I spent much of my teenage years in bands. Although I fiddled and plonked on the keyboard I was most at home on a squeaky drum stool with half a tree in each hand. Now, looking back through the rose-tinted Ray-Bans of nostalgia, it was an idyllic time filled with the nervous energy of playing live and the sharp taste of cheap cider.
I would love to regale you with a string of the extraordinary names we adopted (Chuck Up and the Vomitoids, perhaps, or Brilliant Marrow) but we were a pretty serious, Camus-reading bunch and our monikers tended towards the… er… well, I think I’ll allow time to wash them away.
I’ve been involved in a lot of brand naming work since then and I can tell you it’s easier to think up a word that captures the essence of a 100-office, multinational, multifaceted corporation around the world than it is to title a group of five 18-year-olds with instruments. Diageo, for example (and not one of mine), may just work as the name for one of the world’s biggest drinks businesses, but as a band name it has – for me – dangerous overtones of pomp rock. “Ladeez an’ gennelmen, please put yer hands together for Di-ag-eo”; I’d leave before the first power chord.
The thing about the wonderful world of bands is that it is so incredibly image-conscious, not just about Spandex trousers, but about the hardware used too. One of the ironies about the whole scene is its peculiar blend of liberal anti-materialism and rampant brand obsession. Back in my poptastic past a whey-faced lyricist would spend a whole hour penning a three-minute diatribe against Thatcherite values and then go to the pub to talk about how they coveted a new Marshall amplifier, a Gibson Les Paul, a Rhodes electric piano and a Neumann microphone.
Manufacturer was everything; model was almost everything else. Fellow musos would eye the Casio keyboard I once used (borrowed, I hasten to add) with a smirk, and the ancient, nameless and deeply burgundy drum kit I started out with inspired much mirth amongst the Pearl and Premier cognoscenti.
Like marques to a car nut, trains to a spotter or fonts to a typophile, those instrument brand names have a hold on me. This is something of a problem as, much to my friends’ amusement, I’m back playing in a band. The brand passion is back too. I get as soppy when I encounter a beautiful model – Rickenbacker, Roland, Tama – as I did all those years ago. I even spent five minutes last week discussing the merits of my Pearl Export hi-hat pedal.
What’s even more extraordinary, all those synthesizers (the Mini Moogs, Korgs, Pro Ones) we used to aspire to own have now gone from fashionability through outmoded obscurity and on to collectible icon status. Created as the most advanced instruments on the planet, they were as vulnerable as a PC to being out-performed and out-designed by new and more sophisticated models. Now they’re back in vogue; feted for their authentic, unreplicable “synthi-ness”. Where once brand nostalgia was reserved for crafted instruments, now it’s happening to the boxes with the least heritage. A classic synthesizer – it sounds like a paradox, but it’s not.
My immersion in obsession has had some professional worth. It’s too easy when working within our business and handling brands all day long to become cold to the genuine emotions that lie within a “name”. Like a surgeon who objectifies the body, design and marketing people often dehumanise what they are working on. Exhausted by operating inside so many brands, I was close to suffering from this distancing effect recently.
Recent months spent pressing my nose up against music shop windows has rekindled something in me. I suppose, to make a lunge for Pseuds’ Corner, I have rediscovered the bit of me that is an impressionable, passionate and eager customer. And, suddenly, the consumer projects I’m working on seem to make sense again.
Design is a bizarre business. Is it really healthy to have such long and deep exposure to the continued creation of a brand, rather than simply doing what’s intended and just rejecting it, flirting with it or consuming it? Do we start thinking too much about the numbers and patterns that direct a brand, and forget about the emotional drivers felt by the customer?
I’m not sure how, over time, you keep the balance between the hard logic of professional thinking and the natural and powerful impressionism of the customer. If anyone has a view I would be interested to hear it. If anyone is prepared to confess the awful names of bands they’ve been in I’d be even more delighted. You’ve been a wonderful audience. Thank you. And good night.