Friday, 22 October 2010

What's in a name?......

That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

Despite Juliet's demurral (with allowances that she was only 13 after all), names are important as signifying something about the giver, its potential effect on the bearer, and the general impression it gives (or is meant to convey) to the world at large.

I get endless entertainment from the modern Chinese practice of tagging on a Western name to a traditional Chinese surname. It has unintended consequences when a grandiloquent name (obviously chosen to impress) is hitched to a commonplace Chinese surname, the sudden descent to bathos is hilarious, all the more so when this is inimical to the bearers intention. Examples I have come across are Cresswell Tan, Rolex Pang and Jenny Poo. The last is funny only when you know that she worked in a multinational fragrance company. American blacks also tend to mangle orthographic convention in bestowing distinctive epithets on their offspring like N'Qesha, D'Zyre and K'Shambia. However, going by the comments in this link, many black people view this with bemusement themselves. I like this, its quite unlike the Chinese who are culturally incapable of being self-deprecating due to the overwhelming concern with preserving "face".

In "Tristram Shandy", his father Walter, who is addicted to abstruse intellectual theorizing, espouses a belief in the momentous importance of selecting the most auspicious name for his yet unchristened son. Having settled, after a convoluted chain of reasoning, on what he considered the optimum choice Trismegistus (after the mythical sage), he was shattered to find his hopes dashed when by a comical sequence of events, his heir and scion was inadvertently christened "Tristram" which according to his logic was the worst choice possible.

"Tristram Shandy" is a unique work and I recommend it highly even if it takes a bit of getting into. While Sterne justifiably poked fun at the foibles of his characters, there may be something yet in this particular hobby horse of Walter Shandy's.

Take for instance the naming of rock bands. Besides musical ability, is there any more important single factor for an upcoming band to establish itself? A carefully selected name projects an image that reflects the musical direction while also announcing the band itself to a selected target audience, thus positioning itself for the notice of a specific sub-culture and to music industry scouts.

A quite successful template in rock is the light-heavy/dark-light combination as in Black Sabbath, Iron Butterfly, Soft Machine, Grateful Dead, etc. The great grand-daddy of them all is naturally Led Zeppelin, a well-nigh perfect name for a hard-rock band, combining as it does the heaviness of lead with a menacing war-like symbol (Germanic moreover, with all the baggage of its recent war past). In addition, I feel that the absence of the soft vowels o, u and a and a certain visual "spikiness" lends a visual/aural dimension to the subliminal impact of the name. Funnily enough, Jimmy Page contemplated naming them Whoopee Cushion early on. I concur with the fictional Mr. Shandy, Whoopee Cushion would have never been a fraction as successful as Led Zeppelin. In fact, I believe a group named Whoopee Cushion would have taken a different musical path more in the direction of a lad-rock band like Mott the Hoople and that the majestic sonority of "Led Zeppelin" was what ensconced Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham firmly in the classic rock mold.

For the life of me, I cannot imagine "Whoopee Cushion" in 30-foot high letters (and the crescendo in "Stairway" wouldn't sound half as orgasmic as well)

Other descriptive names are Pink Floyd which sounds whimsical and surreal and by a happy coincidence (or is it the name's influence manifesting itself?) describes both the Syd Barrett era (whimsical) and the later space-rock period. The name itself could hardly have a more prosaic origin, being parts of the names of two country blues performers that Syd in his random precision combined. Apparently he had never actually heard their music before.

Barrett noticed the names in the liner notes of a 1962 Blind Boy Fuller album (Philips BBL-7512). The text, written by Paul Oliver, read: "Curley Weaver and Fred McMullen, (...) Pink Anderson or Floyd Council - these were a few amongst the many blues singers that were to be heard in the rolling hills of the Piedmont, or meandering with the streams through the wooded valleys."

On the other hand, Spandau Ballet, which sounds promisingly hard-core were just a bunch of New Romantic drips.

Spandau Ballet....have reformed and are currently on tour. You were warned.

Jethro Tull is named after an 18th century agriculturalist. I wonder if any 22nd century bands will name themselves after someone obscure from our time such as a Second Division footballer. A Tull offshoot was the intriguingly named Blodwyn Pig.

Jethro Tull, the creative force behind 70s rock band Ian Anderson

The Alan Parsons Project which sounds cold, sterile and clinical is.........cold, sterile and clinical :-)

Many groups have names that advertise their affinities quite transparently: Slayer, Venom, Megadeth and Metallica are clearly not in the business of singing ballads about a swain holding his beloveds hand under a romantic moon (well, not unless he's a necrophile who's disinterred her by the light of a blood-red moon).

A lot of names appear to have been casually chosen at random, perhaps out of desperation, or out of some personal association or liking. Steely Dan is named after the atomic-powered dildo in William Burroughs' "Naked Lunch", Duran Duran is the villain from the cult film "Barbarella", the Rolling Stones were named after a Muddy Waters' number, Marillion is an obvious contraction, 10CC is apparently the average ejaculate volume etc, etc. As expected these give no indication as to what to expect from the band.

However some names are just opaque: Oasis, Rainbow, Police, Queen, Deep Purple, Yes doesn't give the prospective listener a hint (with the possible exception of Queen and Freddy's drama queen theatrics). I suspect that we will not see many more of such simple names in future as the respective domain names will probably already be occupied. New bands (or their record companies) will have to engage branding consultants to select the most suitable monicker for a target demographic, navigate potential brand name conflicts and foresee any cultural confusion or embarrassment. It all seems a far cry from a group of friends gathering in a garage after school with a few beat-up guitars but maybe I'm just being old-fashioned.

On a personal note, if I ever form a band I've already got a couple of names in hand. The first is Pentatonic Acid which incorporates a pun on pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) to reflect my scientific background, and the pentatonic blues scale. "Acid" is a nod to the late 60s acid-rock scene with a sly allusion to lysergic acid. Naturally the music will be Hendrixesque over a solid blues foundation with trippy psychedelic lyrics and imagery ;-)

The other name is Shakyamunimaker. Again this is a pun on the title of Elmore James' blues classic "Shake your Money Maker" which was covered by Fleetwood Mac, and one of the titles of the Buddha (he was from the Shakya tribe). I envisage the music to be acoustic folk-based blues with occasional Eastern influenced passages played on a DADGAD tuned guitar a la Bert Jansch/Davey Graham.

If anybody out there nicks these names for their musical projects just remember to send some groupies my way when you hit it big, OK?

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