When did bands start picking non-descriptive names?
July 14, 2011 12:41 PM   Subscribe

When did bands start using arbitrary non-descriptive names, e.g., "The Hollies" instead of descriptive names like "John Phillip Sousa and His Orchestra" or "The Fisherville Cornet Band"?

I suspect the trend started with commercial music recordings, but I'm not sure. I know that the Casa Loma Orchestra started out as "The Orange Blossoms" in 1927, so it has to go back to at least the jazz age, even if it was not as prevalent then, and the big switchover to arbitrary names becoming commonplace seems to have happened in the 1950s with the rise of Rock and Roll.
posted by fings to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I think it goes back further than that, depending on how you want to interpret things like "The King's Men," because names of that sort were common all the way back to the Renaissance.
posted by valkyryn at 1:03 PM on July 14, 2011

I'm not sure that "The King's Men" is a good example - the form "X's Men" is generally an explicit statement of who chartered the company. "The King's Men" had a royal charter; The Duke of York's Men was renamed Prince Charles' Men when Charles became heir. So in fact, most of those names are extremely descriptive.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:10 PM on July 14, 2011

If you look into the history of New Orleans brass bands you'll find a lot of bands that have "arbitrary, non-descriptive" names. You can read more about it here, but I excised a few examples:

Excelsior Brass Band (1879)
Onward Brass Band (1886)

19th century New Orleans is probably the first example of bands that weren't named for individuals, commissioning royalty or the church. These New Orleans bands would have been composed of ex-slaves, Civil War vets and displaced European musicians, and the fact they weren't commissioned by any authority explains why they chose names that just sounded cool to them.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:11 PM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

It was common in doo-wop. For instance, Wikipedia credits the Ink Spots as one of the original doo wop groups; they formed around 1931. Not saying they were the first to have this kind of name, but we know it at least goes back to the '30s.

Excelsior Brass Band and Onward Brass Band would not seem to count, since those names describe what the bands are: brass bands.
posted by John Cohen at 1:27 PM on July 14, 2011

The non-descriptive band name emerged in the 1950s. Before that, you can find examples in different genres that seem to fit the bill, but I don't think the 1950s band names emerged out of any particular tradition. A lot of bands in the late 50s and early 60s went down the "Buddy Holly & The Crickets" and "Bill Haley and The Comets" route, a naming convention that evolved out of the "X and His Band" naming style, which signified the rise of the 'band' as a concept in popular music (as opposed to the artist plus a revolving set of backing musicians). All of this also happened at a time when orchestral backing was giving way to the modern guitar-bass-drums setup we're all familiar with today, and because of this, the musicians in a 'band' became much more a part of the identity of a pop act, and thus warranted some sort of collective name.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 1:46 PM on July 14, 2011

1924 Armstrong had the "Hot Fives", but it was usually introduced as Louis Armstrong and his Hot Fives... in 1926 The Red Hot Peppers was formed. As far as I can tell, even though it was a Jelly Roll Morton band, it didn't include his name in the title.

I'll think a bit more, but as far as Western music is concerned that is the earliest I can recall. I've an old collection at home that might have earlier examples.. but I doubt it.
posted by edgeways at 1:57 PM on July 14, 2011

You can browse the UCSB Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project collection by year of recording, if you're interested in exploring your "it has something to do with commercially recorded music" theory.

I only went through the first couple pages, but names that echo the New Orleans Brass Bands that 2bucksplus mentions pop up pretty quickly in the earliest 1900s, ranging from "Edison Quartet" (which falls more into the descriptive category, obviously) to "Invincible Quartet" and "Peerless Orchestra" (which are a little more non-descriptive). Those last two names in particular sound like they're trying to evoke the physical/auditory characteristics of the recording medium itself (there were also record companies called things like "Indestructible Records" and "Everlasting Cylinders") - perhaps that's part of how it got started.

Another early example that comes to mind: the 1931 Ernst Lubitsch picture The Smiling Lieutenant uses an all-girl orchestra called The Viennese Swallows as a plot point. The film was based on an operetta from 1906, and while it's unclear whether the band had a name in that version of the story it might be some kind of a lead. (Though "Viennese Swallows" is arguably descriptive, if you count metaphors).
posted by bubukaba at 2:37 PM on July 14, 2011

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