Thursday, 19 August 2010

Heroes & Villains | Music | This is a blog about a superhero named Tony. It's called God Bless Pixies.

This is a song about a superhero named Tony. It’s called Tony’s Theme.

There’s something important about this shard of intro – something other, I should add, than the impossible screeching brilliance of the actual track that follows:

He’s got the oil on his chain, for a ride in the rain
No baloney
Ride around on my bicycle like a pony
I’m waving hi, hi, hi, hi, hi
Gi-gi-gi-Gimme a scream
Give me, give me the theme
Of Tony

To-ny, To-ny, To-ny, To-ny, To-ny

A superhero named Tony. What a funny idea! A superhero named Tony in a song which rabidly emphasises that his name is, indeed, Tony, again and again and again. Written by a band with the sickest names in the history of bands. Black Francis. Kim Deal. Joey Santiago. The other chap whose name I refuse to google – I will remember it. Black fucking Francis! It all certainly begs the question, what is the role names play in our construction of heroes (and, I suppose, villains – a chap called Heinrich Himmler was only ever going to be a baddie. Adolf Hitler though… Adolf means, I believe, noble wolf. Noble wolf! I tell you what, it’s a real shame Hitler wasn’t a goodie because Adolf had the potential to be a very rad name. So much to answer for, that guy. So much to answer for)?

I should declare an interest at this point: as somebody who has grown up with a double-barrelled surname that isn’t just the product of a semi-feminist mother, names have always struck me as important. Not because I give a shit about my ancestors, mind. Rather, because strangers assume I’m going to be a public school prick based purely upon the number of letters in my surname. Sam Kinchin-Smith. My name sounds like the name of the sort of person I wouldn’t, in most cases, like. I mean, I'm as guilty of this as anyone. God, maybe I hate myself…


It’s precisely this kind of paranoid name-based internal dialogue that, presumably, inspired Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn, 2nd Viscount Stansgate, to become plain old Tony Benn back in 1963, on the day the Peerage Act passed into law and made such a titular transition possible. He kicks off our list of five superheroes/villains named Tony (whose superpowers are, indeed, in some way linked to their being called Tony) – proof, not that it was required, that Pixies knew their shit:
Tony Benn
‘Tony’ tied up with his renouncing of an aristocratic heritage, a crucial facet to his super-powered leftwing-ness.
Tony Bliar
‘Tony’ tied up with his ‘call me Tony’ Beelzebubish charm, an indispensable tool in his super-powered fight against truth, law and the point of his own party.
Tony Soprano
‘Tony’ tied up with his ‘ehhhh, Toneeeeee’ Italian-American, sensitive-vicious persona – the basis of his super-powered interestingness as a protagonist.
Tony Hayward
‘Tony’ tied up with the Daily Mail’s ability to write caustic (and yet curiously lengthy) headlines such as ‘There’s no oil slicks here, Tony: White House blasts BP boss as he watches yacht race 4500 miles away from Gulf disaster’ capable of making sense of Hayward’s super-powered, ocean-murdering, day-off-having, Obama-annoying sins.
Tony Robinson
‘Tony’ tied up with his ability to get the best out of Time Team’s Phil ‘Flint Knapper’ Harding (far right) whose rich Wiltshire accent rolls over the ‘o’ and the ‘y’ of Robinson’s name in a manner that sends Geophysics-esque ripples through my spine – at the heart, then, of the man's super-powered broadcasting abilities.

Okay, so Tonys can be superheroes – and supervillains – too. But as Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV realised, it’s much easier to know you’re looking at a hero when his name is Black Francis or Frank Black. It’s a truism that the Simpsons (as ever) probably expressed best in the episode where Homer changes his name to Max Power and everything starts going right:

Even better, there’s the bit where Homer meets a guy called Trent Steel. “Nice name,” the latter says. “Thanks,” says Homer. “I got it off a hairdryer.” Something like that anyway – oh, and at the end of the episode, Homer changes Marge’s name to Chesty La Rue, offering Busty St. Claire or Hootie McBoob as alternatives. Wonderful.

A good name can represent an invaluable gift for an artist, be he slash she musician or poet. One only needs to admire the character-make-up of Hamilton Leithauser (singer for the utterly superb Walkmen) or Toby Martinez de las Rivas (one of the first batch of Faber New Poets – one of the best of the first batch of Faber New Poets, I should add) to realise that. That’s why people come to university calling themselves Sam and leave it calling themselves Samuel – no, I didn’t do this, I’m a prick in other ways, but I bloody know several people who bloody did (or similar).

Of course, it’s more complicated than this. The tradition of people doing a Frank Black and taking a new name for a creative project is defined, in many ways, by bizarre decisions – why, for example, did sexy, sexy balladeer Engelbert Humperdinck decide to nick the name of a 19th century German composer who hung out with Wagner? I’m also fascinated by the phenomenon of what I call genre names – that is, writers etc. who adopt a pseudonym in keeping with the style of their work. Think King Of Goosebumps, the great R.L. Stine (oh lord, I’ve just checked the Wikipedia page for R.L. Stine and it turns out R.L. Stine is the man's real name! Does that mean he became a kiddie horror writer because of his name? Could he have been anything else? Fascinating!) And don’t forget kids, names can be a burden: Bowie’s sprog decided to sidestep all this association shit and go with ‘Duncan Jones’ – and a very good film he made too, by all accounts.

DAVID LOVERING – that’s the name of the other Pixies chap, the drummer. Turns out you didn’t have to have a super-rad name to be a Pixie after all. I don’t know whether to be pleased or disappointed.

Sam ‘I went to a grammar school, actually’ Kinchin-Smith,
Music Editor

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