Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Around the time that John Peel, the BBC Radio 1 DJ who set the UK rock agenda for four decades, died in the autumn of 2004, my partner, who teaches media studies in a Yorkshire town, revealed that she’d been talking to a student whose band had been invited to do a session for the broadcaster’s late night show just days before his untimely demise. This was a clearly setback for the teenager concerned. A play on the Peel show was seen as the ultimate accolade for a new band, opening up the possibilities of artistic recognition, wider public notice, and even label interest. But, setting aside this understandable personal disappointment for a moment, it was the name of his band — Lennon — that caught my attention.


The reference to another great, late, popular cultural icon was obvious: by naming a band after the former-Beatle, this group of young musicians were setting out their stall-paying tribute to one of the legends of 20th Century music-making and, by association, elevating their own status and hinting at their serious ambitions. Yet it wasn’t until I went to see an older, almost established act, at the start of the New Year, that I began thinking about other artists who have doffed their cap to heroes or influences of the past and actually included them in their own stage name.


The Trashcan Sinatras are a Scottish band who enjoyed critical, and a modicum of commercial, success in the early 1990s. Lodged in that musical oeuvre, where the Smiths met Postcard Records, where the NME’s C86 bands jangled and shambled their way through a lush landscape of indie-introspection, the group released a couple of albums before their small label ran into cash problems, leaving them marooned. Their mention of Ol’ Blues Eyes in their name never made perfect sense — Frank’s lounge balladry hardly echoed the style of the group — but the title was evocative. It made me think of that mythic 1950s urban America, sometimes dubbed a concrete jungle, occasionally an asphalt playground, where extras from West Side Story loitered on street corners and tipped over what we would call rubbish bins, for kicks.


Fortunately, the Trashcan Sinatras story is far from over. After making a brief, belated return to action in 1996, their further comeback in 2004 has proved remarkably well-timed. Following well-received appearances at the key South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, and a warm reception of their new record, Weightlifting — several American critics hailed it and PopMatters placed it at Number 50 in its annual album chart — their future is looking reassuringly bright.


But which other performers have dipped into pop’s recent history and ended up name-checking a familiar musical hero? One that comes quickly to mind is former punk renegade turned Tin Pan Alley tunesmith Elvis Costello, who abandoned his birth-name Declan McManus, marrying his mother’s maiden name with that of the Pelvis himself. In 1976 when the nasal Merseysider adopted Presley’s monicker, it was a classic act of rebellion. The original Elvis, almost canonised in the church of popular music, was appropriated by a revolutionary style that planned to kick over the tired traces of rock’n'roll. This red rag to the bull of pop’s traditions was guaranteed to irritate and Costello, along with a gallery of punk stable-mates, ensured the desired reaction.


Yet there were gentler, more genuine, references to popular music’s nobility. In the early 1960s Chubby Checker, king of the twist, had a quiet dig at Fats Domino, the great New Orleans piano player, by jokingly corrupting the name. The Hollies, the Manchester group who included superstar-to-be Graham Nash in their line-up, declared their fondness for the late Buddy Holly. And there were a few more to follow. The Yardbirds, part of the British R&B boom and including Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page among their guitarists, may well have been acknowledging one of the giants of jazz with a nod to Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, the saxophonist whose nickname was later abbreviated to Bird, of course.


In the early 1980s, one UK group offered a triple whammy, referencing three separate acts in their name. The Sid Presley Experience memorably combined mentions of the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious, Elvis once more, and the band Jimi Hendrix most famously fronted. Not long after, the American act the Colorblind James Experience made a similar play, but also hinted at older blues acts like Blind Lemon Jefferson. During the same decade, Sinatra would also be the source for a Liverpool band who would briefly but noisily seize the limelight. Frankie Goes to Hollywood borrowed verbatim a vintage US showbiz magazine headline, reporting that Hoboken-boy Frank had left the East Coast to embark on a Californian sojourn.


In more recent times, several more bands have played name games with popular cultural, rather than popular musical, figures: Marilyn Manson, with their dubious linking of platinum movie darling and grisly star killer, and the Dandy Warhols, helping to ensure that one painter’s 15 minutes of fame has now extended to almost 50 years. However, perhaps the most interesting example of this borrowing — call it postmodern homage, if you like — is a new and unlikely construct called the Punkles. The British four-piece are more than just a tribute band, celebrating not only the Beatles but also the golden age of Manhattan punk. Their repertoire and stage style sees the Fab Four rub shoulders with the Bowery beat in an extraordinary collision of time and taste. This may seem an elaborate and entertaining joke — the band consist of Joey Lennon, a Ramones reference, Sid McCartney, a Pistols revival, Markey Starkey, the Ramones once more, and Rat Harrison, a comment on the Damned’s Rat Scabies, and are managed by, you might have guessed it, Malcolm Epstein — but the scam is real enough. They’ve even had an album in the Japanese Top 50!


Rock may not have a vast number of examples — I’ve missed out the Ded Byrds who attracted legal attention from Roger McGuinn’s lawyers during the UK punk era and a more current combo, the Dub Pistols — but those bands and singers who have chosen to revive the names of artists for their own performing purposes have not only had the courage to wear their influences on their sleeve but have also proved, along the way, to be a pretty creative line-up in their own right. Imitation may just be, as they say, the sincerest form of flattery.

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