vendredi, septembre 10, 2004

The Names


During their short four year career, little information on Belgian group the Names spread outside France and the Low Countries. Likewise their appeal was equally removed, the bulk of their records selling on the strength of their association with the Factory label and producer Martin Hannett, rather than the excellent music they invariably contained. Yet Michel Sordinia's group deserved better, for the Names turned in a brand of sophisticated alt.rock far superior to that purveyed by the majority of their English peers.


The Names evolved from new wave group the Passengers, formed in Brussels around Christmas 1977 by guitarist Marc Deprez and bassist Michel Sordinia, then passing as Mike S. Christophe Den Tandt was subsequently recruited on drums, and in company with second guitarist Robert Franckson and singer Isabelle Hanrez, the band began gigging with a set which combined original material with Velvet Underground and Richard Hell covers. Somewhat predictably, given the gender configuration, comparisons with Blondie were commonplace. Despite being university students the punk ethos held sway: having entered (and won) a talent competition, the group promptly turned down their prize of a one-off single deal.

The group attracted the beginnings of a following during 1978, and as they improved as musicians their music became more complex. Following the departure of Franckson and Hanrez, Sordinia took over as frontman, gradually mastering the art of playing bass and singing simultaneously. Den Tandt scraped together sufficient funds to purchase an early synthesizer, while Deprez remained on guitar. Although the subsequent non-drummer situation took longer to resolve, the group were able to spend most of 1978 and early 1979 concentrating on refining a sound they could call their own, writing original material such as Speak German to Your Car, Reduced to Stereotypes and Dance in Circles, none of which was released.

In terms of musical influence, the Passengers live set now leaned increasingly toward two of the headline acts they were booked to support: Simple Minds and Magazine. Indeed the Magazine show in the spring of 1979 proved something of a watershed. As well as a proper soundcheck, the influential Manchester band allowed their guests full use of their lightshow. The resulting set was well received, and the Passengers subsequently gained further bookings in Brussels as an opening act. A live performance for BRT radio in 1979 (complete with canned applause) accurately captures their set at this time, and excerpts from it are included on the archive collection Spectators of Life. Live tapes also underline the fact that Sordinia sang in English from the outset, a decision which probably alienated some Belgian audiences, but a necessary evil if the group were to make any headway internationally.


After a demo tape caught the attention of WEA's Belgian office, the label offered the Passengers a one-off single deal, more as a means of testing the market for home-grown New Wave than through any particular enthusiasm for their music. Declining a producer, the band elected to press the record straight from the original demo. Although this was a move they later came to regret, Spectators Of Life is nonetheless a gem, combining a piano-led Europop feel with an urgent, modern dynamic. Backed with White Life and The Drive (redolent of Wire and Magazine respectively), the single was also issued as a 12" on Celluloid.

Surprisingly, this excellent debut failed to sell in appreciable quantities, and is today a scarce collector's item. Probably it was too commercial for a post-punk audience, but too edgy for the mainstream.

Before the single appeared the group became the Names, a move prompted by reading reviews of a rival set of Passengers in the NME. Since the band already harboured ambitions in the UK, a swift change of identity was deemed necessary, the Names being adopted following an ironic (and, with hindsight, frankly bad) suggestion from a friend. Throughout this period, and indeed their entire career, the Names were managed by Michelle Mauguit, also Sordinia's partner. On this score she revealed to Brussels scenes heet En Attendant:

Certain tensions arise, just like in every other group, but nothing serious. We sort out any problems together, because I remain above all a friend. In that respect the work always takes second place. (1)


Following the WEA single, a second turning point came after the Joy Division concert at the Plan K in Brussels on 17 January 1980. Having targeted Fiction and Factory as the best of Britain's cutting-edge labels, Sordinia seized the opportunity to slip Joy Division manager Rob Gretton a copy of Spectators of Life. Although Fiction had already shown interest, when Gretton called a few weeks later to offer a single on Factory the Names needed no second bidding. Factory mandarin Tony Wilson closed the agreement with a simple handshake on a visit to Brussels soon after.

