The Names \ Biography
The Names are an acclaimed cold wave group from Belgium, probably best known for their early association with Factory Records and Les Disques du Crépuscule as well as producer Martin 'Zero' Hannett.
Early Years: The Passengers
The Names evolved from local new wave group The Passengers, formed in Brussels around Christmas 1977 by guitarist Marc Deprez and bassist Michel Sordinia, then styling himself as Mike S. Christophe Den Tandt subsequently joined on drums, and together with second guitarist Robert Franckson and singer Isabelle Hanrez the band began to play out locally. Given the gender configuration, comparisons with Blondie were inevitable. Musically, early sets combined Velvet Underground and Richard Hell covers with original material such as All Through the Night (issued in 2013 on the archive Belgian punk compilation Everything Is Shit). Despite being university students the punk ethos held sway: having entered (and won) a talent competition, The Passengers 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 their music ever more sophisticated. 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 buy a basic synthesizer, while Deprez remained on guitar. The group spent most of 1978 and early 1979 refining their sound, and penning original songs such as Speak German to Your Car, Reduced to Stereotypes and Dance in Circles.
Musically, The Passengers live set now leaned increasingly toward two of the headline acts they supported 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 prompted further bookings. A live performance for BRT radio in 1979 offers a fascinating snapshot, with excerpts from it included on the archive CD 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 pricked the interest of WEA's Belgian office the label offered The Passengers a one-off single deal, partly as a means of testing the market for home-grown New Wave. Declining a producer, the band elected to issue the original demo version of Spectators Of Life, a melodic gem which underpinned an airy Europop feel with driving modern rock. Backed with White Life and The Drive, the single was also issued 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 sounded too commercial for a post-punk audience, yet too alternative for the mainstream.
Shortly before the single appeared the group became The Names, a move prompted by a passing reference of a rival set of Passengers in the NME. Since the band already harboured ambitions in the United Kingdom, a swift change of identity was necessary, The Names being adopted at the ironic suggestion of a friend.
Following the WEA single, a second turning point came after Joy Division performed at the Plan K venue on 17 January 1980. Having targeted Fiction and Factory as the best of Britain's cutting-edge labels, Sordinia seized the opportunity to hand Joy Division manager Rob Gretton a copy of Spectators of Life. Although Fiction also showed interest in The Names, when Gretton telephoned a few weeks later to propose 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, when A Certain Ratio and Section 25 were booked at Plan K.
In August 1980 the band, which now included regular drummer Luc Capelle, travelled to Strawberry Studios in Stockport. Here they met Factory's in-house producer Martin Hannett for the first time, and proceeded to record both sides of their Factory debut in a single night. All found the experience of working with Hannett both novel and inspirational; he in turn exploited their inexperience in a creative fashion, encouraging Den Tandt to use a toy xylophone on Nightshift, and Deprez to shake his guitar as he played. Financial constraints - and Hannett's idiosyncratic 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 open for A Certain Ratio at the Beach Club on 29 July, although poor communications meant the plan fell through. Their place was taken at short notice by Stephen Morris, Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner, whose short trio set (as the No-Names) marked the low-key live debut of New Order. Meanwhile a good indication of The Names's own live set during this period is provided by the five tracks included on the CD version of Crépuscule compilation Some of the interesting things you'll see on a long distance flight, taped at a Brussels show in 1980, as well as the several tracks from an Oostakker gig included on archive CD Spectators of Life. Indeed had The Names recorded a full album at this early stage the results would still have impressed, with Questions and Answers being a song at least as good as Nightshift.
FAC 29: Nightshift
Boasting a dark power and grace, Nightshift attracted positive reviews on release in November (on 7" only, catalogue number 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 Records proved both a blessing and a curse in the early 80s, 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 undoubtedly got The Names noticed outside Belgium, and into a studio with Hannett, and by the following summer Nightshift had sold more than 4500 copies.
