April 30, 1978: Over 100,000 rockers, punks and general lovers of humanity congregated in Victoria Park, Hackney for what is now known as the famous Rock Against Racism showcase in protest of Eric Clapton’s racist remarks he dropped only but a few years back. “Enoch was right,” he stated in a drunken, aggressive stupor. “We should send them all back.” Them, of course, in reference to the then-current elevation in Britain’s black community. As a white man whose predominant musical influences were rooted in blues, a genre famously founded and dominated by black musicians, Clapton’s hypocrisy was not taken lightly, especially in the snaggle-toothed face of punk. One of the festival’s most known and anticipated musicians, Joe Strummer, of obvious notoriety due to fronting The Clash, differed from Clapton for reasons other than just the obvious.
Aside from clear differences in political stance, Strummer and Clapton seemed to have another clash in their personas (Pun 100% intended): Their names. While Clapton stuck to the name on his birth certificate, Strummer, like many of those involved in the infancy of punk, chose the newfound route of creating your very own—and “Joe Strummer” was not even his first. Back in his art school days in London, the then “John Mellor” adopted the stage name “Woody” after the machine-utilizing-and-fascist-killing folk pioneer, Woody Guthrie. This stuck and represented him in his time as a meandering troubadour in the streets of London who sang songs in the underground to anyone who passed, until a telecaster replaced an acoustic and he became “Strummer,” due to his position playing rhythm guitar, thus making musical history.
Stage names, on the surface, are a concept that most of us just accept and never think twice about. More often than not, they correlate directly with image, how the musician wants to present themselves and how we, as the viewers and listeners, perceive them both on a stage and in our ears. Aside from this, the types of names created also allow the listener to know what genre of music they’re going to listen to before even putting the needle on the record, press play on Spotify, or even put in a cassette into their older sibling’s old Walkman. Other times, more commonly in film and TV, an actor or actress with change their name because their birth name is, what they think to be, unattractive or unrecognizable due to their ethnicity. By creating your own name, not only through your creative medium of choice, but in every sense of the meaning, you in-turn change yourself and your perception.
It isn’t exactly a secret within punk, more specifically the ‘70s, ‘80’s and even some of the ‘90s that stage names were, at a time, almost quintessential. Calling yourself a crude combination of words wasn’t just a quirky thing to do, but it was also an easy way to stand out among traditional and mainstream musicians.
– Iggy Pop (James Newell Osterberg)
– Cheetah Chrome (Eugene O’Connor)
– Elvis Costello (Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus)
– Siouxsie Sioux (Susan Janet Ballion)
– Lux Interior (Erick Lee Purkhiser)
– Darby Crash (Jan Paul Beahm)
– Ben Weasel (Benjamin Foster)
These are some of the more popular names throughout the eras, but upon hearing all of them, you can almost guess at what branch of music you can expect. When I hear Darby Crash, I don’t exactly expect to hear a ‘70s power ballad, nor do hope to hear a Basie-esque jazz chart coming from a name like Lux Interior. This being said, if this is a so-called “tradition,” why has it, in large part, died out over the past decade and a half?
With the internet now playing a crucial role in the distribution and promotion of DIY music via Bandcamp and Soundcloud, we’ve entered a transitional period where a band’s physical image has much less central importance to their perception, yet more emphasis has been placed on how bands interact with their fans on social media platforms. Instead of stage names, we have a much more personal method of recognition: The internet. In layman’s terms, “social media presence” now dominates and diminishes the need for a band or musician to visually stand out. Of course, with a screen between the listener and musician, the internet becomes a double-edged sword and leaves room for the artist to create a persona that does not align with the actual person, but overall, it’s been used in a positive manner. This, as a listener in a more politically and socially progressive era, makes it easy to distinguish which bands genuinely care about the music they make and the scene that they’re a part of, as opposed to the previous non-internet, stage name and fashion heavy eras. In a sense, this also bridges the gap between musician and listener, and leaves less room for superficiality to reign supreme. Isn’t that kind of the point? When I look at the twitter accounts of musicians like Chumped, Laura Jane Grace and Evan Weiss, I don’t see musicians struggling to make an image for themselves by the means of poorly constructed jokes and pop culture references, but I do see honest musicians that care about their fans.
Even though more “traditionally acceptable” forms of recognition within music such as stage names have faded out, different methods have taken their place, and will continue to as eras change and develop. Huge festivals such as Riot Fest aren’t exactly Rock Against Racism, nor is The Clash headlining, but there are still artists and listeners alike congregating, bonding and experiencing this newfound means of identity expression together, but it just happens to be by the means of social platforms. So, for now, hit the follow button, listen, and seize the opportunity to know some of your favorite musicians personally via the internet.