In August 1980 the band, which by now included regular drummer Luc Capelle, travelled to Strawberry Studios in Manchester. Here they met Martin Hannett for the first time, and proceeded to cut both sides of their Factory debut in a single night. All found the experience of working with Hannett inspirational, while he in turn exploited their inexperience creatively, encouraging the musicians to use a toy xylophone on Nightshift, and to shake their guitars as they played. Factory's restricted budget meant that the group were not present for the final mix, and although happy with the sound Hannett achieved, felt he had thinned their cherished 'wall of sound' a little too much, particularly on the flipside, I Wish I Could Speak Your Language.

While in Manchester the Names were to have played support to A Certain Ratio at the Beach Club on 29 July, but were forced to cancel. Their place was taken at short notice by Steve Morris, Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner, whose short set (as the No-Names) marked the low-key debut of New Order. A good indication of their live set during this period is provided by the five tracks included on the TWI 082 CD, which (despite appearances) were taped at a Brussels show in 1980, and the several tracks from the Oostakker show included on this posthumous Spectators of Life CD.

Indeed had the Names recorded an album at this time, the results might well have been awesome, with Questions and Answers being a song at least as good as Nightshift.


Boasting a dark power and grace, Nightshift received good press on release in November (on 7" only, FAC 29). Nevertheless its excellence was overshadowed to a degree by the image of the label on which it appeared. For genuinely inventive groups such as Section 25, Crispy Ambulance, Minny Pops and the Names, the patronage of Factory would prove both a blessing and a curse, with the careers of all four blighted by the charge of aping Joy Division long after each produced entire albums of unique and original material. For better or worse, however, Factory at least got the Names noticed outside Belgium, and by the following summer had sold over 4500 copies of Nightshift - despite having failed to order a prompt second pressing after the initial run sold out.

A Factory newsletter dated August 1981 reveals two further points of interest. The gorgeous picture sleeve was inspired by the flipside, and supposedly depicts 'people at a party having conversations'. More importantly, distributor Pinnacle expressed the view that Factory were the only record company in Britain capable of failing to make Nightshift a hit. Factory (ie Wilson) countered that they were 'not a record company, but that's another story...'

Incidently, not one but two videos were shot for Nightshift. The first, shot at the band's rehearsal space, appeared on the A Factory Video collection (FACT 56), while a second was never publicly aired. Interviewed by this writer in 1990, Sordinia declared both 'unbearable', although in this writer's opinion the Nightshift clip is probably the best on the entire Factory tape.


The strong influence of Factory on the Brussels scene increased tenfold with the establishment of sister labels Factory Benelux and Les Disques du Crepuscule by charismatic journalist Michel Duval. After initial singles by A Certain Ratio, Section 25 and Durutti Column, Crepuscule proper opened its account with the celebrated cassette package From Brussels With Love (TW1 007), released in November 1980. The Names contributed Cat, a self-produced track recorded seven months earlier in April. The Names also joined Section 25 and A Certain Ratio for a valedictory Factory night at the Plan K on November 23rd.

Following the recording of Nightshift, the remainder of 1980 and the first half of 1981 was spent writing new material, already with an album in mind, and wrestling with the new sound imposed by Hannett. It is some respects ironic that Hannett was also the producer of choice to both Joy Division and Magazine, with whom the Names were frequently - and unfavourably - compared. For even the swiftest of listens to any record by the Names reveals no bass-heavy dark night of the soul. The Names were sober, certainly, but never steeped in psychodrama, while their music -sweeping, cinematic, sometimes epic - was blessed with an airy European feel which set it poles apart from the dour likes of the Sound, or the Cure.


In May 1981 a new single, Calcutta, was cut in Brussels for Factory Benelux, but only after some deliberation sent to Hannett in Manchester for remixing. As a result the release of this all-important second single would be delayed for no less than eight months. In the meantime, the Names completed a short Dutch tour with labelmates Minny Pops, and recorded two tracks for Crepuscule compilations. The first, the short instrumental Music for Someone, was released on the double set Fruit of the Original Sin in October, and became a frequent opener at live shows. Tokyo Twilight, the second, appeared on the celebrated Christmas album, Ghosts of Christmas Past. The old material in the live set was also dropped in favour of songs written for a proposed debut album.

