Back in the ’60s, a little band out of Liverpool called themselves “The Beatles.” They had been through some name changes over the years but this one really caught on. Adults made adult jokes and tried to add insect names to every new band that came along. Never once seeing the genius of “beat,” as in backbeat, in the name.
Looking forward to your reply.
I’m not entirely sure what the question is here, Otto. But I’m happy to put in my two cents about band names. I am one of those folks that didn’t realize The Beatles wasn’t about bugs. I found out really recently, this year I think.
Every band I’ve ever been in has talked about changing its name, often well after it was a good idea. You can’t imagine your music will catch on, and then it suddenly does, and you’re stuck with a name you didn’t give as much thought to as you should have. Brace yourself to make up something, anything, that your band name might mean. People will ask about it for years, and given the origin story of many band names, you may want to avoid telling the truth. The sooner you figure out a quick, somewhat satisfying answer, the sooner you’ll be able to drive conversations in the direction you want them to go. “What, this tattoo? Oh, you noticed. I don’t like to talk about it. But it’s one of my favorite Neruda quotes. It loses a little in the translation, but in the original it says…”
I’ll try. I can’t promise even I’ll buy it though. Anything like this leaves you wide open to the counterargument, “they suck.” Which is always much more effective than it ought to be.
That said, let’s try The Smiths.
What are the chances you start a band, and you manage to technically realize the idea that’s in your head? Nobody messes up much, in fact, you all play well and can do almost everything you want to with your instrument. Everybody in the group has a unique style, but plays within a clear hierarchy for what the band’s trying to do. Plus, everyone agrees on what the band is trying to do. How often does this happen? Say, one out of every 1,000 bands?
What are the chances that that musical vision is original? That for the most part nobody else sounds like you, or you have enough of a new slant on something old that people can’t really describe it, that you have to hear it to understand it. Johnny Marr played this way. The Smiths’ rhythm section was singular and exciting. This is hard. Let’s say 1 in 3,000? 5,000? Let’s settle on 4,000.
You want to have a singer with a unique voice. A voice people know immediately and like. Sure, some people hate it—that’s taste—but a lot of people like it. Nina Simone. David Byrne. John Lennon—but perhaps not quite George Harrison—can all make you lean a little forward in your chair. The probability of this, again, is low. Really low. But Morrissey is on the list. Say 1 in 5,000?
Where are we at here… let’s do the math. We’re already at 1 in 200 billion. Wow. Pretty unusual, right?
The melodies of the songs (is this the most important part?) start to stick with you, but are not cloying. You remember them after a few listens, but not right away. They don’t drive you insane. Soon enough you love them. Furthermore, they convey the mood of the words. 1 in 600, for this I’d say. (Listen, I’m as tired of these odds as you are.)
Now to rock ’n’ roll lyrics—a tired, tired landscape. Who out there is writing without clichés? Perhaps even making their own? And doing it with humor and variety. How about making it look really easy? Like, Serena Williams easy? Some songs are political, some are tearjerkers. Many have good jokes. Let’s shove this oddly bitter-old-man Morrissey in there again. (And why has he gotten so weird? Its sucks.) Anyway, in this department he excels. He is doing great. Clocking in at about 1 in 10,000.
Holy shit we’re at 1 in 3 trillion. But can you express who you are in your songs? This is the holy grail, and it’s hard. I mean, there are some great bands out there. But do you feel like Mick Jagger really expresses who he is in his songs? Sure, he regrets losing Angie. But there are five, maybe 10 albums where he doesn’t really impart any idea of who he is, or what is important to him at all. That isn’t always necessary. But if you can do it, and do it in a way that other people recognize things in it that are important to them, well it’s pretty amazing. 1 in 15,000.
1 in like 400 trillion. Hmm, this is less common than even I expected. What an amazing and accurate formula I’ve come up with.
So, who else checks a bunch of these boxes? The Beatles, perhaps? The Rolling Stones don’t really make it all the way down that list. They put out a lot of music that was pretty unoriginal, even some stuff that was genuinely subpar. The Smiths broke up before they risked exhausting what they had to say. The Talking Heads are in the running, but they suffer from slightly less depth of feeling and less range than The Smiths. They can’t really do a tearjerker, for example.
Bob Marley, maybe? Not a band, sure, but he had a band (I’ve been watching a lot of Rudy Giuliani) and certainly gives The Smiths a run for their money. His overall cultural impact likely puts him even above them. But let’s not sell The Smiths short, who, through rather personal songs, still managed to convey their peculiar time and place—a fading industrial city (Manchester) in a disappearing empire (British)—in vivid detail. And it was an interesting place. It wasn’t Paris in ’68, but it also wasn’t Orlando in the late 2000s either.
Except, sadly: They suuccccked.
At first, I traveled with a Fender Twin, an old one, which is 100 watts. Older tube watts are more powerful than what you get today, so it was awfully loud. This was only occasionally useful. Maybe at an outdoor festival where you couldn’t hear yourself. A house party with only vocals in the P.A. But overall, I caution against going too big. It damaged relationships and it damaged hearing. In the Walkmen, it gave Hamilton something called “machine gunner’s ear” (sounds nice, right?) on the side that faced me on stage. The guitar just scooped out a certain frequency in his hearing, and I feel bad about it.
Going too far in the other direction is a Fender Princeton, which actually packs a ton of punch for its size, but it is also frustrating. In plenty of situations it’s too quiet and kind of boring to be on stage with. There was a time when you could put this amp in the overhead compartment of a plane. (I don’t know if this is still possible.) My friends the French Kicks did it, and that alone is incredibly useful. But if you have a loud drummer 5 feet away, you can’t hear yourself with a Princeton and you will probably overplay. I see Fender Deluxes most of all. They are about 20 tube watts or so, with one 12-inch speaker, but they are still loud. People love this amp. If you want to stay in this range, but not get a Fender, there’s the Vox AC-15. The Ampeg R-12. If you want distortion, the Marshall Origin 50.c can do the job.
Corrections: In the last line of your new column, you put “Emotionally Yours” on Oh Mercy—it’s on Empire Burlesque. Hope this switch from a usually considered “good” album to a “bad” one doesn’t mess things up for you.
Yes, indeed that was incorrect, although I think the jury (those poor people) is still out on whether Oh Mercy is a good album.
Second, in an earlier column I gave the wrong name for a Memphis club that should have been referred to as the Hi-Tone Lounge. I apologize.
Finally, I’ve received a number of complaints via my A.V. Club address, all from the same person, my mother, Geneve S. Maroon of Washington D.C. One in particularly stands out. In an earlier column, I mentioned a young man trying to chat her up at a Walkmen show. I gave the impression that she didn’t know what was going on, which was completely unfair. She points this out in the last two lines of a recent email (a magnificent email written entirely in the third person that made me feel very small.) Please see below.
Anyway, I hope she can forgive me. And if she doesn’t want to pick me up from Foggy Bottom Metro on Friday evening, I understand. I can walk.
Lastly, when she was taking a brief decibel level respite outside a club and was approached by a young millennial so seriously inebriated that he thought asking for her telephone number made sense, she wasn’t confused, as you wrote. She recognized it for what it was: literally blind drunkenness.
Geneve S. Maroon, Age 79. STOP SAYING I AM 80.