For many bands, there’s a message behind the moniker.
Music directly represents the passions of the soul. If one listens to the wrong kind of music, he will become the wrong kind of person. —Aristotle
Remember Ace of Base, the innocuous Swedish pop group with ABBA overtones who sold 30 million albums in the early ’90s? A of B had not crossed my mind since ’93 until yesterday, when I listened to a Cracked podcast titled “How a Pop Band Tricked 9 Million Americans into Being Nazis.”
I’d assumed these synth-driven stars spelled “Base” as Bass, a reference to a heavy low end, but Cracked hypothesizes the group went with “Base” as a reference to the WWII-era Keroman Submarine Base. Known as the Base of Aces, it housed German U-boats during the war. This might seem like pretty thin soup by itself, but consider this: Ace of Base founder Ulf Ekberg cut his teeth in a neo-Nazi punk band called Commit Suicide, whose über-creepy lyrics include “Men in white hoods march down the road, we enjoy ourselves when we’re sawing off … heads/Immigrant, we hate you! Out, out, out, out! Nordic people, wake up now! Shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot!”
That poorly written, hateful shit Ekberg spewed in his early work makes the Nazi allusion more than likely and forces one to rethink the meaning of these lyrics to Ace of Base’s breakthrough hit “Happy Nation”: “Living in a happy nation/Where the people understand and dream of perfect man.”
As disturbing as this butthole is, one does have to admit that his band name did what a band name should: It employed clever wordplay, sounded cool, and hinted at a secret connection between musicians and their audience while looking good on a T-shirt. It’s a subtle nod that says, “Here’s what we are about. We share a connection.” Knowing what I know now, if I saw Ace of Base on a marquee, I would not go in. But if I saw the Doobie Brothers on a marquee, I would know immediately that these are my people and I’d rush to the front row.
Cliché but true: You only get one chance to make a first impression. That’s why band names remain wildly important. If you’re not clever enough to come up with a catchy handle, you’re probably not going to come up with interesting music or a good show. Everybody judges a book by its cover. That’s why every successful publisher hires the best designers to construct a cover that lures in an audience. Similarly, the name on a marquee, flyer, or Facebook post will draw or repel a crowd, so choose your name wisely.
The Beatles knew how to pick a name. Their moniker was a tip of the hat to their musical heroes, the Crickets, but—on a deeper level—the “a” in place of an “e” referenced their infectious beats. Black Flag was clever as well. A white flag means surrender, so a black flag represented anarchy, the perfect emblem for a bunch of malcontents angry at the system. Lemmy knew what he was doing with the name Motörhead. Not only is "motor head" slang for a speed freak—a shout-out to Lemmy’s fellow amphetamine lovers—but the name also gives a clue about their hell-bent, hot-rod-racing-in-the-red sound.
When I read that the band Contagious Orgasm is playing in town, of course I want to experience that. The band Gay for Johnny Depp makes me think, “Who isn’t?” Funny and lowbrow names like Butt Trumpet, Almighty Lumberjacks of Death, Henry Kissinger's Tits, and Free Beer walk that fine line between clever and stupid, which always puts butts in the seats.
But bands that go cerebral draw longer. The Doors is the perfect highbrow name. Jim Morrison was alluding to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, which is a drug reference, but on a deeper level points to William Blake’s quote: “When the doors of perception are cleansed, things will appear to man as they truly are ... infinite.” With that name alone, the leather-clad Lizard King spread his agenda: open your mind and break on through to the other side.
Sometimes spreading an agenda trumps breaking your act. Look at Earth Crisis, a band of straight edge vegans known for their work in the animal rights movement. The name suggests that the Earth is in trouble and we need to adjust accordingly. There’s a Scottish band called Dogs Die in Hot Cars. I’ve no idea what they sound like, but their name alone serves as a public service announcement.
My guess is that Aristotle warned about listening to the wrong kind of music because he knew that a message is more easily absorbed when attached to a good melody or rhythm. When people of low character want to spread a destructive message, music can be a Trojan horse. Music can make you fall in love or march into battle, so be careful who you listen to. If you’re a band, find a handle that describes your vibe. While on the subject, check out my new project: the No-Tuning, Over-Playing, Sideways Twangers.