A Factory newsletter dated August 1981 reveals two further points of interest. The handsome picture sleeve (by Ian Wright) drew inspiration from the title of the flipside, I Wish I Could Speak Your Language, 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 (ie Tony Wilson) countered that Factory was "not a record company, but that's another story..." Not one but two videos were shot for Nightshift. The first, filmed at the band's rehearsal space in Brussels, appeared on the collection A Factory Video (FACT 56); the second was never publicly aired.
Factory's influence on the Brussels scene increased tenfold with the establishment of two sister labels, Factory Benelux and Les Disques du Crépuscule, by journalist Michel Duval and Plan K booker Annik Honoré. After initial singles by A Certain Ratio, Section 25 and Durutti Column on Factory Benelux, Crépuscule proper opened its account with the eclectic cassette package From Brussels With Love (TWI 007), issued in November 1980. The Names contributed Cat, a self-produced track recorded seven months earlier in April. The group also joined Section 25 and A Certain Ratio for another 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 new ideas inspired by Hannett. In May 1981 the group recorded third single Calcutta b/w Postcards in Brussels for Factory Benelux, then dispatched the tapes to Manchester for a Hannett remix. In the meantime the band completed a short Dutch tour with labelmates Minny Pops, and cut two tracks for Crépuscule compilations. The first, a short instrumental called Music for Someone, would be issued on double set Fruit of the Original Sin (TWI 035) in October, and became a frequent opener at live shows. Tokyo Twilight graced festive Christmas collection Ghosts of Christmas Past (TWI 058).
1981 also saw Sordinia briefly involved in a side project, By Chance, whose Soul Kitchen single on Crammed Discs is of interest here because flipside track Revenge would later be reworked as a Names song. A sort of Belgian new wave supergroup, By Chance recorded in London and also performed one gig with Marine and Defunkt at Plan K during the summer.
Calcutta finally emerged on Factory Benelux (FBN 9) in January 1982 (on both 7" and 12"), more than a year after Nightshift had first whetted public interest. Both were strong songs, yet despite being judged "difficult to resist" by NME the new single sold fewer copies than Fac 29. In Francophone Brussels, it hardly helped that humourists re-christened the A-side Quelle Cute Ass ("what a cute ass") - a ribald Tynan-esque interpretation which Sordinia failed to anticipate, and may not have welcomed.
1982: Dialogue North-South
Following the release of Calcutta, 1982 proved to be a prolific year for The Names. During the first half of February the group took part in an ambitious Crépuscule 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 the artists involved would play experimental sets, unhindered by mundane concepts like crowd-pleasing singles. In the event only The Names, Minny Pops and Tuxedomoon would 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 and demanded the Factory singles.
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). A live version taken from a tape of the NIM show at the Beurschouwburg in Brussels on February 3rd also features on the Spectators of Life archive CD. Covering the tour for UK rock weekly 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."
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 melodic reserve by Chris Bohn of NME: "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."
The next day the band recorded a BBC radio session for John Peel, being the first Belgians invited to do so by the legendary DJ. The group then travelled north to Manchester to cut their long-delayed debut album, Swimming, again working with Martin Hannett at Strawberry Studios, a proposal to work with John Leckie having fallen through.
Always idiosyncratic, Hannett had declined to listen to any of the new material in advance. For their part, The Names were keen to impress on him the concept of "small sounds - big consequences", and wanted to explore more natural, acoustic textures, including the use of piano as a lead instrument. Hannett suggested splitting the album into two distinct sides, the first with an uptempo "day" feel, and a slower "night" feel on the second. "We wished some things had been different," says Sordinia today. "The drums were recorded artificially, in pieces, and on the first song, Dscovery, the vocals are so distant and the drums so far back. But that's Martin."
The resulting long player was less dense than the singles, with the space and air making for a more balanced listen over 45 minutes. Despite the title, and the curious aquatic sound effects which link each track together, there was over-arching concept - although it soon transpired that the water noises made it difficult for radio to break up Swimming for airplay.
Due to Hannett's bitter business dispute with Factory, the album emerged on Crépuscule rather than Factory benelux in June 1982, but has aged incredibly well. Unfortunately TWI 065 was all but ignored by the British music press, although The Face conceded 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."
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. Yet another Hennebert alternative would be used three decades later for a later Names album, Stranger Than You.
