Lewis Coenen-Rowe and Otis Graham debate the trajectory of musical nomenclature.
Nobody used to be remotely interested in band names. Artist’s simply had to find some kind of basic description to refer to themselves by; hence Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, The Miles Davis Quintet, The Jackson Five (the significance of the number five in music is an issue for another debate). They were distinguished, not by how they described themselves, but by their music. The fact that we’re having this debate at all shows things changed. Bizarrely, band names now seem to have taken on a mystical significance in the eyes of music aficionados- hear for example the hushed, reverent tones by which the ‘holy trinity’ of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who are preached unto us.
As the authorship of music became more important, names suddenly needed to feel significant. Pink Floyd is actually the synthesis of the names of two blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, while King Crimson is named after Beelzebub himself. These, typically prog-rock, quasi-intellectual aggrandisements were a way of promoting the group’s importance above the rest of the field.
And this is where the problem lies. When every successive generation has to prove their individuality in the form of a name they are forced to turn more and more to the wilfully obscure. Duran Duran named themselves after the villain from the 60s French sci-fi film ‘Barbarella’, Godspeed You Black Emperor! chose a suitably hipster 70s Japanese documentary while My Bloody Valentine share their title with an 80s horror film. It’s quite clear that demonstration of ‘alternative’ credentials rather than actually saying anything about the band was the prime motivator here. It gets worse.
Meaningless splicing together of disconnected words is always a favourite- step forward Flaming Lips, Stone Roses, Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel- assuming that fans will just believe that it’s in some way meaningful. It’s easy to increase your obscurity by just translating the name into another language; Yo La Tengo means ‘I have it’, Bon Iver is ‘good winter’ (misspelled), and both are hardly towering monoliths of poetry. Worst of all are those who decided that words didn’t allow them to be quite annoyingly obscure enough: Prince (‘Love Symbol’) and this year’s Mercury Prize winners, indie kids Alt J (‘Δ’).
I’m not saying that music is getting worse, far from it. What I object to is the all the fetid rubbish that we have to wade through to actually reach it, and increasingly I find that band names stink of a shallow pretentiousness that wards off people from experiencing really quality music.
First of all, Arcade Fire is a really cool name.
Second of all, wilful obscurity and inventiveness in the naming of a band is by no means necessarily a bad thing. It’s good to have a bit of colour in the ‘artist’ column of your iTunes, and even if Neutral Milk Hotel isn’t the most exuberant name, it makes a nice change from the hordes of ‘The [insert one syallable noun]s’ that make for a pretty bland library. It’s not as if bands have a duty to the public to name themselves sensibly either. If the members of Godspeed You Black Emperor! happen to like documentaries about Japanese biker gangs, then why shouldn’t they choose to adopt the name of one of them? Alt-J aren’t accountable to us, and if they think that the Apple keyboard command for typing the Delta symbol is a great name for a band, then who are we to judge them? Musicians aren’t food products, and they don’t have to describe themselves accurately on their packaging. I don’t think anyone goes to a Two Door Cinema Club gig expecting some sort indie film night, although admittedly I was somewhat disappointed when I first listened to Egyptian Hip Hop.
We should also bear in mind that names vary massively from genre to genre. Most areas of music have their own instantly recognisable style of self-identification: metal bands can be spotted by their macabre single-word titles (Deicide, Mastodon, Possessed); hip hop groups love acronyms (N.W.A., UGK, M.O.P., KMD, EPMD), and indie bands usually go for the long and misleading (Cajun Dance Party, Bombay Bicycle Club, The Last Shadow Puppets). When judging a name you really need to consider the generic context of the artist, and bear in mind that it will be related to the culture of that band’s fanbase, and not necessarily tailored for everyone.
The suggestion that band names have declined in quality over time is also somewhat misleading. Let’s not forget that the swinging sixties alone produced such rock outfits as The Troggs, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and The Lovin’ Spoonful. Bad music from way back when is rightfully forgotten in the shadow of its competitors, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist, and the same is true of band names.
A band’s name is hugely important; it’s the first thing you’re likely to know about them and can be make-or-break in terms of deciding whether to give them a listen. We can all agree that many of these names are pretentious and many are simply bad. But as far as chronology is concerned generalisation is dangerous; I’ll take Arctic Monkeys over Question Mark & The Mysterians any day.