Over the last few years I have written an irregular series of articles about the artistry of famous band names and album titles. I thought it would be nice to have all those articles in one place. So here they are – my tribute to the way a huge amount of expression can be packed into very few words – as demonstrated by some of history’s best song writers.
Buddy Holly and the Crickets
If we are thinking about band names, then we have to go back to the beginning. Hillbilly was the folk music of American immigrants from Europe. In the 1930s, this music gave some early signs of what was to come, throwing up a few interesting group names – the Skillet Lickers for example, an intriguing name suggesting informality, fun, tastiness as well as poverty, hunger and desperation. Primarily, however, Hillbilly, or Country as it was known from the 1940s, was a style based around individual singers. It wasn’t until the 1950s that black R&B musicians in the United States routinely started adopting quirky collective nouns – The Orioles, The Penguins, The Crows. In Texas, Buddy Holly, dutiful son of a religiously conservative family, secretly listened to black musicians on late night radio. Amongst them was New Orleans vocal group, the Spiders. Later, when he became a musician himself, Buddy had to think of a name for his own group. Using The Spiders’ name as his starting point, he searched through reference books on entomology, eventually finding his way towards a much less threatening insect, the cricket. Crickets are harmless little creatures, which under the cover of darkness, fill the night with their chirpy sound. The story of Buddy Holly is something similar, the story of a young man using a kind of camouflage to make forbidden music. This camouflage was vital. In white dominated 1950s America, the music of black R&B musicians was a symbol of moral threat and a focus for bigotry. Philip Norman in his biography of Buddy Holly quotes from a leaflet distributed at the time, to restaurants and shops throughout the southern United States: “NOTICE! STOP! Help save the Youth of America. Don’t buy Negro records. If you don’t want to serve Negros in your place of business, then don’t have Negro records on your jukebox or Negro records on the radio. The screaming, idiotic words and savage music of these records are undermining the morals of our white youth in America. Call the advertisers on radio stations that play this type of music and complain to them…” If the Crickets wanted to write and play music inspired by black musicians, they could only do so by hiding in the linguistic long grass.
Buddy Holly died in an air crash in 1959, but the musical force he helped set free continued to develop world-wide. By the early 1960s two young Liverpudlians, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, were trying to think of a name for their band. As Buddy Holly fans, they naturally followed tracks that the Crickets made through dangerous social undergrowth. They decided to keep with the insect theme and become The Beatles. While the name Beetles had been on Buddy Holly’s own list of insect related name options, he realised that mainstream taste was not ready. It would take a few more years before Beatles would be acceptable, which even with its musically adapted spelling, suggested darker connotations of scuttle and scurry not seen with crickets. A style of music once symbolising sin and social breakdown was now becoming an accepted part of global society. Some bands even felt it was safe to call themselves the Spiders, major examples including a successful Japanese group formed in 1961, as well as a 1964 version of Alice Cooper’s band.
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars – one of the first albums I ever bought
The Spiders as a band name probably had its greatest success in 1972, when David Bowie and The Spiders From Mars shot into the rock stratosphere. Now it seemed the world could fully accept a group of musicians named after the kind of creatures that Buddy Holly had to turn into crickets.
Weather Report were a jazz fusion band of the 1970s and 1980s. As well as recording wonderful music, they came up with a band name illustrating the effort that has to go into finding just the right words. In 1970, pianist Joe Zawunil, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and bassist Miroslav Vitous, all luminaries of the jazz scene, decided to form a new band. They did not, however, have a name to describe themselves and their music. Zawunil, in an interview with Jazz Forum magazine, recounted how the three of them met at his New York apartment and went through countless names. They kept coming back to Daily News. Knowing this wasn’t quite right, the struggle continued, until Wayne Shorter pondering on the fact that news programmes always ended with a weather bulletin, suggested Weather Report. Weather Report is a better band name than Daily News because it is difficult to see a jazz band as a group of journalists. A clear story does not arise from their free flowing music. Daily News is too literal. Weather Report tells a different story. The weather is vast and ever changing, benign, glorious, dull, violent. Our ability to understand and predict the weather is partial. It’s like listening to music and feeling there is a pattern and meaning there, which is beyond our ability to fully comprehend.
