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.

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.”

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?”

In every case, the "the" matters. Listeners disregards the word or its absence at their risk; even if it’s just three letters, it’s a crucial part of an artistic statement.

A version of this article originally appeared in Maura Magazine.