Arcade Fire have become the latest band to go on tour behind a mask: adopting a new name for their latest round of shows. Artists work under pseudonyms or behind masks (or cars, see below) for a variety of reasons. A pseudonym is not a side-project, it's a way of temporarily reclassifying yourself in order to approach music without the preconceptions that come with your back catalogue. In some cases, the reasons are downright bizarre…
"We're The Reflektors, that's our fake band name for our fake band" announces Win Butler from the stage of The Roundhouse. Touring under this pseudonym, the band (aka Arcade Fire) are currently touring a set comprised primarily of material from their new album, Reflektor. It's safe to say that this has divided opinion in the crowd and there are some grumbles about the lack of established standards. This mithering is pretty unfounded: they've never pretended this is an Arcade Fire gig, with the tickets, t-shirts, promotional material all detailing The Reflektors as the headline and only act. They still retain their sense of bonhomie and of not taking themselves too seriously: "People from art school / playing in a fake band" sings Win as a refrain to open Normal Person, midway through the set.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band
After the enormous shows a Shea Stadium and Candlestick Park, The Beatles began to tire of being The Beatles. Disillusionment with the relentless touring schedule and a newfound interest in ingesting psychedelic substances meant the band were rethinking their approach to music and to fame. An experimental approach was appearing on records like Revolver and Rubber Soul and the "mop top" image was beginning to feel like a costume that weighed heavily on them. Lennon was quoted as saying that they could just send out four waxworks to satisfy the crowds and this might well have been true. In the studio a new approach was hatched: make an album which would be nigh-on impossible to play live and create a set of alternative personalities who would seem to be "performing" the songs. Although the concept only made it to the final cut in snatches (the opening and closing refrains and a performance of With a Little Help from My Friends by one "Billy Shears"), the image immortalised on the cover will forever be linked to the concept of the fake band.
Bingo Hand Job
Not the most inspiring band name, you'd probably agree. But if you had nothing to do one night back in 1991 and decided to pop down The Borderline, you'd probably have been pretty surprised when REM turned up on stage. At the height of their popularity, Stipe and Co used this alias to keep some anonymity and play a small club show, now widely bootlegged. They even covered The Troggs' Love is All Around three years before Marti Pellow and friends dragged it into ubiquity. The choice of name shouldn't really come as a shock given that an early incarnation of the band was called Cans of Piss. Not sure they'd have achieved the stadium status with that name...
Elvis Presley's Golden Cadillac
Nothing says "Rock 'n' Roll Excess"quite like managing to draw crowds on tour without leaving your sofa. Elvis never toured outside the States but, in 1968, he sent his car on tour instead. With all the promotion of a full rock 'n' roll tour, the events in Australia and New Zealand attracted thousands of fans who were also treated to a display of gold discs and the opportunity to purchase a range of souvenirs. Imagine, crowds flocking to see a car that someone famous once sat in. All in all, the car raised nearly a million dollars in today's money, which isn't bad for a tour without an artist. All the money went to charity, which was a nice touch.
Queue eye-rolling from most of us. David Bowie has always been a master of disguise and of using theatrical tropes in his music. In many ways, Tin Machine was his anti-alter-ego: he turned up on stage looking, by his own lofty standards, pretty normal (albeit with a beard) and playing a brand of rock music that didn't seem to be about aliens or gnomes or… very much at all, really. Critical opinion was "divided".
If you're already a fake band, adopting a pseudonym might seem like a daunting or pointless idea. Not so for Tap. No, in 2001 on their Back from the Dead tour, Tap were supported by musically incongruous trio The Folksmen, previously glimpsed in the film A Mighty Wind. Unfortunately, there were a few issues with audiences not understanding irony: the band were frequently booed offstage or greeted with angry shouts of "Tap! Tap! Tap!". In a show of great commitment to a bit, Harry Shearer described how the band stubbornly refused to drop character and reveal their uncanny resemblance to the Smell The Glove stars. There are probably still people out there today who tell the story of Spinal Tap's bizarre choice of support. But it's better than a puppet show, I guess.
In 2009, Feeder changed their name to Renegades in order to play a tour of smaller venues. The plan fell flat because everyone had stopped giving a shit about Feeder ten years previously.
Given his insanely prolific output (2005 saw him release three albums, one of them a double), it's not surprising that Ryan Adams needs to find a little extra space for his creativity. Few have used the opportunity to adopt a persona quite as effectively as Ryan, who once posted 11 albums online from three different characters: each allowing him to play with one of his other favourite musical genres. With albums from WereWolph (metal), The Shit (hardcore punk) and DJ Reggie (a perhaps ill-conceived take on hip-hop which has generated 7 albums to date), Ryan was redefining what it meant to play under an assumed name. Not all the material was to everyone's taste of course but that's sort of the point. It would be remiss not to mention his other punk side project The Finger, in which he plays under the moniker of Warren Peace alongside Irving Plaza (Jesse Malin). The band released two of the best-titled records in history: We Are Fuck You and Punk's Dead, Let's Fuck.
Using a different name in a completely different field is just the sort of behaviour we might expect from Neil His alter-ego Bernard Shakey is a film director who has directed, amongst other things, a number of Neil Young concert films.
No discussion of pseudonyms would be complete without mention of the world's favourite sexy MF. In a bitter contract battle with Warner Bros, Prince changed his name to "that" symbol, claiming that Warners had taken and corrupted his original name as part of a cynical attempt to boost sales (of his music). The solution was to change his name to an unpronounceable symbol, which led to widespread confusion, particularly at concerts when he would aggressively ask the audience "What's my name?" and then act all affronted when everyone shouted "Prince". Other pseudonyms have been carefully employed over the years, including Christopher (when writing for The Bangles), Paisley Park (producer on various tracks) and Joey Coco (writing for Kenny Rogers). The ever-modest Prince explained by saying: "I just got tired of seeing my name".