The Names \ Biography
During their initial four years together, little information about Belgian group The Names spread outside France and the Benelux countries. Indeed their appeal owed something to mystery, with many of their records selling on the strength of their association with Factory Records and legendary producer Martin Hannett. Yet Michel Sordinia's group deserved better, for The Names traded in a brand of sophisticated cold wave pop far superior to that offered by many of their British and American peers.
EARLY YEARS: THE PASSENGERS
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. Given the gender configuration, comparisons with Blondie were inevitable. In spite of 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.
During 1978 the group attracted the beginnings of a following, and as they improved as musicians the 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 a basic synthesizer, while Deprez remained on guitar. While the subsequent no-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.
When it came to musical influences, The Passengers live set now leaned increasingly toward two of the headline acts they were booked to support in Brussels: 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 light show. The resulting set was well received, and The Passengers subsequently gained further local bookings 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 reveal that Sordinia sang in English from the outset, a decision which may have dismayed some Belgian audiences, but a necessary evil if the group were to make any headway internationally.
DEBUT 45: SPECTATORS OF LIFE
After a demo tape caught the attention of WEA's Belgian office the label offered The Passengers a one-off single deal, largely as a means of testing the market for home-grown New Wave. 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 remains 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 also appeared as a 12" on Celluloid. Surprisingly, this excellent debut failed to sell in large quantities, and is today a scarce collector's item. Probably it was too commercial for a post-punk audience, yet too alternative for the mainstream.
Before the single appeared the group became The Names, a move prompted by a fleeting mention of a rival set of Passengers in the NME. Since the band already harboured ambitions in the United Kingdom, a swift change of identity became necessary - The Names being adopted following an ironic suggestion from a friend.
THE FACTORY CONNECTION
Following the WEA single, a second turning point came after a Joy Division concert at the Plan K venue 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 in The Names, when Gretton called a few weeks later to offer a single on Factory the band needed no second bidding. Factory mandarin Tony Wilson closed the agreement with a simple handshake on a visit to Brussels in April a few weeks later.
In August 1980 the band, which now included regular drummer Luc Capelle, travelled to Strawberry Studios in Stockport. 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 in creative fashion, encouraging the musicians to use a toy xylophone on Nightshift, and shake their guitars as they played. Financial constraints (and Hannett's working methods) meant that the group were not present for the final mix, but soon came to appreciate the majestic sound of the finished record.
While in Manchester, The Names were to due to play support to A Certain Ratio at the Beach Club on 29 July, but come the time schedules did not match. 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 live debut of New Order. Meanwhile a good indication of The Names'own live set during this period is provided by the five tracks included on the TWI 082 CD, taped at a Brussels show in 1980, and the several tracks from the Oostakker performnce included on this posthumous Spectators of Life CD. Indeed had The Names recorded an album at this time, the results would already have been impressive, with Questions and Answers being a song at least as good as Nightshift.
FAC 29: NIGHTSHIFT
Boasting a dark power and grace, Nightshift received good press on release in November (on 7" only, FAC 29). Nevertheless this excellent single was somewhat overshadowed 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 proved both a blessing and a curse, with the careers of all four stymied by the charge of aping Joy Division long after each produced entire albums of unique and original material. That said, Factory got The Names noticed outside Belgium, and into a studio with Hannett, and by the following summer had sold over 4,500 copies of Nightshift.
A Factory newsletter dated August 1981 reveals two further points of interest. The handsome picture sleeve (by ?) was inspired by the flipside, and apparently depicts 'people at a party having conversations'. Meanwhile distributor Pinnacle complained that Factory was the one record company in Britain incapable of making Nightshift a hit. Factory (i.e. Wilson) countered that Factory was "not a record company, but that's another story..." Not one but two videos would be shot for Nightshift. The first, shot at the band's rehearsal space in Brussels, appeared on the collection A Factory Video (FACT 56), while a second was never publicly aired.
Factory's influence on the Brussels scene increased tenfold with the establishment of twin sister labels, Factory Benelux and Les Disques du Crépuscule, by journalist Michel Duval and Plan K booker Annik Honore. After initial singles by A Certain Ratio, Section 25 and The Durutti Column, Crépuscule proper opened its account with eclectic 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 another prestigious Factory Night at Brussels University on November 23rd.
Following Nightshift, the remainder of 1980 and the first half of 1981 was spent writing new material with an album in mind, and wrestling with the new sounds imposed by Hannett. While his influence served to invite comparisons with Joy Division and Magazine, even a cursory listen to their music 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, then 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 Crépuscule compilations. The first, the short instrumental Music for Someone, was released on the double set Fruit of the Original Sin (TWI 035) in October, and became a frequent opener at live shows. Tokyo Twilight, the second, appeared on festive Christmas album, Ghosts of Christmas Past (TWI 058).
1981 also saw Sordinia briefly involved in a side project, By Chance, whose sole single on Crammed Discs (Soul Kitchen / Revenge) is of interest here because Revenge would later be reworked as a Names song. A curious 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 enjoyed the indulgence, and felt his singing improved as a result.
