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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Why bands will never again change their names

In 1966 something happened in pop music that hadn't happened before, hasn't happened since and probably won't happen again in the future.

Lots of groups changed their names. They did it more or less simultaneously.

They did it to give themselves a fresh start, to signal the fact that they were bands rather than groups and to announce which side they were on in the cultural revolution of the late 60s.

As usual, this sudden overthrow of the old order was swiftly followed by the establishment of a newer, more rigid one.

Their old group names had consisted of the definite article followed by a plural noun. Buddy Holly's group The Crickets had begun this trend in the 50s. The Beatles modelled their name on the Crickets. Everybody else fell in behind.

Few of the new, post-1966 band names were plurals. They were often a concrete noun with a modifying adjective that was slightly unusual or, as we might say today, inappropriate.

In this way, the Human Beans became Love Sculpture, the Pigeons turned into Vanilla Fudge, the Ingoes became Blossom Toes, The Action became Mighty Baby and the Screaming Abdabs were reborn as Pink Floyd. The last was an example of taking something from the real world (the blues musicians Pink Anderson and Floyd Council) and bending it to achieve the desired air of meaninglessness.

The Warlocks adopted the words The Grateful Dead from a book. As did the Wilde Flowers when they turned into Soft Machine.

Sometimes the change was suggested by the record company. Fantasy owner Saul Zaentz didn't want a group called The Golliwogs and told them to come up with ten alternatives. He picked the first one, the entirely meaningless Creedence Clearwater Revival.

The Ashes were encouraged to restyle themselves as the Peanut Butter Conspiracy so that their first album could be called The Peanut Butter Conspiracy Is Spreading.

Round about the same time, in a fictional dimension, the self-explanatory Thamesmen became the puzzling Spinal Tap.

Most of the acts who changed their names hadn't made enough of a name to risk a great deal in the changing. The same didn't apply to the proven musicians who played in the popular road bands of the mid-60s. Zoot Money's Big Roll Band were re-badged as Dantalion's Chariot. A few years later Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers became Toe Fat and Simon Dupree and the Big Sound was reborn as Gentle Giant.

At the same time The Beatles were retiring, chummy name and all. How would they have got on with that name if they'd still been going in the mid-70s? Maybe not so well. There are plenty of excellent groups from the 60s whose names made them seem dated in the 70s: The Zombies, The Hollies and Pretty Things never prospered as much as they deserved in the new world of puzzling names and opaque song titles.

This naming revolution has never been repeated. Since 1966 nobody has dared to re-badge themselves quite as boldly and as touchingly as those groups did at the time. Many groups have toyed with the idea of reappearing in a new guise. By now most of them know that their name is actually their fortune.

The acts who took on the new name in 1966 probably weren't thinking it would last them more than a few years. They didn't think *they* would last more than a few years.

You can't imagine it happening today. Even a middling band isn't going to radically change their name. That would mean admitting that they want a new image. It would be letting daylight in on magic, admitting that the whole idea of bands as gangs is just a ruse. Nobody renames a gang. It can't start again.

Renaming a band means you have to admit that the name you had before wasn't right, that it didn't match your aspirations. It attracts the question all Englishmen dread the most - who do you think you are?