1981 also saw Sordinia briefly involved in a sideline project, By Chance, whose one single on Crammed Discs (Soul Kitchen/Revenge) is of interest if only because Revenge would later be radically reworked as a Names song. An oddball but danceable Belgian 'supergroup', By Chance recorded in London and also performed one gig with Marine and Defunkt at Plan K during the summer. While their style was several light years removed from the Names, Sordinia says he enjoyed the indulgence, and felt his singing improved as a result.

Calcutta, backed by Postcards, was eventually released by Factory Benelux (FBN 9, on both 7" and 12") in January 1982, more than a year after Nightshift had whetted public interest. Both new sides were excellent songs, yet the single sold fewer copies than Nightshift, despite being pronounced 'difficult to resist' by the NME. In Brussels, it hardly helped that wags re-christened the lead song Quelle Cute Ass ('what a cute ass') - a ribald interpretation Sordinia failed to anticipate, and can hardly have welcomed.


Despite Calcutta's relatively disappointing showing, 1982 proved to be the Names' most prolific year. Through the first half of February the group took part in the first Crepuscule package tour, Dialogue North-South, alongside such luminaries as Paul Haig, Richard Jobson, Durutti Column, Marine, Minny Pops, Isolation Ward and Antena. The tour took in Belgium, Holland, France and - just - the UK, the original intention being that all concerned would play experimental sets unhindered by tiresome concepts like familiar singles, or musicians standing upright on stage. In the event only the Names, Minny Pops and Tuxedomoon would fully embrace this concept. Adopting the moniker N.I.M. (Names in Mutation), the Names presented only Music For Someone and the second (slow) side of their album-to-be, bravely soldiering on with the concept long after it became clear that other participants were content to play it safe. In Lyon, a large university town in which the Names were particularly popular, this uncompromising approach had to be abandoned after the audience threatened to riot unless the band delivered their singles.

Guitarist Marc Deprez also performed a short solo set on several dates, his Durutti-esque composition Ballade a Tervuren subsequently appearing on the Crepuscule video Umbrellas in the Sun (TWI 099), and a version taken from the live tape of the NIM show at the Beurschouwburg in Brussels on February 3rd appearing on the LTM archive CD. The spoken introduction is by Wally Van Middendorp of Dutch labelmates Minny Pops. Covering the tour for Sounds, Johnny Waller seemed to feel the need to apologise for liking the band:

Which leaves the Names, for whom everyone I spoke to had nothing but scorn, 'too gloomy', 'just like Joy Division' and 'no originality'. While admitting that all these have an element of truth, they're gross exaggerations and I found their deep drum resonance and driving bass enjoyably derivative. (2)

A patchy album and cassette souvenir of the tour was released by Crepuscule soon after (TWI 082), which includes a low-fi version of (This is) Harmony. To confuse matters the eventual CD version replaced this with the five early Names numbers recorded live in Brussels in 1980.


Dialogue North-South wound up in London with a sparsely attended show by the Names and Marine at The Venue on 16 February 1982. The gig saw the band slated for their taste and reserve by the NME's Chris Bohn:

After Marine, the Names sound redundant; still locked into a cosy dripfeed dream of comfortable distances and slight vagaries, they swaddle tasteful, tame rhythms with suffocating synthesised cotton wool blankets. The Names are neat and unsoiled by life and as such fail to touch all but those similarly cocooned. (3)

The next day the band recorded a BBC radio session for the John Peel programme, although these versions of Discovery, Life by the Sea, (This Is) Harmony and Shanghai Gesture suffered from hurried mixing. Sordinia and company then continued their taxing schedule and again travelled north to Manchester, this time to record their only album, already titled Swimming.

Like Nightshift, Swimming was cut at Strawberry Studio with Martin Hannett producing, an earlier proposal to record with John Leckie having fallen through. Hannett, ever idiosyncratic in his working methods, refused to listen to any of the material in advance of the session, despite the fact that all was already fully arranged. For their part the band were keen to impress on him the concept of 'small sounds-big consequences', and sought more natural, acoustic textures, including piano as a lead instrument.

At Hannett's suggestion the album was split into two distinct sides, side one with an uptempo 'day' feel, and a slower 'night' feel to the second. The resulting set was a less dense affair than their previous two singles, and while the deceptive lightness of the overall production might not benefit every song individually, it does make for a more balanced listen over forty-five minutes. Despite the title, and the curious aquatic sounds linking each track, the album was not underpinned by any grand concept, although it later transpired that the water noises made it hard for radio to break up the album for airplay.

