival’s naysayers come in. To call it retro, they say, would be an understatement — it’s predicated on a total rejection of the modern world. There’s also something dubious about white, middle-class youths trying to turn the clock back to days no sane black person would want to relive. African-American music has always celebrated how far it, and its practitioners, have come — from Robert Johnson’s front-porch picking to Timbaland’s studio-bound technological mastery, from being downtrodden and dirt-poor to living large like Puffy. Compared with that celebratory tradition, reviving the blues looks plain reactionary. Where would you rather hang, in the 22-20s’ shack or Missy Elliott’s Beamer? — Alex Needham, NME Associate Editor




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