The Loudest Word in Rock and Roll

Notably, this is the era where bands started congealing around egos, politicaldistinction, or aesthetic division, rather than technicality—a rubric arguably set by The Beatles. The Rolling Stones picked up on the pattern early, but later seemed to want to distance themselves from the "the" trend. As Zimmer pointed out, The Rolling Stones released albums with their name on the cover through 1966, but the covers of their three 1967 releases (1967, Between the Buttons, Flowers, and Their Satanic Majesties Request) did not show the band’s name at all. The band then started calling itself "Rolling Stones."

In the '70s, the choice to leave off the definitive became more clearly artistically significant. “With punk being a neo-traditional form, returning to the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, it explains again why we get 'the' names going, along with three-chord progressions and traditional band instrumentations. It shouldn’t try and have pretentions more than that,” Zimmer said.  “It gets revived again with The Strokes and The Killers and The Hives.”

“A lot of things about rock and roll don't need changing,” The Hives’ Almqvist said. “The reason I like rock and roll is that it feels good to me already. If it ain’t broke, don't let journalists fuck it up by questioning it and telling you to change it, as the old saying goes. We used 'the' because it puts us in a long lineage of awesome bands that had ‘the’ in the beginning.”

Raf Spielman of the Portland punkers The Woolen Men hadn’t considered his place in rock's linguistic lineage until recently: “I was looking at my Dangerhouse records comp [‘77-‘79] the other day and noticing the lack of ‘the’s.  Dils, Weirdos, Avengers, Bags, Alley Cats, Deadbeats, Randoms, X. Minutemen are just Minutemen, but I think everybody says ‘The Minutemen.’ ‘Are you into Wipers?’ I don't think anyone would say that.  So I guess it does signify a kind of stance because functionally that ‘the’ is going to be there, anyway."

But the Brooklyn DIY act The So So Glos were more deliberate. “The ‘the’ is essential in our name because it implies a definitive mass of ‘so so glos,"’ the band’s frontman Alex Levine said. "'The So So Glos emotes a more grand feeling that includes all of the so so glos on earth. When we started the band, the inclusion of the ‘the’ was discussed heavily, and it was a conscious decision to keep it.” (A so so glo, by the way, could be an "apathetic, pleasure-seeking individual who always looks his/her best" and who "usually lives with a feeling of impending doom," or it could be a glow emitted from a portable electronic device.)

The band’s right to think about the grammatical implications of “the.” “There’s a distinction between count nouns, which can be enumerated—hives or, sometimes, so so glos—and a mass noun, which is something that, like electricity or freedom, simply cannot,” the OED’s Shiedlower explained. "There are contexts where you can make peace or love or freedom plural, but usually that isn’t the case.  Water is a good example. Whether you have a puddle or an ocean, you just have water.

“In any kind of mass noun you wouldn’t necessarily expect [‘the’], even if it's Blondie, let's say, or Jethro Tull or another name person names that refer to a person, they refer explicitly. But in a plural name count noun like Eurythmics or Foo Fighters, where you might expect 'the' to occur but it does not—that’s a significant choice.”

So the lack of an article has literal implications for the meaning of a band’s name: "Cults" vs. "The Cults,"  “Foals” vs. “The Foals,” “Creem” vs. “The Creem.” But what about as a linguistic phenomenon?

“There are 330 different bands that start with ‘The B’ out of 3,884 bands in my consideration set," Schnoebelen said. "The major takeaway is that [charting] bands that start with 'the' have a striking preference for the next letter to be: b, j, k, m, and z. Meanwhile, bands seem to avoid following the 'the' with a, e, i, p, t, and u.

“The easiest thing to explain is the dislike for vowels—it’s probably an avoidance of what linguists call a ‘hiatus’,” Schnoebelen continued. “That is, it’s lousy to say 'The Eagles' (and a lot easier to pronounce it ‘Theagles’). There are exceptions to these patterns, but right now these are the patterns that are popping out as most significant.” 

The electronic duo Tempers considered another factor when choosing to omit a “the” from their name. “It's overly literal of me, but the classic plural noun with a definite article structure suggests that the members of the band are that thing,” Tempers’ Edward Cooper said. “Like how if you play for the Mets, what you are is a Met. So the other option is to find a name that summons what the music is trying to communicate, rather than who the members are. That's more comfortable for me, since it's creative but impersonal."

The Hives’ Almqvist echoed the importance of having an evocative name: “A lot of bands try to call themselves something that doesn't mean anything to anyone, which we feel is like saying, 'What we do doesn't mean anything to us.' If it doesn't mean anything to you, why should anyone else care?”

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

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