Against the Tide
Although Swimming found a measure of acclaim, and benefitted from the Factory connection, it failed to elevate the band onto a higher commercial plateau. Indeed times were changing, and 1982 saw a rapid 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 the stars of others faded as the radio began to play a different tune. 1981 had seen New Order release Movement, while the Cure exchanged Faith for Pornography. By the close of 1982, however, the bright new pop of Temptation and Let's Go To Bed had appeared as singles, and even Cabaret Voltaire were beginning to flirt with the mainstream.
Matters were made worse when drummer Luc Capelle was injured in a motorbike accident soon after Swimming was released. Sensing that the writing was on the wall, The Names struggled on until the close of 1982, recording swansong single The Astronaut in Brussels with temporary drummer Michel Silverstein. Hannett travelled to Brussels to produce all three tracks, although the band elected to supervise the final mix themselves.
Lost In Space
The Astronaut eventually appeared on 12" only (TWI 111) backed with Revenge and Shining Hours, with some copies pressed in green vinyl. Long before the single appeared in October 1983, however, The Names had split. On graduating (in journalism and economics respectively), Sordinia and Deprez were now without grants, and neither wished to fund the band with unemployment cheques. With no mass audience audience, and no band revenue besides modest gig fees and SABAM mechanicals, orthodox employment took priority.
Unwilling to risk a drop both in committment and quality The Names disbanded. Marc Deprez entered the civil service. Christophe Den Tandt earned a Yale scholarship and studied literature in North America before returning to Brussels to teach at ULB. 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 issued on CD by Factory Benelux as FBN 9 CD. The remaster added a raft of extra tracks, including both sides of the Nightshift and Calcutta singles, as well as The Astronaut and a brace of compilation tracks, Music for Someone and Cat. Later still the album would be reissued as a deluxe double vinyl also featuring singles and the John Peel session.
In 1994 all four original members of The Names 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 recorded fifteen years earlier. Unfortunately the album was not widely distributed outside Belgium, and the new band name confused many. "Another bad decision," Sordinia rued later.
Monsters Next Door
The band returned as The Names on 15 December 2007, performing at A Factory Night (Once Again), a landmark event at Plan K in Brussels with Section 25, Crispy Ambulance, Peter Hook and Kevin Hewick. The complete performance was issued as a souvenir DVD Nightshift (LTMDVD 2522), with extracts also featured on a compilation DVD, A Factory Night (Once Again) (LTMDVD 2519). Vintage song Burn was also recorded for a compilation album. A new studio album, Monsters Next Door, followed in 2009 via French label Str8line Records, and was promoted with a string of dates around Europe, although keys player Christophe Den Tandt elected to leave the band at the end of the year.
The best tracks from Nightvision and Monsters Next Door were combined on the CD album In Time, issued by the reactivated Factory Benelux label (FBN 112) in February 2014. The set drew praise from Mojo magazine, who had devoted a whole article to Swimming a year earlier. "The Names eschew reinvention for refinement," wrote Martin Aston. "Shorn of Hannett's sensurround sound they've restored their original Factory settings, evoking Magazine right down to Michel Sordinia's arch-Devoto delivery and disillusioned-but-still-kicking intellectual vigour. The undulating (from languor to anger and back) eight-minute Friendly Fire and the title track's baroque/ballad orientation suggest The Names thrive most at their least reverential."
Stranger Than You
Now comprising Sordinia and Deprez with new members Laurent Loddewyckx (drums) and Christophe Boulenger (keyboards and piano, The Names recorded a brand new album at the close of 2014. Produced by the band with Thomas Neidhardt, Stranger Than You was initiated via PledgeMusic but ultimately released by Factory Benelux (FBN 119) in May 2015 on CD and double vinyl. As with Swimming, the cover art is an original painting by long term associate Benoît Hennebert. All 16 tracks are Sordinia originals. "There's a strong element of reconnection," the writer explains. "Yet at the same time it's also about developing your own legitimate strangeness, just as the great Surrealist poet René Char invited his readers to do. A new mystery singing in your bones."