Weather bulletins always come after the news, a tacit admission perhaps that talking about weather is shorthand for talking about nothing important. Nevertheless, despite their position at the bottom of the news pile, weather reports can pass on information that will blow your house away. Music is harmless entertainment, and a force with enough power to move millions. It’s a breeze on a sunny afternoon and a landscape-changing storm. None of this is in the Daily News; it’s all in the Weather Report.
Between 1967 and 1969, Marc Bolan led a psychedelic folk group called Tyrannosaurus Rex, which didn’t do very well. In 1970 Bolan moved to an electric sound, and modified the band’s name slightly. T. Rex went on to become one of the most influential forces in 1970s rock. T. Rex was a better name than Tyrannosaurus Rex. Let’s have a think about why that should be. T. Rex is an abbreviation, where letters are missed at the end of a word. Abbreviations can also take the form of contractions, omitting letters from the middle of a word, as in Mr; or an acronym, where different words are formed into a single set of letters, as in USA. All these reductions of language have the same effect. They concentrate ideas into something short and pithy; or bring diverse things together into one whole. They also take the form of a simple code, which tends to create a sense of excluding outsiders. There’s a suggestion of secrecy, belonging, exclusivity and power. It’s no surprise that many countries have been identified by abbreviations – USA, UAE, USSR, GDR, UK, DPRK. It’s also no surprise that abbreviations are popular with the military, in management speak and in academic titles. Ironically, however, there can also be an informality associated with shortened language. Abbreviations can be rebellious, disrespectful, conveying a subversive improperness. Bands that use abbreviations in their names tap into all of this. There are many examples – AC/DC, R.E.M., ABBA, REO Speedwagon, Booker T and the M.G’s, Guns N’ Roses, INXS, UB40, MC5, Run DMC, UK Subs, UFO, X-Ray Spex, ZZ Top, CSNY, OMD, ELO, 10cc, U2, AWOLNATION. The power of the abbreviation effect is illustrated by the fact that removing one letter can make all the difference. Led Zeppelin dropped a single a. The Lovin’ Spoonful dropped a single g.
Such is the attraction of elision that sometimes band names not intended as real abbreviations have been treated as such by imaginative fans, or by suspicious moral guardians. KISS was not an acronym, but that didn’t stop people finding Kids in Satan’s Service hiding in those four letters. The heavy metal band W.A.S.P. only put full stops between the letters of their name because they thought it looked cool. They left interpretation of their meaning to both their fans and detractors. So there you have it – T. Rex has a louder roar than Tyrannosaurus Rex. That’s the power of abbreviation as illustrated by band names.
Fleetwood Mac and Rumours
Daisy Jones and the Six is a novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid. It tells the tale of a fictional 1970s rock group making a massively successful album. The book is clearly inspired by Fleetwood Mac, and their experience of making the Rumours album. While the book is very good in its exploration of complex creative endeavour, it also demonstrates the power of actual great names, by contrast to inferior fictional names. Compare the name of the fictional album Aurora with the name of the real album Rumours. The title of Fleetwood Mac’s most famous album is deceptively simple, introducing its collection of songs in terms of the kind of enigmatic hearsay into which people can read their own concerns. Rumours circulate in times of trouble, and you never know where you are with them. Aurora by contrast is the sort of title which sounds impressive, but which is kind of straining for significance. And the fictional band name, The Six, does not compare with Fleetwood Mac, an abbreviation of the names of founding members Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. The name of the real band is less literal, and has the characteristically enigmatic quality that lies in all abbreviation. It also has a pleasing musical rhythm to it.
