When the Black Keys Began in a Basement With ‘The Big Come Up’
The Black Keys' first album is, literally, a collection of basement tapes.
When drummer Pat Carney and guitarist Dan Auerbach set up shop in Carney's basement in the early 2000s with an eight-track tape recorder, two microphones bought off eBay and some other penny-pinching gear, it was not because they were trying to sound hip or cool. There was simply no money to do it any other way. Both men had dropped out of the University of Akron to pursue music which, at the time, seemed an even more promising field of work than whatever else their college degree could have gotten them.
"When we were in ninth grade, we were well aware that if we wanted to go to a good school, it wasn’t a possibility – that we didn’t have the money," Carney told Rolling Stone in 2012. "So it’s like, what do you have from there? You have rock 'n' roll! And you know what, no motherfucker who knew that they could fucking get bailed out of the rock 'n' roll dream could really play rock 'n' roll."
Neither had any funds to fall back on, but ever since they had first played together in high school, Auerbach and Carney felt there was something intrinsic about their connection.
“It was immediate, we could immediately make something,” Auerbach said in the same interview. “His drumming was so all over the place, but because I listened to lots of blues that was all over the place, lots of fingerpicked stuff where time signatures would stretch, I could follow him immediately.”
Listen to the Black Keys' Cover of 'She Said She Said'
The Black Keys, bravely, began sending demo tapes to record labels. Much to their surprise, an indie label in L.A., Alive Records, took them on without ever seeing the duo perform live. Alive was operated by rock critic Greg Shaw and was, at the time, releasing albums by MC5, the Germs and other various garage rock type groups. It was just the stroke of luck the Black Keys needed.
But the first stop on the road to success was still the basement, where Auerbach and Carney began to lay out tracks for The Big Come Up. Five of the album's 13 songs were covers, including an unexpected rendition of the Beatles' "She Said She Said" plus, of course, a handful of Delta blues covers — Muddy Waters, R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough — the music they had grown up playing together.
These Rust Belt boys were in shock they had landed a record deal at all, even though indie and alternative music was beginning to take a firmer stance in the mainstream rock business — Jack White in Detroit, the Killers in Las Vegas, the Strokes in New York City, for example. Still, they remained determined to do things their own way.
“The character [of Akron, Ohio] is the whole underdog mentality,” Auerbach told Pop Matters in 2005. “That’s why we do everything on our own. We’re not really friends with a whole group of musicians; there’s not like a giant scene that we’re part of. It’s just a do-it-yourself kinda thing here.”
Released on May 14, 2002, The Big Come Up was not unflawed, but it offered up the first glimpse at the raw, distorted sound the Black Keys would continue to hone as their career continued. This was the sound of two college dropouts who loved the blues trying to figuring things out as they went along — and not always succeeding.
Listen to the Black Keys' Cover of 'Busted'
"I wasn’t even thinking about songwriting on the early records, just music and the groove,” Auerbach told Rolling Stone. “It was absolutely just fucking around – taking old blues riffs, making up lyrics on the spot, and turning it into a song. Then we started sort of digging into these records that we love, and trying to figure out why it is we love them so much, besides the sonics."
"Lean forward slightly," says a sampled voice at the beginning of "The Breaks," a song that arrives at about the mid-way point of the album, "look straight at the speaker and listen with a sparkle in your eye as though you might be thinking, 'Gee this is the most wonderful thing I've ever heard in all my life.'"
The one interruption of the Black Keys' gritty grind on The Big Come Up is on the album's closing track, "240 Years Before Your Time," which features a 20-minute stretch of nothing but silence.
The Big Come Up didn't exactly arrive with a bang, selling just 500 copies in its first month. That's mere child's play to the big labels, but not entirely insignificant for a young duo who had only recently given the recording industry a shot. Over time, the LP has risen in the ranks to be one of their most celebrated – and its primitive rootsy influences remain: The Black Keys' 2021 album Delta Kream featured 11 Mississippi blues standards – though this time, they were not recorded in a basement.
“We were shocked when we got a record deal,” Carney told the Tennessean in 2021. “And we've been constantly shocked the whole 20 years we've been a band, really.”