Calcutta, backed with Postcards, eventually emerged on Factory Benelux (FBN 9, on both 7" and 12") in January 1982, more than a year after Nightshift had whetted public interest. Both were excellent songs, yet the new single sold fewer copies than Fac 29, despite being judged 'difficult to resist' by the NME. In Brussels, it hardly helped that humourists re-christened the lead song Quelle Cute Ass ('what a cute ass') - a ribald Tynan-esque interpretation Sordinia failed to anticipate, and can hardly have welcomed.
1982: DIALOGUE NORTH-SOUTH
Despite Calcutta's disappointing showing, 1982 proved to be a prolific years for The Names. During the first half of February the group took part in a Crépuscule package tour, Dialogue North-South, alongside such luminaries as Paul Haig, Richard Jobson, The 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 crowd-pleasing singles. In the event only The Names, Minny Pops and Tuxedomoon fully embraced this risky strategy. Adopting the moniker N.I.M. (Names in Mutation), The Names presented only Music For Someone and the second (night) side of their album-to-be, bravely soldiering on with the concept long after it became clear that other participants were content to play safe. In Lyon, a large French university town in which the band were already popular, this novel approach had to be abandoned after the audience grew restless until the band delivered Calcutta and Nightshift.
Guitarist Marc Deprez also performed a short solo set on several dates, his Durutti-esque composition Ballade a Tervuren subsequently appearing on the Crépuscule 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 archive CD Spectators of Life. The spoken introduction is by Wally Van Middendorp of Dutch labelmates Minny Pops. Covering the tour for UK rock weekly Sounds, Johnny Waller seemed 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)
Dialogue North-South wound up in London with a sparsely attended performance by The Names and Marine at The Venue on 16 February 1982. The gig saw the band derided for their melodics and reserve by 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 John Peel, although these versions of Discovery, Life by the Sea, (This Is) Harmony and Shanghai Gesture suffered a little from hurried mixing. At least the band could claim the honour of being the first Belgian artists to record a session for Peel. Sordinia and company then continued their taxing schedule and again travelled north to Manchester, this time to record their first 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. Always idiosyncratic in his working methods, Hannett declined 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 the use of piano as a lead instrument.
At Hannett's suggestion the album was split into two distinct sides, the first 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 45 minutes. Despite the title, and the curious aquatic sound effects linking each track, the album was not underpinned by any grand concept - although it was noted later that the water noises made it hard for radio to break up the album for airplay.
Due to Hennett's bitter business dispute with Factory, Swimming was released on Crépuscule in June 1982 and has aged remarkably well. At the time, however, the album was all but ignored by the British music press save for The Face, who determined that: 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)
Several different sleeve designs were considered for Swimming. The promotional poster offered a striking red and black abstract by Benoît Hennebert (later adapted for the Spectators of Life CD), while the press advert (reproduced in Britain in Masterbag) featured a quite different but highly attractive monochrome graphic.
THE TURN OF THE TIDE
Although Swimming found a measure of acclaim and benefittited from the Factory connection, 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 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 what had gone before. Indeed even Cabaret Voltaire began to flirt with the mainstream.
Matters were made worse for The Names when drummer Luc Capelle was injured in a motorbike accident shortly after Swimming was released. Sensing that the writing was on the wall, The Names struggled on until the close of 1982, recording a swansong single in Brussels with temporary drummer Michel Silverstein. Hannett travelled to Brussels to produce the three tracks, although the band chose to supervise the final mix themselves.
The Astronaut eventually appeared on 12" only (TWI 111, with some 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 little disappointing compared to previous records, 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, another strong song written too late to benefit from a studio recording.
Long before TWI 111 appeared in October 1983, The Names had 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 publishing mechanicals, orthodox employment took priority.
The subsequent drop in commitment risked a corresponding fall in quality, and so The Names disbanded. With the benefit of hindsight in 1990, Sordinia admitted to some regrets on this score, and felt that the band should have tried harder to adapt and survive. However the split proved permanent. Marc Deprez entered the civil service. 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. Both drummers remained in music.
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 the Nightshift and Calcutta 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 CD Spectators of Life in 2001. In 2013 Swimming was again reissued on CD and double vinyl album as FBN 9, this time including all four tracks from the long lost 1982 Peel session.
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 reconfigured group produced a polished set of nine new songs, with The Tether Ends Here and The Fall proving the equal of anything The Names recorded fifteen years earlier. Although not widely distributed outside Belgium (where it appeared in the Pazz label in 1997) CD copies can be obtained by mailorder direct from LTM.
Remarkably, The Names returned on 15 December 2007, performing at the A Factory Night (Once Again) event at Plan K in Brussels (with Section 25, Crispy Ambulance and Kevin Hewick) ahead of recording a new studio album in 2008. The group released their Plan K set as a DVD Nightshift (LTMDVD 2522), and are also featured on the compilation DVD of the show, A Factory Night (Once Again) (LTMDVD 2519). In 2009 the group issued a new studio album, Monsters Next Door, via French label Str8line Records, and continue to play occasional gigs in Europe. Christophe Den Tandt chose to depart in late 2009, though in December 2011 Swimming was awarded a special feature in Mojo magazine, and was reissued on CD and double vinyl by Factory Benelux in 2013. A new Names album is currently in preparation.
(1) En Attendant (Belgium), 1.1980
(2) Sounds, 3.4.1982
(3) NME, 2.1982
(4) The Face, 7.1982