The Meaning Behind “On the Game” by The Black Keys and Their Epic Ballad with Noel Gallagher

Let’s get this out of the way: “On the Game” is The Black Keys’ best song of their career.

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For their impressive new album Ohio Players, The Black Keys opened their creative door to multiple musicians and writers, including Beck and Oasis’ Noel Gallagher. Beck’s production adds a technicolor lens to their retro-fuzz, and Gallagher brings the kind of hooks that made the kids in Knebworth, England, go “mad for it.”

When news broke last year about the collaboration, it created high expectations for the duo. While most bands from the early 2000s garage-rock scene either broke up or peaked long ago, The Black Keys quietly found themselves alone on top of the mountain.

“On the Game” proves their best work isn’t behind them.  

Bittersweet Symphony

“On the Game” is about escaping the blues with music, movies, or any art that removes anxiety.

When I need a remedy
I go and pick a melody and sing these blues away at the break of day
Maybe shake my tambourine
I look up at a movie screen and dream away
Where I feel no pain

Dan Auerbach warns of corrupting thoughts when he sings, The ones who wanna free mankind / Go and feed you lies / Rot your mind.

’Cause everybody’s on the game
They keep you howlin’ at the rain
It’s how we know we’re all the same, the joy, the pain
Everybody’s on the game

The Gallaghers and The Black Keys

Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney wrote “On the Game” with Noel Gallagher and Leon Michels, who co-founded The Arcs with Auerbach and worked as a touring member of The Black Keys.

Meanwhile, The Black Keys began posting footage from Toe Rag Studios in London with Noel Gallagher. Gallagher told Rolling Stone, “We did a week in the studio in London and wrote three songs, and I’ve gotta tell you, they’re f—ing amazing.”

Calling Gallagher “The Chord Lord,” Carney told NME, “Dan and I are big fans of him and [brother] Liam. Actually, the Liam song ‘Everything’s Electric’ is why we decided to work with [producer Greg] Kurstin.”

Kurstin has collaborated with Liam Gallagher on his post-Oasis solo albums and recently produced Liam’s duo album with John Squire from The Stone Roses. Kurstin produced and co-wrote the closing track on Ohio Players, “Every Time You Leave.”

Working with Beck

Beck’s relationship with The Black Keys goes back 21 years. In 2003, Auerbach and Carney toured with Sleater-Kinney and met Beck at a Saturday Night Live afterparty. (Beck was SNL’s musical guest that night.)  

Carney gave Beck a bootleg version of The Black Keys’ upcoming album Thickfreakness. Beck liked the album and, a few weeks later, invited them on tour. Carney told NME it was the band’s first big break.

Ohio Players is a collaborative album that completes a wide circle with Beck, who produced and co-wrote the album.

For most of their career, Auerbach and Carney were self-sufficient. However, working with Danger Mouse on their 2008 album Attack & Release opened them up to outside influences. On the new album, they wanted to re-create the parties they host around the world, what they call “record hangs.”

Stand by Me

Twenty-two years ago, The Black Keys debuted with The Big Come Up, and though they’ve been extraordinarily successful, cracks appeared between the pair of friends.

However, when they entered the studio in 2021 to record their previous album Dropout Boogie, things felt different. Carney said the pandemic’s isolation changed their relationship. “We were really, really, really excited to see each other every day.”

Following Dropout Boogie, they continued working on new music. When Beck visited Easy Eye Studio in Nashville, the idea for a new album took shape. Carney called Ohio Players an “epic” album and “our best record for sure.”

Standing on the Shoulder of Giants

“On the Game” is positively epic. For his part, Auerbach showcases one of rock ‘n’ roll’s liveliest voices. On Brothers, he adopted a falsetto that added a new dimension and texture to his blues howl. The endless growth of his voice—with Carney’s swinging rhythms—led to The Black Keys’ evolution. Though they still sound at home playing old blues, they sound equally comfortable mining multiple genres, a practice perfected by Beck.

Gallagher may be “The Chord Lord,” but he’s also a man of anthems, and when Auerbach reaches for the skies, singing, We’re all the same, the joy, the pain, Carney’s description of “epic” is right.  

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Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for iHeartRadio

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