Return to Genre? Beware Misleading Signs

by Simon Warner

23 March 2005


Popular music’s shelves are stacked high with genres, those stylistic forms which act as both marketing tool and reassuring method for consumers to make sense of it all. The last century has seen dozen upon dozens of musical categories and sub-categories accumulate as new hybrids — blues and jazz, country and reggae — have not only made their mark but also forged incestuous relationships to spawn rock’n'roll and heavy metal, jazz funk and ska punk, to name just a small gathering of their many offspring.

But it is a little surprising how rarely bands wear their generic influences on their sleeve, actually crediting a style in their name. Maybe the nature of pop, maybe the nature of much art, is that creatives are not that keen to declare their hand, reveal their sources, display their artistic genealogy because, after all, most music-makers are anxious to present themselves as originals, as trail-blazers, as mold-breakers, not pale imitations of a golden past.

Yet on occasions, groups do doff their cap to the layers of musical sediment that have piled up over the decades and incorporate those traditions into their stage identities. Last month, I considered the bands who had adopted and adapted musical heroes as sources for their names. This time I’d like to draw attention to those who have, self-reflexively, name-checked that proliferating range of popular styles, either with reverence or with irony.

I first thought about this maybe 10 years or more ago. I was writing a piece on genre-bending, examining acts who adopted stage titles that were quite misleading or confusing. No band better demonstrated this than the Pop Group, a gang of jagged, dissonant noise-makers from Bristol in the West of England. This new wave combo from the end of the 1970s were as far from general notions of pop — melodic, catchy, inoffensive — as you’d ever find, delivering instead slabs of dense punk funk that came replete with some of the more radical political messages of a subversive time.

Almost as disquieting are Daft Punk, that slick and slippery Parisian duo who take their blender to a cocktail of musical spirits — disco, electro, synth-pop and rock — but hardly include the spikier traits of punk in their sound. Their eclectic, hard-to-define repertoire prompted a Melody Maker journalist to describe early releases by the pair as “daft punk” and the title stuck.

More usefully descriptive were the Bluesbreakers, John Mayall’s 1960s combo who spearheaded the British blues boom and included Eric Clapton, Peter Green and a galaxy of other young stars-to-be in their midst. Yet the Moody Blues - whose initials originally credited a famous Birmingham brewery called Mitchell & Butler - incorporated little genuine blues in their portfolio and the Blues Brothers — that highly successful Belushi/Aykroyd-led combination — might have been more accurately dubbed the Soul Brothers or the R&B Brothers.

Other acts have employed their chosen musical metier as a clear-cut banner heading. The extraordinary Funkadelic could hardly have been more aptly christened, marrying the James Brown basslines with deliciously intricate acid guitar licks, while Defunkt, Joe Bowie’s potent vehicle, punned cleverly but also breathed potent life into that particular genre.

Even the biggest band of all played games with their name that hinted, somewhat ambiguously, at their stylistic roots. The Beatles had been the Silver Beetles but they abbreviated then added a twist, a move that has raised some debate in subsequent decades. Was the new spelling simply a reference to beat, a British brand of rock’n'roll which Liverpool was forging at the start of the 1960s, or did it credit the Beat writers, a claim that poet Royston Ellis, a friend of Lennon’s, later proposed.

Heavy rock has been the source for a number of groups, with Metallica perhaps the clearest example. We might also mention a much more obscure British band, the Heavy Metal Kids, and, in a roundabout way, Hanoi Rocks also paid tribute to the very music they performed.

But for every band which explicity trails a particular sound, there’s an act that is more likely to throw us off the scent. De La Soul were hardly soul brothers, Electronic were more new wave or indie than electro or electronica, Be-Bop DeLuxe were more glam and glitter than Charlie Parker clones and the Electric Light Orchestra may have passingly acknowledged a string section but they remained a pop group rather than a dance band.

Meanwhile, Roxy Music, who may well have been playing teasingly with the word rock, did so in a most irreverent fashion, producing a sound that was both highly theatrical and retro-futurist, very little to do with rock’n'roll as we knew it.

Johnny Hates Jazz, English popsters from the 1980s, didn’t mince their words but the Go Gos, emerging at a time when Washington was offering go go as a potential rival to New York’s hip hop, harked back to an earlier term for disco dancers rather than referencing that short-lived capital craze, while more recent chart visitors such as Dub Star had more to do with club culture than any Jamaican record production techniques.

In short, bands will go anywhere and everywhere to choose a distinctive name. But they infrequently select a title with a distinctly musical ring and, evidence suggests, that when they do, they’re just as likely to be leading us up a false trail as transparently advertising their true wares. In the competitive field of popular music, a little deception, it appears, can add to the mystery. And a name that hides your true face isn’t necessarily a hindrance.

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