Blondie is the name of an American rock band fronted by Deborah Harry. According to Rolling Stone magazine, Blondie has sold in excess of forty million records over the course of a career starting in 1974. For a single word, Blondie has a lot to say. First, there is the biographical background it reveals. After graduating with an arts degree in 1965, Deborah Ann Harry worked at BBC offices in New York, then as a waitress, a go-go dancer and a Playboy Bunny. I don’t know if young Deborah found herself called Blondie at the BBC, but in her waitressing and dancing jobs, this was how men often refered to her. The first thing to note about the name Blondie is the “ie” ending. This sound often denotes something small, insignificant, playful, charming, as in cutie or sweetie. The linguist Otto Jespersen has suggested that the effect of ie is to convey a childlike quality. Children tend to add an ie sound – one of the easiest to produce – at the end of words as they begin to learn language. So Blondie has this suggestion of something cute and childlike. Those characteristics then collide with the reality of Blondie as a hard-hitting rock band. Blondie now takes on a different nature. There is something tough in the name, a denial of intimacy and individuality. It’s a generic nickname for fair-haired young women, which while starting all cutesy in the nursery, has now taken us into seedy bars and clubs where superficial adult relationships are playing out.
The music Blondie made is like a novel based on the short story of their name. Listening to my favourite Blondie album Parallel Lines, we meet Sunday Girl, “as cold as ice cream but still as sweet.” Heart of Glass, portrays a similar character. A glass heart suggests someone tough and unemotional, but also fragile and vulnerable . In One Way or Another, a cold hearted girl is both a stalker making dark threats, and a playful little thing, giving you the slip in a game of hide and seek. There’s Pretty Baby – that ie sound again – about a young girl trying to separate the fantasies of romance from reality. Picture This, is a love song to the fictional vision of a loved one rather than an acceptance of their reality. Fade Away and Radiate, similarly, paints a picture of someone watching a film, who feels a deeper connection with a silvery screen goddess than with real people in daily life. Finally, there’s a line in I Know But I Don’t Know, about how “I’m your dog but not your pet.” Blondie is a pet, a bunny, a cutie, the vision of a perfect, undemanding companion; but you’d be wrong to think that this pet isn’t an animal with teeth. So there you are – Blondie, an album of songs in itself.
The band that became Queen was originally called Smile. Based in London in 1969, Smile consisted of guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Deacon, with Tim Staffell on base and lead vocals. Staffell left the group in 1970, to be replaced by Freddie Bulsara, who had decided to adopt the name Mercury. He also changed the band’s name to Queen.
Queen was a much better name than Smile, which is one dimensional. Smile is an expression of happiness. That’s about it. There is no sense of the Janus mask that would include an expression of sadness. By contrast, Queen glitters like a jewel with many facets. First there are the suggestions of operatic grandeur, a sense that this band is respectful, embodying traditional qualities of skill and competence. Symphony orchestras, choral choirs, pomp and circumstance can be found here. A listener is welcomed to the palace, where you will be received with the most impeccable of hospitality. And yet… Queen is a term that refers to homosexuality, to men who dress up as women, inhabiting a semi-secret world of sequins, and songs by Gloria Gaynor. Queen suggests both the establishment and a profound antiestablishment rebelliousness which allows us to escape from the rigid convention of the palace and head to a drag club. All of that is in Queen. The name is respectable and disreputable, rebellious and conventional, epic and self-deprecating. Queen is a Janus mask of contradiction rather than a simple smile. It welcomes the conventional and the marginalised. There is room for everyone in the palace of Queen.
Titles of Travel
On this journey through band names and song titles, it would be fitting to consider the theme of travel – a characteristic preoccupation of song writers. Songs have long acted as aids to travel. Tramping feet and the stroke of oars follow a steady rhythm. Songs once served a practical purpose in smoothing this rhythm, a process reminiscent of tuning an engine. There is, however, more to a song than providing a beat, just as there is more to a journey than getting to a destination. Consider Bob Dylan’s 1965 album, Highway 61 Revisited. The real Highway 61 paved the way for Bob Dylan to follow his song writing dreams, running from the Canada/United States border, through Duluth – where Bob Dylan was born – and on down through America to New Orleans, one of the early homes of modern popular music. On the way, the road passes close to Memphis – where Elvis Presley lived at Graceland – and Clarksdale, birthplace of Muddy Waters. The Blues singer Bessie Smith died in a car accident on Route 61 near Clarksdale. Clarksdale is also the place where Highway 61 meets Highway 49. This crossroads is a musical tourist attraction, commemorating a young Blues singer named Robert Johnson, who is supposed to have offered his soul to the devil at this spot, in return for musical ability.
