A History of “The” Bands

The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. The Cars.  The White Stripes.  The Arcade Fire.  The Band.  The The, fer crissakes. The most common word in the world of band names is “the.”  The Atlantic takes at look at this peculiar corner of nomenclature.

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.”

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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