Released on Crepuscule (rather than Factory Benelux) in June 1982, Swimming still sounds fresh today and belies the fact that it was completed in no more than a week. However the album was all but ignored by the British music press save for The Face, who determined:

The Names are concerned with space. Dunes, sea birds and grey waves fill Swimming, its fragile, occasionally pedestrian structures given depth and cohesion by an intelligent, imaginative Martin Hannett production. (4)

Curiously, it seems that several different sleeve designs were considered for Swimming, all of them outstanding. The promotional poster offered the striking red and black abstract by Benoit Hennebert adapted for this CD, while the press advert (reproduced in Britain in Masterbag) featured a quite different but highly attractive monochrome graphic.


Although Swimming found some acclaim and healthy sales it failed to elevate the band onto a higher commercial plateau. Indeed times were changing, and 1982 saw a sudden thaw in the 'cold wave' which had frozen the alternative rock scene since the turn of the decade. Great White Hopes such as Wire, Joy Division, Magazine and Josef K were already long gone, while others faded as the radio began to play a different tune. 1981 had seen New Order release Movement, and the Cure exchange Faith for Pornography. By the close of 1982 the bright new pop of Temptation and Let's Go To Bed had already appeared as singles:

fine records both, but a far cry from that which had gone before. Indeed even Cabaret Voltaire were beginning to flirt with the mainstream.

Matters were only made worse for the Names when drummer Luc Capelle was badly injured in a motorbike crash shortly after Swimming was released. Sensing that the writing was on the wall, the Names struggled on until the close of 1982, recording their swansong single in Brussels with temporary drummer Michel Silverstein. Hannett travelled to Brussels to produce the three tracks, although the band chose (perhaps unwisely) to supervise the final mix themselves.


The Astronaut eventually appeared on 12" only (TWI 111, with many copies pressed in green vinyl) and was backed by Revenge and Shining Hours, two recordings deemed 'unfinished' by Sordinia. In truth all three tracks were a disappointment, with Shining Hours in particular projecting far better live, as is clear from the tape of the last Names performance at Lombeek. The same tape also features Secrets, a strong song written too late to benefit from a studio recording.

Long before TWI 111 appeared in October 1983 the Names had elected to split. On graduating (in journalism/law and economics respectively), Sordinia and Deprez found themselves without the grants on which they had previously subsisted. Neither wished to fund the Names with unemployment cheques. With no real audience beyond a widespread cult, and no band revenue besides modest gig fees and copyright mechanicals, orthodox employment assumed priority.

With the subsequent drop in commitment came a corresponding fall in quality, and so the Names parted company. With the benefit of hindsight in 1990, Sordinia admitted to a few regrets on this score, and felt that the band should perhaps have tried harder to adapt and survive. But the split proved permanent. Marc Deprez entered the civil service, while both drummers remained in music. Christophe den Tandt subsequently gained a Yale scholarship and studied literature in North America for five years before returning to Brussels to teach. Michel Sordinia became a film critic, writing books on Terry Gilliam and Nagisa Oshima before directing for the first time in 1991.


In 1991 Swimming was remastered for CD, and released under that title on Factory Benelux as FBN 9 CD. The disc added a plethora of extra tracks, including both sides of FAC 29 and FBN 9 singles, as well as the Astronaut, and two studio-recorded compilation tracks, Music for Someone and Cat. LTM reissued the set in 2000, following it with the archive set Spectators of Life in 2001.

Remarkably, in 1994 all four original members reunited under the moniker Jazz to record a new studio album, Nightvision. Joined by bassist Eric De Bruyne, the 'new' group produced a polished set of nine new songs, with The Tether Ends Here and The Fall in particular proving the equal of anything the Names recorded fifteen years earlier. Hardly heard outside Belgium, where it appeared in the Pazz label in 1997, CD copies can be obtained by mailorder direct from LTM. Two further cuts from this period can also be heard on the LTM archive CD, including a cover of I'm In Love With a German Filmstar, originally a hit for Fiction/Polydor recording group the Passions in 1981.