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?


  1. The Bees -> The Silver Seas?

  2. Because of a clash with a British group who had the same name.

  3. After September 11 2001 - in the middle of a hugely important US tour - NZ band Shihad changed their name to Pacifier (the name of their album at the time).

    It took them a while but they changed it back.

  4. I feel duty bound to point out that, although this rarely happens in the rock world any more, in dance music this happens frequently.

    Although quite a few dance producers and DJs keep up several aliases simultaneously to allow them to release different styles of music simultaneously, it's also an accepted method for an out-of-fashion artist to reposition themselves at the supposed "cutting edge".

    The first example that comes to mind is Theo Keating, who had a couple of hits as The Wiseguys in the "Big Beat" 90s, then rebranded himself as the flouro-tinged Fake Blood in the late 00s, to renewed success.

    Obviously the relative facial anonymity of most Dance Artists helps considerably here, but the logic behind the re-brands is the same as it was in the 60s - Chasing the tail of current fashion to achieve career longevity.

  5. A few years later Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers became Toe Fat

    Not entirely true. Only Cliff Bennett became a member of Toe Fat which included former members of a band called The Godz, including Uriah Heep's Ken Hensley

  6. My all time favourite was when Huang Chung became, overnight, Wang Chung. I really wanted to end that sentence with three screamers, but the band chuck chuck chuck beat me to it.

  7. The first time I saw Elbow, around 95, they were called Soft. So it can still happen...

  8. I like the Sub Sub / Doves name change as it's tacit admission that they weren't cool club kids but smelly blokes who like playing guitars and having a good whine.

    The many names names of the KLF (Timelords, Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, 2K etc) is of course peerless. Their best being the One World Orchestra Featuring the Massed Pipes And Drums of the Children's Free Revolutionary Volunteer Guards.

  9. What about Dumpy's Rusty Nuts becoming Dumpy's Rusty Bolts?

  10. Spizzenergi did it a lot: Athletico Spizz 80, Spizzoil and The Spizzles.