Till My Head Falls Off 04.13.03:The Name Game

For Your Listening Pleasure
Outkast – Skankonia

For some reason, there’s a song on this record that I just can’t seem to get out of my head these days….

News to You
You Guys,
Are my best Friends,
through thick and thin,
We’ll always be together,
We’re 4 of a kind, having fun all day,
Pallin’ around, and laughing away,
‘Cause best friends,
best friends are we!
I love you guys.
– Cartman

“South Park” has reached episode #100! Now, I’ll be completely honest with you, since I rarely watch Comedy Central, and am no longer a college student, I find it hard to keep track of each new “season”, and often end up catching episodes after they’re already in re-runs on Wednesdays at 10pm ET. But from “The Spirit of Christmas” (the 1995 short that featured Jesus vs. Santa Claus, and made the cartoon a cult hit) through “It Hits the Fan” (the episode a year or so ago, where the creators push the envelope to see how many times they can say “shit” in a half hour), and everything since, this show has gone from camp to classic, and I’m entertained more often than not whenever I get a chance to catch it.

The Name Game
In the midst of war, Edwin Starr — famous for the song “War” — passed away earlier this month. Born Charles Hatcher, Starr’s other hits include “Agent Double-O-Soul”, “25 Miles” and “Stop the War Now”. Personally, I can’t think of an anti-war song more powerful than 1970’s “War” (Huh. Good God, y’all! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Say it again…) — but that’s debate for a future column.

This news got me thinking about other rock stars (no pun intended) that have gone on to successful careers after changing their names.

Some I can understand. “Sting” is a lot cooler than “Gordon Sumner” is, for example. And what’s easier to say, “Madonna” or “Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone”? But there have been some perfectly acceptable names discarded in exchange for what they (or their management) thought would be hipper pseudonyms.

Remember Johnny Cougar? A singer/songwriter that simply reeks of Americana — whether he’s singing in protest of a war, or just inciting everyone to “R.O.C.K in the U.S.A.” — it took this guy THREE tries before settling into a name that he and all of his fans are comfortable with. I’ve personally never been more confused by this, and for a while thought that John Cougar and John Mellancamp were in fact two different singers. I will forgive him, however, since it was an early manager that decided on the “Johnny” name… but there are some that are just unforgivable.

First of all, what’s with Declan Patrick McManus? Not that there’s anything wrong with Elvis Costello being proud of his mother’s Italian heritage (that’s where the “Costello” comes from), but why not stick with his first stage name, “D.P. Costello”? At least that was more true to his roots! I don’t even know what his roots are, actually. He was born in Liverpool, but for some reason I could have sworn he was Irish. Ah, well.

And, thinking about some more “rock and roll hall of famers,” as much as I can understand Bob Dylan wanting to shorten his name (and respect his taking his surname from poet Dylan Thomas), Elton John’s name-change story is borderline pathetic. According to allmusic.com, Reginald Dwight had joined a band called Bluesology which, in 1966, “became Long John Baldry’s supporting band, and began touring cabarets throughout England. Dwight became frustrated with Baldry’s control of the band and began searching for other groups to join…” and eventually teamed up with Bernie Taupin to form one of the greatest songwriting teams of all time. He got the name “Elton” from Bluesology sax player Elton Dean, which is fine. For all we know, they were best friends. But wait a second. Where’d the “John” come from, you ask? Long John Baldry. The SAME MAN that caused him to quit the damn band in the first place! Unreal.

So, what’s the point of this column, you ask? It just seems to me that most of these name-changes are completely unnecessary, even though I’m not sure if there’s a sure-fire way to measure “acceptable” name changes versus “utterly ridiculous” ones.

Richard Starkey changing his name to Ringo Starr? Perfectly acceptable.

But Paul Hewson changing his name to Bono? Seems a bit pretentious, don’t ya think?

Various members of the Ramones, Traveling Wilburys, or the Datsuns that take the same last name? Adds to the feel that they’re a tight, cohesive band.

But is there anything more ridiculous than trying to figure out the logic behind ANYone’s hip-hop name? Well… that’s a bit out of my league, so here’s Iago Ali with his thoughts on the matter….

Flipping the Script
Let me hand the mic over to fellow 411 columnist Iago, for his take on this issue from a hip-hop perspective:

Okay, so a lot rock stars have rechristened themselves on the road to superstardom, but in hip-hop, name changes are the rule. *Everybody* in hip-hop changes their names–not just MCs and DJs, but also the B-boys and graf writers that make up the less visible parts of the culture. The question, as posed by our very own MC Biscotti, is why? The answer, as handed down by your old buddy Iago Ali (and don’t think that’s my real name either), is to follow.

You see, hip-hop is an overtly character driven genre. Yeah, as an MC you’re selling lyrical skill and content, but the character you’re presenting is just as important. Naming that character is key; a good name will burn your persona in the audience’s mind before they even hear you rhyme.

Hip-hop names fall into categories: acronyms (KRS-One stands for Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everybody; LL Cool J is Ladies Love Cool James), descriptive terms (Big Daddy Kane was a smooth neo-pimp; Fat Joe was fat), stupid (Ja Rule, for example), or any of a million other categories that I might go more into detail with if this was my own column. Whatever the category, the point remains the same: the stage name needs to be memorable.

And really, there’s more I can say, but I want to watch Fear Factor. In conclusion, I like ninjas.

We remember KRS-One and Chuck D. and Big Daddy Kane and Rakim at least as much for their character and personality as we do for their talent.

Fun With Spellchecker
What I typed: Rakim
Spellchecker’s suggested replacement: Raked

Kind of interesting, especially considering the dude that we used to hire to rake our leaves kinda looked a little like Rakim. Couldn’t rhyme worth the shit, though…

OH, and here’s another one…

What I typed: Hewson (as in Paul Hewson, the lead singer of U2 and Nobel Peace Prize nominee)
Spellchecker’s suggested replacement: Hussein (I am NOT making this up — I wonder if this ruins Bono’s Nobel chances!)

Festival Update
What’s with music festivals coming to Calverton, Long Island? Last week, I mentioned rumors of “Bonnaroo NE”, coming to LI in August… and this week, Time Out New York reports that Field Day, a two-day “music and camping” festival will be held at Calverton Enterprise Park in June. The show will be headlined by Radiohead (June 7) and the Beastie Boys (June 8), and will also feature Sigur Ros, N.E.R.D., Liz Phair, Beth Orton, Spiritualized, My Morning Jacket, Ben Lee and the Transplants. All I have to say is this show promises to be a bit safer than the Bonnaroo show — trust me, I’ve been around way too many Long Island Dave Matthews fans… it can get pretty scary.

Until next week…

peace. love. moe.

– Matt

Till My Head Falls Off can be found weekly on 411 Music (old columns are archived in the pull-down menu below). Already hit everything on 411? You can find more from Matthew Michaels at moodspins and 1-42.