Thursday, March 31, 2011

Great group, shame about the name - and vice-versa

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 30.)

People tend to forget it now, but one of the many odd things about the Beatles when they first crashed into the public consciousness in 1963 was their name.

Its weirdness seemed to match that of their clothing and hairstyles, which – like their music – resembled nothing that had gone before. I remember gazing at a picture of them as if they were aliens.

The few pop groups we were familiar with then had names like the Shadows, the Ventures, the Platters and the Pirates. What could have inspired a misspelled name suggestive of insects?

As it happened, the Beatles were admirers of Buddy Holly and the Crickets, who had chosen their name because they wanted something different from the bird-themed band names popular when rock and roll started to blossom in the late 1950s. So the four Liverpudlians opted to call themselves the Beetles as a tribute to their American heroes, but then – with the inventiveness that became their trademark – turned it into a word-play by inserting “a” in place of an “e”.

Not that any of this matters, since no one these days gives a thought to what an odd name the Beatles was. They so quickly took the world by storm that it ceased to matter.

The same applies to the Rolling Stones. They took their name not directly from the famous proverb (“A rolling stone gathers no moss”) but from a Muddy Waters blues song called Rollin’ Stone. It’s probably not the name a 21st century marketing consultant would choose for an up-and-coming rock band, but it doesn’t appear to have held them back.

What caused me to ruminate on this was a quirky reference book called The A to Z Of Almost Everything, in which I came across a section devoted to the derivation of pop group names. As it happened, it didn’t include the Beatles. But as someone with a penchant for trivia, I started jotting down other group names I could think of that either particularly appealed to me or had intriguing back-stories.

I included in my list several groups from New Zealand, starting with the Windy City Strugglers – a name perfectly chosen to reflect not only their geographical roots but also their music. The Strugglers (who have been going since 1968) are a gritty blues/folk/country band who draw their inspiration from the traditional songs of the American South – songs that are often concerned with the pain and despair experienced by poor rural folk in just trying to get by from day to day.

But the name also pays homage to their home town of Wellington, the world’s windiest capital. On top of that it conjures up an image of a group of battlers, heroically persevering in the face of the weather, prevailing musical fashions and the challenges of making a buck in a notoriously capricious business. So “Strugglers” couldn’t be more apt.

I remember also being impressed by the name of the 1980s Dunedin student band Netherworld Dancing Toys, which was pinched from a line in a song by Roxy Music. Don’t ask me why, but it had an evocative ring. Unfortunately it was a case of great name, shame about the band. I couldn’t stand their clunker of a song For Today, which was inexplicably a hit.

Another striking name is Fly My Pretties, which isn’t so much a band as a loose-knit bunch of very accomplished New Zealand musicians who occasionally collaborate. Founder Barnaby Weir, who chose the name, was apparently inspired by the scene in The Wizard Of Oz where the wicked witch sends her winged monkeys off to find Dorothy and Toto (though apparently she doesn’t utter those precise words).

Looking beyond New Zealand, a band name that always appealed to me was Dexy’s Midnight Runners. It alludes to the drug Dexedrine, which was popular among club goers in the English Midlands, where the band originated. “Midnight runner” referred to the fact that the drug gave users the energy to keep going all night.

Those who recall the video of their hit Come On Eileen will recall Dexy’s Midnight Runners as looking like a bunch of raffish, street-wise and slightly menacing urchins. It was a case of the name and the band being a perfect fit.

Creedence Clearwater Revival was an inspired name too, though cobbled together in haphazard circumstances. It worked because it seemed right for their music, which sounded like something out of the bayou swamps. (I was captivated when I first heard Proud Mary, a song about a Mississippi paddle steamer, and remember feeling a vague sense of betrayal when I learned the band came from California rather than the Deep South.)

Inevitably, sex was the inspiration behind many band names. That of British art-rock band 10cc referred to the volume of semen ejaculated in a male orgasm. American pop band the Lovin’ Spoonful took their name from a phrase in a blues song by Mississippi John Hurt which probably meant much the same thing. And of the several different explanations I’ve heard for the meaning of Pearl Jam, the most convincing is that it’s a slang term for semen.

The name of Steely Dan, one of my favourite bands, had sexual connotations too. The original Steely Dan was a steam-powered dildo in William Burroughs’ novel The Naked Lunch. That band founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker chose the name says something about both their subversive sense of humour and their esoteric intellectual leanings.

Blind Faith, the first so-called supergroup, and Dire Straits had names that told a story about the bands’ origins. Blind Faith was a sardonic (and prophetic) comment on the prospects of the four musicians getting along together, while Dire Straits expressed the desperate state of the band’s finances.

It can be seen from this that band names are created from all manner of things. ABBA was taken from the initials of the members’ Christian names, while the Bay City Rollers chose theirs by sticking a pin in a map of America and hitting an obscure port city in Michigan. The Doobie Brothers were named after a slang term for a marijuana joint, while Bob Dylan’s backing group was simply known as “the band” and retained that name (albeit with a capital T and B) when they became an act in their own right.

What’s also clear is that a dumb name like the Beatles is no obstacle to success if the band has talent. Conversely, pop history is littered with the corpses of groups that had brilliant names but no talent to back them.


Bearhunter said...

Seminal Irish Celtic rockers Horslips took their name during a late-night meeting at a Chinese restaurant. Havingt decided more or less on the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, one of their number, fuelled by monosodium glutamate suggested they'd be better calling themselves the Poxmen of the Horslypse and so Horslips was born.

And as a collapsed Catholic, I've always liked the Jesus and Mary Chain, who took their name from a rosary. Motorhead, meanwhile, was slang for an amphetamine user, although the original name was simply Bastard.

Simpler times...

macdoctor said...

I have heard that Led Zeppelin took their name from a critic who opined that they would "go down like a led Zeppelin". This story sounds somewhat mythological to me, but I have always liked it.

Bearhunter said...

@ Macdoctor: The critic in question was Keith Moon from the Who, who told Page his band's "New Yardbirds" name "go down like a lead zeppelin".

Anonymous said...

Any thoughts on the Electric Prunes, or Moby Grape?

Vaughan said...

When a friend's father saw Eric Burdon crossing the road with his band in Auckland he was told they were The Animals. "Quite right," he said, though they would look tame today.

The The was a great name.

I liked Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship or was it that I, like many others, found Grace Slick super sexy when she worked up to the climax of White Rabbit?

Karl du Fresne said...

My mate Bill Moore, former editor of the Nelson Mail, protests that I didn't think to mention Cecil Peak and the Remarkables.

Stephen Stratford said...

Too late for anyone to notice here but there was a group from Taihape called Daggy and the Dickheads. They were fantastic - so much better than their name. As were the Beatles.