Bob Dylan gets his camera and sets off to explore this long series of musical milestones. The crucial word in the title of Bob Dylan’s strange travelogue is “revisited”. Apart from the sense of going back on yourself, there is something odd about the word revisited when applied to a road stretching for 1,400 miles. We usually use a road to visit a particular place. Highway 61 is a place in itself, one long series of arrivals and departures in a world associated with music.
Highway 61 is the opposite of the Yellow Brick Road, as immortalised by L. Frank Baum in The Wizard of Oz. The Yellow Brick Road is like one of those coloured lines at Victoria Station, existing for one purpose only – to guide a traveller unerringly to a destination, whether that’s the taxi rank or, in the case of Baum’s story, the Emerald City. It is interesting that when Elton John came to reference the Yellow Brick Road in the title of his massively successful album of 1973, it was to say goodbye to such a road. Highway 61 is notable for itself as much as for where it goes. The Beatles who named an album after a road, are known for crossing Abbey Road rather than travelling along it. Harking back to Robert Johnson, it seems that in people’s imagination, music is more associated with crossroads than destinations. Think of the difference if Abba had called their Arrival album Arrived. Arrival is a process which continues. It involves marching bands and excitement. Arrived is something finished. Arrived is what happens when Dorothy and her friends reach the Emerald City and find it’s a sham.
It only takes a small detail to transform the mundane description of a journey into something musical. Consider the band Supertramp – a band with a great name when it comes to endless journeys. In 1979 they took a trip across the Atlantic on an airliner in the title of their album Breakfast in America. Breakfast in America suggests a long, trans-Atlantic night flight, while the detail of breakfast at the end of it suggests a brief pause before the journey continues on somewhere else. It is the beginning of the day after all, not the end. Breakfast in America is a much better musical title than, for example, Lunch in America. And as we are in New York we could remember the vocal group Manhattan Transfer – taken from a novel by John Los Passos actually, but a great band name, suggesting a definite place which is only designed to move you on to another one.
A Final Journey – Street Legal by Bob Dylan
Street Legal is Bob Dylan’s eighteenth studio album, released in 1978. It peaked at number 11 in the Billboard Charts, the first time a Dylan studio album had not reached the top 10 since 1964. Though Street Legal might not be Bob Dylan’s most commercially successful and critically acclaimed album, I think it has one of the best names of any album ever made. This two word title is a poem in itself.
So let’s have a think about these two words, street legal, which refer to a vehicle licensed for normal road use, meeting various criteria related to equipment and safety. These criteria exclude more rarified or specialised vehicles – racing cars, off-road dune buggies, and so on. There is a sense of compromise as Dylan sets out on the road to meet his audience. He has to make sure his lights and indicators are in order. Are his rear view mirrors correctly positioned? Does he have his road tax and MOT documents up to date? He’ll need those if he’s visiting people like me in England. I know this does not sound glamorous or exciting. Something certainly seems to be lost when you decide to step out of a racing car into, say, a Hyundai i10.
However, as you make that compromise, a huge new world opens up. You’re not racing pointlessly around a tiny track anymore, or jumping over the same old sand dunes. With your indicators and side lights in good working order, a whole new vista opens up. You are now free to follow the road wherever it may lead. This is a vista revealed by the ordinary rather than the special. You don’t have to be a rock star to make this journey. In fact rock stars risk getting left behind, at an exclusive golf club perhaps, riding in a golf cart, which like a racing car or dune buggy, is not street legal.
An album is a communication, a reaching out. It takes a journey from one person to another in a street legal vehicle. When I think of Street Legal, I think of something like Van Gogh’s portrait of postman Joseph Roulin, an ordinary fellow in an unremarkable job. He sits there, unassuming in his bushy beard, dark, buttoned coat, and his station master’s hat with “Postes” in gold lettering across the front. No one in 1888 could assist in communication between people more than an ordinary postman. The same is true of Bob Dylan in his Street Legal vehicle in 1978.