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Who names the sound?

There's a longstanding cliche that only the music business needs genre names - everyone else either likes it or they don't. But everyone disproves it by saying "I like all music except for rap and country".

music Updated: Aug 27, 2011 23:44 IST

There's a longstanding cliche that only the music business needs genre names - everyone else either likes it or they don't. But everyone disproves it by saying "I like all music except for rap and country".

Artistic path
A lot genre names come from the artists themselves. Gospel, for example, was invented by Rev Thomas A Dorsey. As Georgia Tom, Dorsey was a blues pianist who caught religion and sold songs such as Precious Lord, Take My Hand to churches across America. His group's name: University Gospel Singers. Similarly, bluegrass originates from the name of the country-mandolinist Bill Monroe's band from 1938 to 1996: the Blue Grass Boys. They were named after Monroe's native Kentucky, "the Blue Grass State".

More often, a genre name will come from a musician's works. Blue-eyed soul comes from the Righteous Brothers' 1963 LP. Reggae followed it into Jamaican dancehalls on the heels of the Maytals' Do the Reggay in 1968. Soca is a condensation of Trinidadian artist Lord Shorty's Soul of Calypso, from 1974.

Ambient comes from Brian Eno's Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978). Eno says the idea had come to him while recuperating in a hospital in January 1975; a guest put 18th-century harp music on at low volume, then left the immobile Eno to ponder its placement.

Lyrical sources
Sometimes lyrics become genres. Doo-wop comes from any number of primordial R&B records - the two obvious ones are the Turbans' 1955 When You Dance ("Doo-wop, de-doo-doo," runs the refrain) and the Five Satins' In the Still of the Nite a year later (under the sax solo, the chant "Doo-bop, doo-bah!"). Bronx DJ Lovebug Starski coined the term hip-hop by rhyming "hip-hop, hippy to the hippy hop-bop" at early parties, telling Peter S Scholtes in 2006: "Me and Kid Cowboy from the Furious Five used to say it together. I'd say the 'hip', he'd say the 'hop'."

Labels as labels
Sometimes record labels become genre names, as with industrial, named after Throbbing Gristle's 1970s imprint, and lovers rock, industrial's polar opposite: sentimental, romantic reggae named for the London label of Dennis and Eve Harris. Sometimes record labels just mandate new terms. Outlaw country, no wave and techno all came into use via compilation albums: respectively, 1976's Wanted! The Outlaws (Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, et al); 1978's No New York (Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, Contortions, Mars and DNA); 1988's Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit (Juan Atkins, Derrick May, others).

Off the cuff
There are occasions, too, when an artist just says something, and that is that. Afrobeat was the name coined in 1968 by Fela Kuti to describe the music he was inventing around that time, made up of funk, Nigerian highlife, anti-authoritarian lyrics and high-grade weed.

The 90s were rife with musician-coined genres. Riot grrl was the name of a 1991 fanzine put together by four of that music's key players. And in 1996, producers Ed Rush and Trace of the No U Turn label minted the phrase techstep to describe their blaring, dense style of drum and bass.

Sometimes an artist assigns a title that becomes something else. Power-pop was coined by Pete Townshend in 1967 to define the Who, but wound up being what Eric Carmen of power-poppers the Raspberries described as "groups that came out in the 70s that played kind of melodic songs with crunchy guitars and some wild drumming".

Tech mech
Often, technology drives musical changes, so equipment plays its role, too. Acid is one example. So is dub, short for the "dubplate" (duplicate platter) Jamaican sound system operator Ruddy Redwood ordered in late 1967 from Duke Reid's pressing plant. The recording was On the Beach by the Paragons, and the engineer, Byron Smith, accidentally wiped the vocal. Reid played it alongside the vocal version; the response was so strong he began putting instrumentals on the B-sides.

Media made
Journalists need these terms more than anyone. The longtime bible of the American music industry, Billboard, has played a significant role in disseminating musical titles. Easy listening, for instance, was coined in the 17 July 1961 edition. Rhythm & blues came to be in 1947, when Jerry Wexler, then a Billboard editor, began using it to denote the kind of postwar black pop that he went on to pioneer with Atlantic Records.

The Village Voice came up with retro-nuevo, while reviewing Anita Baker in 1986. The term meant 80s black pop with roots in pre-disco R&B. Voice editor Robert Christgau, coined skronk: "It just popped into my head. I was looking for a way to describe DNA and Mars. That's what the guitars sounded like to me."

Heavy metal was also first used to describe ugly guitars. The phrase, of course, originated with William S Burroughs in his 1962 novel The Soft Machine. Then John Kay of Steppenwolf sang the phrase "heavy metal thunder" in 1968's Born to Be Wild.

The same year, punk rock was coined by Dave Marsh, who used it in a ? & the Mysterians live review ("Needless to say, it was impossible to pass up such a landmark explosion of punk rock, even after two nights running of Tina Turner").

Then there is advertising. Bossa nova gained currency, according to Brazilian music historian Ruy Castro, when it appeared in an advert for a 1958 multi-artist concert. World music was hashed out in 1987 at an industry meeting. It was intended only for a brief marketing campaign to pump non-Anglophone musicians in retail spaces, only to remain an acknowledged category. Radio formats were behind AOR, a US abbreviation for "album-oriented rock", coined in 1972 by Lee Abrams and Kent Burkhart's consultancy firm for the FM rock radio stations that would define slick middle-American rock: Styx, Boston, Aerosmith.

And radio was behind another genre name that had been used in blues records dating back to and, as Preston Lauterbach's superb new book The Chitlin' Circuit makes clear, was drawn from everyday talk in postwar R&B. And that is the term rock 'n' roll.

The Guardian

First Published: Aug 27, 2011 23:41 IST