FolkWords Writes

‘… a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,’

(May 20, 2013)

Or more precisely, what’s in a name?

We’ve trotted this one round the paddock on a previous occasion but as we’re on the receiving end of a more or less constant flurry of new band names it’s time we revived the old debate.

So what is in a name? Well for individual artists, if it’s the one you were given at birth or baptism, and it’s the one you continue to use, then that’s that. But there are those artists that change their name to create ‘stage names’ for performance reasons or perhaps they plain don’t like the one they’re stuck with. Some artists change their name to become deliberately obscure (strange that - I thought the idea was to become well-known) to create an alternate identity (sounds a little too Super Hero to me) or to identify themselves as powerfully macho, part of a specific genre, or style and culture.

There’s also the ‘marketing name’ – these can be foisted on artists, and bands, by management (not such a frequent occurrence these days as it once was) to help them achieve recognition or break through the 'background noise', and to clearly identify their music. Sometimes the name change is just to create a more memorable name rather than an artist’s given name. Possibly, being exposed to the cruel, competitive world called Ronald Wycherley is not too much of a problem, unless of course you want thousands of pre-pubescent girls drooling over you, in that case Billy Fury is probably a better call.

‘I’ll name those artists in one …’

Sometimes the name change is for less obviously embarrassing reasons than your parents giving you a weird name or inheriting a crap name from your ancestors – it’s more the need to establish a name that people can remember. After all, who remembers Vincent Eugene Craddock, Stuart Leslie Goddard and John Simon Ritchie - or at least who remembers their real names well enough to identify their stage names? (If those names presented you with no problems, here’s a little exercise while we’re at it. Who are Brian Warner, Pauline Matthews, Brian Robson Rankin, Walden Robert Cassetto, Barry Alan Pincus, James Henry Miller, Roberta Joan Anderson, David Howell Evans and Georgios Krylacos Panayiotou?)

The name-change game is often used to good effect when the ‘real name’ is sometimes carefully leaked, and also used to identify an artist. It also has something to do with longevity - the longer you survive the more likely your original name will make an appearance. Almost everyone knows the stage names of Harry Webb, Farookh Bulsara and Robert Allen Zimmerman, indeed many know George Alan O'Dowd but perhaps not Michael Barratt.  (For the interested, the frustrated or the moderately confused, please see the end of this article for more answers.)

And within that question lies the answer. If your potential adoring fans can name your name in one and more importantly, know who you are then that’s one goal achieved.

‘… and I'll name those bands too’

Creating that all-important and memorable band name can be no less intriguing and the results equally obscure. Some memorable names are taken from books or films hence: Level 42, Heaven 17, Duran Duran, Steely Dan; others arrive from the fevered imaginations of their creators, from Men Without Hats and Mott the Hoople through UB40 and U2 to Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys and Tonto’s Expanding Headband.

The name not only sets out your stall it can set out your time. It appears the more your name borders the far edges of incomprehensible the more chance you have of achieving recognition and possibly the much-desired longevity. It may be that a ‘clever’ name means your audience will do more than recognise it – they will be impressed by your creativity and perhaps your wacky sense of humour - or not.

It is undeniably true that some band names not only fix a genre or a period, a name can fix you within the subset of a niche or even within a few years of a decade. How hard is it to position (either in time or genre) bands like Gladys Knight and The Pips, Martha Reeves and The Vandellas or Bobby Taylor and The Vancouvers? Not too many guesses needed there. Further classification by genre is easy. No prizes for identifying another genre that defines itself as clealry as any - Grim Reaper, The Obsessed, Death SS and Legion of The Damned - to name-check a few (thankfully). Then just to prove the point, how about The Beastie Boys, Wu Tang Clan and The Jungle Brothers – can you place them? We could go on for ever but the point is made.

 ‘For folk’s sake forget the name …’

Now consider folk music. Aside from the obvious few such as Fairport Convention (named after Simon Nicol’s parent’s house), Steeleye Span (fictional character from a traditional folk song) Incredible String Band (reasonable description) and Dr Strangely Strange (entirely appropriate) – a huge number appear to be a nothing more than a collection of the participants’ names rather than an invented name.

