David Browne explains what badly monickered modern rockers can learn from their '60s, '70s, and '80s ancestors
Why do rock bands have such lousy names?
A few weeks ago, in the pages of our print counterpart, I picked the Strokes’ ”Is This It” as my album of the year. My reasons were varied: zippy songs, endearingly low-budget production, great attitude, the best sort of retro rock. But there was another rationale, far lower on the scale but important in its own small way. They have a great name — short, vivid, a bit naughty.
When was the last time you said that about a band? In what amounts to a telling metaphor for the dreary state of the music as we enter year two of the new millennium, the art of the rock band name has reached a scary nadir.
Just look at the charts. On one hand we have the we’re-so-dangerous-that-we-can’t-spell bunch — Linkin Park, Staind, Limp Bizkit. Then there’s the incomprehensible gang — cumbersome monikers like Five for Fighting and System of a Down. Please. How dorky would it be to approach a record-store clerk and say, ”Have that new Hoobastank album?” And when you think about it, isn’t ”Kid Rock” pretty dumb?
It wasn’t always this way. The ’60s gave us Steppenwolf, the Byrds, and the Who. The punk movement of the following decade brought great names like the Clash and the Slits and Joy Division and Devo. The alt-rock and rap era saw Rancid and Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden and Afghan Whigs and Nirvana and Wu-Tang Clan and Radiohead. (Okay, so that period also brought Blind Melon and Hootie and the Blowfish — nothing’s perfect.)
Those were all terrific years for guitar-fueled rock, but these just aren’t, and the names say it all. Don’t get me started on the numbers brigade: Matchbox 20 (oops, they’re now matchbox twenty, which is scant improvement), Sum41, blink-182. Sorry, but I don’t want to listen to a band that sounds like a NASDAQ report. The electronica scene has given us as many good monikers (Underworld, the Chemical Brothers) as clunkers (sorry, but sticking a ”DJ” in front of one’s name is no guarantee).
Scanning the pages of the latest issue of the CMJ New Music Report, a weekly mag devoted to college and underground radio, one stumbles across all sorts of interesting appellations for bubbling-under bands: the Strokes, yes, but also Scissorfight, Deep Dish, Trembling Blue Stars, the unwieldy but descriptive …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. Sure, the music matters the most, but a resurgence in good oldfangled names will be the signal that rock is truly back.
What’s your favorite rock band name?