July 27, 2005

Thee bands

John Brewer wrote in today with information about the musical culture of unreduced articles:

You might be interested to know that since at least the middle of the 1980's a usage has obtained among comparatively obscure bands usually playing in a style that revives the so-called "garage rock" of the mid '60's to use "Thee" rather than "The" in the name of the band. Thee Headcoats may have been the first prominent (within a small cult audience) example. A few minutes' Googling turns up Thee Hypnotics, Thee Minks, Thee Exciters (billed as "Southampton, England's answer to the White Stripes"), Thee Flying Dutchmen, Thee Lordly Serpents, and a number of others, along with a bar in San Francisco called Thee Parkside (www.theeparkside.com) where bands of that genre sometimes play live. In my limited experience, "Thee" is usually pronounced unreduced, like the second-person singular pronoun of the same spelling.

John also explains the origin of this meme: Thee Midnighters wanted to avoid brand confusion with The Midnighters:

My best guess is that the original inspiration for this usage was Thee Midniters, who came out of East L.A. circa 1964. (They may have recorded the first version of "Land of 1000 Dances," but you are more likely to have heard one of the subsequent versions by Cannibal and the Headhunters or Wilson Pickett.) I'm not aware of any other uses before the mid '80's revival, but I can't claim my knowledge is exhaustive. An interview with Little Willie G. of Thee Midniters (reproduced here: http://www.victoryoutreach.org/News/latimes.htm if you scroll down to the first article), says that they picked the distinctive spelling to avoid confusion with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters.

Finally, it seems that there's at least one other subculture of "thee":

A similar usage is often employed by Psychic TV and affiliated persons or entities in the titles of albums and songs (e.g. "Beyond Thee Infinite Beat"); I'm not sure why -- they really don't fit in with the garage rock scene, and also tend to use "ov" instead of "of." It appears to have something to do with an occult belief in the "magickal power of language." See http://www.topy.net/faq.html.

David Beaver tells us about a band that elevates the ordinary definite article orthography to full nounhood:

...somewhere I have an LP by The The, or the The The as I like to call them when I meet someone as minutiae minded as me and need to start an argument.

But their newsletter-style website ("This is the The day"), as well the logo sprinkled around their pages (at right), suggests that it's really "the The" or conceivably "the the The". Right?

[Update: Cameron Majidi emailed

I've always thought that the main reason for this (aside from garage-rock tradition) was to ensure that the band's records would be alphabetized under T.

Also worth bringing up in this context is the most outrageous such band name: Thee Michelle Gun Elephant. TMGE were the best Japanese rock band of the 90s. (I understand they broke up within the past couple of years.) They also had the silliest name of any Japanese rock band, and standards of silliness run very high in the J-Rock scene.

A friend who lives in Tokyo was able to give me the scoop on the name. Evidently they'd intended to name themselves Machine Gun Etiquette, after the classic 1979 album by The Damned. But due to a classic bit of bilingual mondegreenism, they ended up as Michelle Gun Elephant. This story doesn't explain how the "Thee" got tacked on to the beginning, but they probably admired bands such as Thee Headcoats, and figured that's how the cool kids do it.

OK, now I need to know: how many other band names are Mondegreens?]

[Update: Joe Gordon points out that Nick Leggatt's Origins of Band Names page says that "Prefab Sprout" may be a mondegreen for "pepper sprout" (but also maybe not), and that Aerosmith "may or may not have taken their name from the 1925 novel by Sinclair Lewis 'Arrowsmith'" (thought that would be more of an eggcorn than a mondegreen, even if true). Joe also points to this other band name page, which seems to be larger but is not so easy to search. However, on the first page I read that CKY is not (as I might have thought) from Cocke-Kasami-Younger (as the parsing algorithm is), nor from "Charlotte Katia York" (as an earlier item had claimed) but rather from Camp Kill Yourself... ]

[Update 10/10/2006 (yes, really!) -- J. Alexander writes:

Re: your July 27 (my birthday, coincidentally. And yes, you did need to know that) 2005 post on Language Log, I've found a band from some time between 1963 and 1966 called "Thee". Unfortunately my only source is the blog post here (third track). If you're still interested in this it might be worth checking around for in your secret linguist societies or whatever it is you have. :)

And thanks for that post, that phenomenon had been bugging me for a while.

Wow. Scholarship, man. And many happy returns!]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 27, 2005 02:52 PM