The Loudest Word in Rock and Roll

"The" has risen and fallen in popularity among band names over the years. But its presence or absence always says something about a group's music, members, and relationship with history.
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Years ago, I was in a khaki Volvo coupe with some friends; Kyra drove, and AJ had stereo duty. He plugged in his iPod and said, “This is the band that ruined Dale’s and my life.” As the intro to Refused's “The Deadly Rhythm” swaggered in, Kyra exclaimed, “Oh I love The Refused!”

“The Refused?” AJ said. “The?”

Three little letters, and it was time to fight.

There’s no other instance in English where the displacement of a single word causes such muddle as when "the" is used or forgotten at the front of a band’s name. Only a record-store clerk would have to ask if one meant to say "The Men" when one asks for the new release by MEN. Can you imagine trying to talk about Pete Townshend without the definitive? “Who”? The Fab Four most certainly called themselves "The Beatles." Likewise: "The Crystals," "The MC5," “The Maine.” And so on.

“Leaving 'the' off or including it makes some kind of rhetorical point,” says Jesse Shiedlower, the editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary. “Like The Beatles or The Animals or The Rolling Stones—it suggests it’s the individual members of the band making up the group, a Beatle, an Animal, a Rolling Stone. And the plurality is important."

“The Cure" is probably the best "the" band name: It represents a panacea, an answer to listeners' problems. And to some people, that’s exactly what this band became. Would “Cure” have been a less successful band? We will never know. But frankly, I don’t know what to do with "Cure." Cure what? Cure whom?

“Adding 'the' is like taking responsibility and saying, 'This is us,'” says Howlin' Pelle Almqvist of The Hives. “When bands call themselves something like Tortoise In The Snow, it seems like an attempt to make what you do less important than it is to you—almost shunning responsibility or defending yourself before the critique has even arrived.”

Mark Tester of Burnt Ones noted that “having a ‘the’ before the name of a band signifies singularity and property. In a lot of ways it's really perfect and very cool, almost gang-like: 'We are The Stooges or The Kinks or The Sisters of Mercy.' The mind-set is, ‘There is only one of us and we are it and we are gonna do it our way, no mercy.'”

The choice to add “the” did not seem to occur to musical groups of any kind until about 1920, when changes in patronage and technology made slighter distinctions between artists necessary. Through the late 1800s and the early 1900s, the main performers and composers of music either took their own names or grouped themselves underneath mass nouns—Scott Joplin, Irving Berlin, Venetian Trio. Most notably, the “Big Five” orchestras (New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, etc.) have always lacked the definitive article. People certainly did tack a "the" to those mass nouns for convenience, but even groups like Victor Military Band published without the definitive.

Original Dixieland Jazz Band was popular in the late 1890s and recorded early in the 20th century; on those recordings, they were billed without the definitive. But on fliers and handbills that date as far back as 1918—and, notably, in paragraphs where it became convenient to make definite the mass noun of Band—a "the" is added. An offshoot, The Original Memphis Five, appeared on record around 1924; that same year, The Seven Musical Magpies published a few recordings. Another early instance of "the" in a group name was a 1920 band called Johnny Hamp’s Kentucky Serenaders. The Serenaders, as they were originally called, were from Pennsylvania. They changed their name to The Kentucky Serenaders in a branding decision related to their hit “My Old Kentucky Home.”

It wasn’t until bandleaders like Hamp fronted orchestras or groups that orchestras received "the" names. “Bandleader and The Orchestra” became a common construction in the next decade. This is also the first instance of "the" that hit the charts. Before 1927, "the" was omitted because the possessive case was apparent. Tyler Schnoebelen, a recent Stanford Ph.D studying sociolinguistics, examined the presence and absence of "the" on Billboard charts ranging from 1890 to the end of 2012. He analyzed 39,046 songs by 8,758 artists; in that data set, 3,913 artists' names started with "the."

“The earliest [instances of 'the'] occur behind a band leader,” Schnoebelen wrote to me, “like ‘Nat Shillkret & The Victor Orchestra’ that had a bunch of hits in 1927. (My own favorite name in these early years is ‘Adrian Rollini & The Gang’—though maybe that’s because ‘Rollini’ is such an awesome last name.)” Even the Beatles, when they tried out for the Carroll Levis-hosted T.V. show Discoveries, went by Johnny and the Moondogs in 1959. But early R&B groups that didn’t chart also used the "the" schematic.

“The Ink Spots set the model for those vocal groups that became recognized for doo-wop, gospel, and R&B,” said Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer. The Ink Spots began performing under that name in 1934; groups like The Charioteers, The Ravens, and The Southern Sons debuted around then as well. These groups, as well as others, began the trend of "the" being used in the names of acts that were their own entities. As R&B's influence seeped into rock and roll, the trend proliferated: The Charms and The Penguins both hit the charts in 1954, and by 1955, as Schnoebelen notes, The McGuire Sisters, The Loreleis, The Cues, The DeCastro Sisters, The Jacks, The Hilltoppers, The Drifters, The Robins, The Royal Jokers, The Four Freshmen, The Gaylords, The Laurie Sisters, The Charms, The Four Coins, and The Moonglows broke out. These bands “head up the charts in 1955. That is, it looks like these are the first entrance of initial 'the' bands,” at least on Billboard,” Schnoebelen wrote. “The heyday is the mid-1960s—in 1966 there were 372 different artists that were popular enough to get listed on Billboard. 114 of these were 'the'-initial bands.”

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Dale W. Eisinger is a writer and musician based in New York.

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