The Artist Formerly Known As…


I have been writing about band names lately.  Maybe now we come to the point where names reach their limit.

Naming sets boundaries. This has a practical purpose in classifying and organising. A group of musicians, for example, need to identify themselves on posters, on listings for Apple Music and Spotify. But some musicians have, nevertheless, tried to escape the limits of a name.  There have been non-names, such as The Band, or The The. Prince went a step further and tried to identify himself with an unpronouncable symbol.

Although, fortunately, most musicians don’t go as far as Prince, there is a characteristic desire for musicians to identify themselves with ambiguous names, which try to escape easy classification. Let’s finish with some names that tried to be vague enough to include us all. Culture Club had a gay Irish vocalist, a black London-born bass player, a blonde English guitar and keyboard player, and a Jewish drummer. This band included all kinds of people representing all kinds of cultures. Culture Club, however, remains a name. Even a group of different cultures has an identity from which some will want to escape.  A Culture Club, inclusive though it is, probably wouldn’t be a comfortable place for the people who seek the apparent security of one culture – as perhaps the culture club of the EU is finding to its cost. The Human League has a similar irony, a league including all humans, except those who don’t want to be lumped with all other humans.

Culture Club

A name is always going to have limits. You can’t escape that, not even by adopting an unpronounceable symbol: you’re just given an unwieldy name that begins The Artist Formerly Known As… Since escaping names is impossible, the only real option is to find a good one, which suggests both identity and something bigger than identity. You could become Procol Harum, which seems to mean something but actually doesn’t mean anything. Alternatively, there’s Pink Floyd, The Who, Mott the Hoople, or Aztec Camera.  You could choose Blur – is that a word referring to something moving fast, or a non-word denoting boredom?  Alternatiely, there’s Oasis, which in suggesting a few trees, also suggests a much bigger desert.

So, what have band names taught us?  That have shown that people have an instinct to name, to limit, even something as amorphous as music.  They have also shown that names truly catching the imagination are those that try to escape identity through enigma and ambiguity.

So whether you’re headed to Heaven 17, or taking a lift to Level 42, or going on a Snow Patrol, or booking tickets for a Show of Hands, a good name suggests some other place to go when you get there.  Hope you’ve enjoyed the trip.


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