Oct 23, 2008

Band Name Derby

This is the kind of train of thought that pulls into my brain and won't leave until all the passengers are out, so though it's way off topic, indulge me (or don't).

I was listening to a song I like by My Morning Jacket yesterday, and I thought, "I really wish I'd listen to them a little more." And then I realized: Maybe one reason I don't think to dial this band up on my iPod very often is because the band's name objectively sucks. I mean, it is a terrible band name, isn't it? It fails on so many levels, not only in not preparing you for the kind of music MMJ plays (basically power-pop with a tinge of roots-rock) but also by any yardstick of catchiness or cleverness...What is a "morning jacket"? And why does a band with four members label itself with a singular possessive, "my"? Who's the "me"? It just doesn't compute. I mean, that's not a problem for My Bloody Valentine, but then that's a great band name, extremely evocative even for those who don't get the Rodgers & Hart reference.

So this got me thinking: How would I rate band names, apart from--maybe not totally apart from--the actual music bands make? I started to think about it and couldn't stop, because I realized I have a lot of thoughts on the subject. The Beatles? A brilliant name, clever--a blank slate yet somehow unmistakeably English. The Beach Boys? An awful, reductive name that has consigned their music to kitsch, so that pop aficianados must strenuously insist they don't mean "Brian Wilson is a genius" ironically. The Rolling Stones? Iconic, perfect, the Platonic ideal of rock band names. Led Zeppelin? Iconic, certainly, but pretentious, nerdy, redolent of Tolkien and head shops. U2? Kind of brilliant, subliminal, close to branding. Radiohead? Cold, clinical, shrug-worthy.

Of course, as I went through this list with my better half, she kept saying, "But it doesn't matter," which is of course true on one level--but in another way a band's name signifies at least as much, and arguably more, than the title of a play or movie or other work of fiction does. I realized that a band's name has a lot to do with how they're thought of, and what their possibilities have and haven't been in terms of cultural impact. How "good" their music is--well, I actually prefer Zeppelin to the Stones, and I love Radiohead, so that's not what this is about. Heck, I used to be in a band called Millhouse, not because anybody was passionate about it but because it was the name that least bothered us all. And one of my favorite current bands, Midlake...well, sorry, but that name just sits there.

So, without further throat clearing, off the top of my head, here's what I think of...

Creedence Clearwater Revival A ridiculously wordy, pretentious name for a really solid, straightahead roots-rock band. Any single one of those words would be a better band name.

Grateful Dead I don't know how, but somehow this name has come to transcend its essential grimness (the dead are grateful? that's bleak) to suggest something warm and comfortable.

Velvet Underground Perfect, maybe the most descriptive band name ever.

The Who Kind of brilliant, one of the first "meta" band names (The The, The Band), and a good way to introduce the identity theme that's been one of Townshend's obsessions.

Guess Who Pffft.

Steely Dan Somehow obliquely dead-on. Weird how it's never, ever occurred to me to ask, "Who's this Dan?"

Fleetwood Mac Similar to Steely Dan but not nearly as dead-on. For one thing, it doesn't begin to hint at how much is going on in this music, but then what could?

Talking Heads Just about the perfect "New Wave" band name.

The Clash A great, great name--one that actually somehow conjures the sound of the band itself.

ZZ Top As pot-inspired names go, this is the sine qua non (yes, better than Jefferson Airplane or Doobie Brothers).

Supertramp Consummately silly, and thus perfect.

R.E.M. Fits the music uncannily well.

Yes No.

Sonic Youth Appropriately jarring and spring-loaded with irony.

The Pixies I don't know why this one fits so well; it really shouldn't, but it does.

Nirvana Passable, though it sounds a bit too adolescent psuedo-deep.

Meat Puppets I've always loved this name--like The Dead, the image it describes has never stuck in my craw. It's just a cool-sounding name.

The Replacements Pretty inspired, if confining--it makes them sound a bit like a novelty band, and that's kind of how they ended up.

Beastie Boys Ditto.

Air Perfect, for much the same reason as The Clash.

Aerosmith A lesser band than Zeppelin but a cooler name (albeit also dorky and dated in its way).

Spoon Gets the job done but doesn't quite rock my world.

Arcade Fire An evocative name that nevertheless doesn't seem to fit somehow.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah Puh-leaze.

The Shins Blah.

Wolf Parade Genius.

They Might Be Giants Just about the only band with a name that's a sentence that actually works. Somehow this lets you know they're quirky, but it also has a kind of grandeur...pretty inspired, in short.

Guided By Voices Unbearably twee. Why not just call your band Wind Song or Ghost Chimes?

Public Enemy A perfect, resonant name.

Violent Femmes This never worked for me, mainly because it doesn't let you in on what you're going to hear, the twang and bounce of it. This just sounds like a garden-variety punk band.

Speaking of which, I know I haven't touched punk or metal band names--it's not my area of expertise--though I have to express some grudging admiration for the inarguable majesty of names like Metallica, Dokken, and Slayer.

I also thought, as a way to (tenuously) relate this to theater, I could mention play titles I thought worked and didn't. But as I've gone on long enough, I will leave that to you, dear reader.


RH said...

a) you know steely dan is the name of a sex toy from Naked Lunch. Right? Why do I know that, having never read it?

b) i like "my morning jacket". But then, the name of my band is ".. and the Sexy Children", whih tells you nothing about my music either.

how the heck are ya.


c said...

Just out of college in Boston, a friend of mine was briefly in rehearsals with a fairly awful band. He finally quit the day he showed up for rehearsal and the group's leader breathlessly announced that he'd finally come up with a name for the band:

"Sparkling Blue Tuxedoes."

(This band's ambition was not, as the name seems to suggest, to play high school proms...)