Interestingly, with individual artists, the folk world appears to have far fewer stage names flying around than almost any other genre. Is that the result of folk’s niche appeal - better to be known by your own name (however bizarre or hard to pronounce) then a stage name? Or is it that folk eschews the vagaries of the marketing men and artists settle for whatever handle their heritage hangs on them? After all Bert Jansch, Phil Ochs and Fred Wedlock didn’t do too badly sticking with their own names, and it looks like Devendra Banhart, Triona Ni Dhomhnaill and Iris DeMent have few problems with their names. Then again James Henry Miller might not trip everyone’s folk memory bank but his more well-known handle Ewan MacColl surely does.

There are naturally individuals that lose their own moniker in favour of their stage name, although most seem to go for the ‘obscure and memorable’ rather than the ‘powerfully macho’. There’s the more recent gems such as God’s Little Eskimo, Passenger, and Funke and the Two Tone Baby – names that tell you nothing but to some degree or other stick in your mind and pretty much position the artist.

The pastoral, historical, mythical and magical elements in folk music also (an unsurprisingly) appears to have an enduring effect on the selection of band names. There’s Telling The Bees, The Woodbine and Ivy Band, Tinkerscuss and Magicfolk. The folk world also has more than a few bands with names that follow a less than obvious path such as Sergeant Buzfuz, Heg & The Wolf Chorus, Joyce The Librarian, Harp and a Monkey, and Sproatly Smith. Of course, there are those wacky folk that just have to turn the screw one more time and come up with such gems as The Original Bushwackers & Bullockies Bush Band, The Bully Wee Band, The Emperors of Wyoming.

So what’s in a name?

The answer to that is pretty much whatever you want it to be or whatever your audience wants it to be. Stage name or not (with the majority of music it’s always and should always be the music that makes the difference) if you’re good, you’re good.

Whatever you decide to call yourself go for it – you only have yourself to blame.

Unless of course you fall into the vaguely distasteful bracket of ‘marketed artists’. Those plastic individuals dragged from obscurity because they’re pretty or shake their body parts to the orgasmic delight of young ‘nubiles’. Those bands created by throwing together some fresh-skinned youths that can dance and mime well and respond favourably to artificial manicuring.

Thankfully, such dubious delights usually possess a musical shelf life slightly shorter than an ice cube on a red hot hob. It takes only a few seconds to forget and consign rubbish to the dustbin of memory. Thankfully, most of us have memories that cherish good music whatever the artists decided to call themselves. 

Cynical? Me? Never!

 

Answers:

Individual names you may not know: Vincent Eugene Craddock (Gene Vincent) Stuart Leslie Goddard (Adam Ant) and John Simon Ritchie (Sid Vicious) Brian Warner (Marilyn Manson) Pauline Matthews  (Kiki Dee) Brian Robson Rankin (Hank Marvin) Walden Robert Cassetto (Bobby Darin) Barry Alan Pincus (Barry Manilow) Roberta Joan Anderson (Joni Mitchell) David Howell Evans (The Edge)

Individual names you probably know: Georgios Krylacos Panayiotou (George Michael) Harry Webb (Cliff Richard) Farookh Bulsara (Freddie Mercury) Robert Allen Zimmerman (Bob Dylan) George Alan O'Dowd (Boy George) and Michael Barratt (Shakin’ Stevens).

Band names and their origins: Duran Duran (named after an evil scientist in the 1968 film Barbarella) Heaven 17 (a fictional band mentioned in the novel A Clockwork Orange) Level 42 (lifted from the novel A Hitchicker's Guide to the Galaxy) and Steely Dan (from William S. Burrough's novel, Naked Lunch) UB40 (the signing-on document to claiming unemployment benefit) U2 (allegedly chosen for its ambiguity and because out of potential names it was the name the band disliked the least!).

 

 

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