January 2, 2015

What’s in a Name? – #6

Bands Named After Published Works (part one)
Alienated author Albert Camus, writer of such existential masterworks like “The Plague” and “The Stranger,” once reflected that “music is the most perfect art.” “Truly fertile music, the only kind that will move us, that we shall truly appreciate,” he wrote, “will be a music conducive to Dream, which banishes all reason and analysis. One must not wish first to understand and then to feel. Art does not tolerate Reason.” Perhaps it is in the spirit of Camus’ words that some musical groups have chosen to reciprocate this honorary praise by naming their bands after a favorite piece of literature or published work. A conclusion based on no reason behind their choice — just acknowledgement of art transcending mediums.

Members of a particular band in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll made a special effort to link their musical persona with literature and the art world of their day. After meeting in 1965 at New York’s Syracuse University, Lou Reed and John Cale, along with guitarist Sterling Morrison and percussionist Angus MacLise, decided to name their band after a pulpy, pornographic S&M novel that MacLise had in his possession. No reason behind it really, just a nod to the smutty work called “The Velvet Underground.” Bringing the German-born, smoky-voiced chanteuse Nico into their fold, the Underground linked up with Andy Warhol and his Scene, and became a part of his multi-media show, “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable.” The group would go on to explore dark, edgy themes in their music, including “Venus In Furs,” (another allusion to S&M, inspired by a novel of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch), as well as cult classics “Heroin,” and “White Light/White Heat.” Although their heyday was short-lived, The Velvet Underground’s music made a lasting impression on adoring critics and artists like David Bowie and Sonic Youth to name but a few.

In the following year, 1966, seven musicians got together in Cardiff, Wales to form a bluesy rock band called Amen Corner. Their name was taken from a play by heralded African-American author James Baldwin. Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner” related the story of a devout woman who tries to keep her son on the righteous path after his wayward father returns to their Harlem home to play jazz. Perhaps in keeping with the jazzy notions of Baldwin’s piece, Amen Corner, the band, was keen on having two saxophonists as members of the group. While not charting significantly in the United States, Amen Corner broke through the British top 10 on several occasions, and toured in 1967 with Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd.

German author Herman Hesse was noted for his severely analytical, introspective works after World War I. In one particular novel, protagonist Harry Haller tried to resolve the clashes he had within himself and the outside world, which resulted in his life being split into countless extremes in polarity. Pretty heady stuff. So why did the headbanging forefathers of rock, the lookin’-for-adventure, “Born To Be Wild” tunesmiths called Steppenwolf, decide to take their name from the title of that Hesse novel? Well, first of all, their producer suggested it, and second, well, it sounds pretty cool, man. So be it. German-born lead singer, John Kay (born Joachim Krauledat) guided his heavy metal band through hits like the aforementioned “Born To Be Wild” which held the #2 spot in the U.S. charts for three weeks in August 1968, and “Magic Carpet Ride,” which reached #3 in November of that year.

The following year of 1968 brought another heavy metal outfit known as Uriah Heep. Formed in London originally with the name Spice, they switched their name to the one conceived by Charles Dickens in 1850, which Dickens gave to a conniving clerk character in his landmark novel “David Copperfield.” While Dicken’s Uriah Heep wormed his way to the top as a partner in a law firm, the band Uriah Heep barely cracked the top 40 in Britain and the United States with their songs “Easy Livin’” and “Sweet Lorraine.” Fading away in the 1970s and then resurfacing in the heavy metal scene of the ‘80s, Uriah Heep’s blend of bass-heavy metal and organ-driven blues would influence sounds of the big hair metal groups of the early ‘80s.

A benevolent millionaire funded the formation of another group in 1969, and the group went on to garner a number one album in the United States. Sounds like something out of a modern-day Charles Dickens novel too, doesn’t it? Alas, it was one Stanley Miesegaes, a wealthy Dutch playboy, whose real-life philanthropy enabled keyboardist and singer Rick Davies to gather a group of musicians in London to form a band. It’s not like they were begging for money, but perhaps that is why they settled on naming themselves after an obscure William H. Davies novel called “The Autobiography of a Supertramp.” The story dealt with the musings of a wandering English hobo whose life only seems to go downhill after being born in a public house in a nondescript village. The band’s fortunate turn of fate led to a series of underwhelming first releases throughout the early ‘70s, but yielded a monster smash of an album, “Breakfast in America,” in 1979. With tunes like “The Lyrical Song,” and “Goodbye Stranger” receiving massive airplay, Supertramp’s successful LP was #1 on the Billboard charts for an overall six weeks.

Another benefactor was helping a band in 1969 find its voice and its literary name. Guy Stevens was an A&R executive with Island Records when he listened to a demo tape of a quintet of musicians calling themselves Silence. He liked what he heard, but didn’t like their name. Possessing a knack for bestowing unique names on bands (Stevens supposedly had given another band, Procol Harum, their moniker), the executive remembered a book he’d read in prison while serving a short stint for a drug charge. It was an underground comic novel about a man who wants desperately to break from the conformity and labels of daily life, but, through a series of misadventures, learns exactly where his position in society is destined to be. Written by Willard Manus, “Mott The Hoople” became the band’s new name. Stevens replaced their lead singer with curly-tressed, sunglass-wearing Ian Hunter, and after a series of poorly-received cover tunes, the band scored a sizable hit with the David Bowie-penned “All The Young Dudes” in 1972.

A very different kind of literature influenced part of the name of a band that formed in Winnipeg, Canada in 1972. Technically-defined as a gearing mechanism of a vehicle engine that reduces the power output required to maintain driving speed in a specific range by lowering the gear ratio, the word “overdrive” became synonymous with tire-peeling, pedal-to-the-medal rock ‘n’ roll when it was incorporated into the name of C.F. Turner and Randy, Robbie and Tim Bachman’s band. Having already tasted success with the Canadian band Guess Who, Randy Bachman helped christen his new group with the aid of a trucking industry magazine named “Overdrive.” BTO, as they came to be fondly called, scored a couple of successes with “Let It Ride” and “Takin’ Care of Business” before they went to number one on the U.S. charts for a week in November 1974 with “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.”

A drive shaft of a different nature was the germination behind the cult-favorite band Steely Dan when Donald Fagen and Walter Becker answered guitarist Denny Dias’ ad for musicians in 1972. Coining their name from the hardcore, drug-laced, underground novel “Naked Lunch” by William Burroughs, the moniker referred to a Steely Dan model of rubber phallus made by a company named Yokohama. The band did not face any stiff competition in their field of jazz-laced, obscure style of songwriting in the early ‘70s, and as their group line-up became more tumescent with ever-changing session players, Steely Dan produced their best album “Aja,” containing the hits “Peg” and “Deacon Blues” in 1977.

Be sure to log in next week for part two of Bands Named After Published Works

© 2000 Ned Truslow

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