January 10, 2014

Familiar yet mysterious band names

Dead or Alive, Men at Work, Missing Persons, General Public, Talking Heads -- these are all standard phrases or idioms, as well as the names of new wave bands from the '80s. See even more here.

Because they're standard, we don't have to think or decode what the names "really mean." They're familiar and unpretentious. However cool the names Velvet Underground and Vampire Weekend may sound, they strike us as self-consciously designed and planned out, almost as though they wanted to be remembered more for their awesomely enigmatic name than their music. And most attempts at enigmatic names fall flat and sound annoying, like Matchbox 20 or The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus.

But new wave names aren't transparent either: stock phrases only pick up their meanings in context. Unlike a more straightforward name like Niggaz Wit Attitudes. (Gotcha.) Lacking further clarification, a name like Naked Eyes remains suggestive.

Allusions or references are not always transparent, such as Joy Division or Sisters of Mercy. Both of those names are ironic, alluding to things the band doesn't actually identify with. The more sincere ones tend to sound fanboyish, like it's a shibboleth or an inside joke -- Fall Out Boy, Ladyhawke, VHS or Beta, etc. For a small, tightly knit community, inside jokes are fine, but they don't work well for drawing a broader audience. Using shibboleths in front of a potentially large audience sends a signal that their fan base will be drawn from the kids who are all tribalistically possessive of the dorky music they listen to.

They say never judge a book by its cover, but what if the author himself designed it? It sure seems like the style of name reveals a lot about the group -- rappers are dumb and obvious, indie geeks are jealous fanboys, art rock was too concerned with self-presentation, and new wave drew you in with the familiar while exciting you with something exotic and unheard-of.


  1. You mentioned that you have a Scotch-Irish Hillbilly parent. When I saw this article, I thought you'd be interested.


  2. Whoops, my mistake. I meant to post that to another thread, not this one. Sorry.

  3. According to Wikipedia, "The Velvet Underground" was an early 60s mass-market paperback about sexual subcultures. Lou Reed had already written "Venus in Furs" (also named after a book) and the name reminded them of underground cinema, so that's why they chose it. Before that Reed & Cale had released the novelty dance single "The Ostrich" under the name "The Primitives".

  4. Yeah, compare with "Rolling Stones" and "Beach Boys" - talk about truth in advertising, you hear those names and listen to the records, there's just no surprises, exactly what you'd expect to hear.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."