BUFFALO AND BLACKHEADS
By Andrew Biggs
This week’s number one song on the Thai pop chart is a song by Stamp.
Hmmmm. Stamp. Is it just me, or is the name of that band just a little … bit … D-U-L-L?
Far be it from me to offend anybody in the Thai music industry, but it’s the kind of name you’d think up with your school friends and let’s see … what can we call ourselves? “Eclipse”? Nah, the chemistry nerds in grade 11 have already chosen that one. “Stardust”? Heavens no. Everyone will think of Alvin and that’s not a good look. Maybe I’ll think of a good name as I take this letter I’ve written to my mother to the post office to buy a stamp. Hey! That’s it! “Stamp”! Let’s call ourselves “Stamp”!
It’s a ludicrous scenario, I know — when was the last time you took a letter to your mother to the post office to buy a stamp? But it is yet another example of the Thai music industry and its insidious attempts to mangle and maul the English language.
The Thai music industry is littered with death squads dedicated to the eradication of proper English usage. In the past there were just two big record companies in Thailand, are both of their names were dubious.
Grammy. Now let me see; could that name have come from the patented, copyrighted music awards from the USA?
Then there’s the other one that’s called RS Promotion. Where I come from, RS is a popular adjective that stands for “rat shit” and is used to describe anything that is below quality. No need to insert any sardonic comment about the relationship between RS pop stars (some rats would even take offence) and the English colloquialism.
We have left the golden age of radio and music purchasing. But I was there when it was golden, and I listened to Thai pop music for 20 years, emerging from the experience unscathed. For the first 10 years in Thailand I edited a youth magazine and thus was obliged to expose myself to local pop music on a weekly basis.
Twenty-five ago just about every band had a Thai name, or so I thought. Imagine my surprise when the band I heard as “Noo-woe” actually was “Nuvo”, or the folksy “Cara-wahn” was spelt “Caravan”.
Back then, and surviving to this day, was a motley bunch of Thai guys whose concerts consisted of the same protest song sung in 20 different ways while the meatheads in the audience killed each other in brawls. They called themselves “Color-Bow”. It’s actually Carabao, which comes from the English word Caribou.
These names were pronunciation mutations that are bound to happen when an English word crosses into Thai territory. What bothered me back then were the attempts by the industry to make Thai artists trendy and cool by giving them English names that were anything BUT trendy and cool.
Back in the mid-90’s a rock band emerged that captured the hearts of Thai teenagers. They called themselves “Smile Buffalo”.
Smile what? It soon became apparent that the band had meant to call themselves “Smiling Buffalo”, but their knowledge of English was at the same level as their guitarists’ musical ability.
Didn’t anybody at the record company think to call an English teacher and ask: “Ajarn, is ‘Smile Buffalo’ correct?” Because it isn’t … it’s an order you give to a buffalo when you want it to smile.
Oh there was much worse, dear reader. In 1994 a new alternative band enjoyed their six months of fortune and fame at the top of the charts. When I saw the first press release for this bunch of rockers, I nearly choked on my sai krok isan.
“Thailand’s newest rock sensation – Blackhead!”
Now I’d seen everything. Four young guys in rock star pose going by the name “Blackhead”. I do hope they weren’t expecting fame in any English speaking country. When we interviewed them, all became clear: “We are Asian guys, with black hair on our heads. We want to show the world we are as good as any farang band.”
Wonderful philosophy, but …. Black Hair, nong, not Blackhead! You can’t go around calling yourself something caused by excess oil in your sebaceous glands. What’s next … Acne? Or will two members splinter off and form Genital Warts?
(Despite such names, Smile Buffalo and Blackhead outlasted the competition and enjoyed some ten years at the top, which just goes to show the music industry has no place for anal English instructors like myself.)
There were others. I felt the band “Silly Fools” reeked of tautology – what kind of fool was there other than a silly one? Then there was the duo of two beautiful teenaged girls chosen for their stick figures rather than any singing ability, who had a hit with “Please Pick Up My Handkerchief”. They called themselves “Triumphs Kingdom.”
That’s ironic, because Thais are allergic to any English plural form; they would rather go to battle against the Burmese than add an “s” to anything. And yet … “Triumphs Kingdom”? Thankfully one of the members turned to a life of crime selling amphetamines and ended up in jail – tragic for her, but a true blessing for any music aficionado.
These days almost no Thai pop star has a Thai name. Even Thai songs have choruses in English, a phenomenon that stretches across Asia. You would think with the improved English language ability among Thai youths these days there would be better band names.
Not so. In the last ten years the names were as bad as during the golden era. I remember when the Thai band “Potato” was popular. I fully expect “Broccoli” or “Rhubarb” on the charts soon. And what about the extremely popular “Big Ass”? I saw videos of Big Ass concerts with fat girls screaming in the front row and think: Have you no dignity, young ladies?
Some band names are a complete mystery to me. Is “Getsunova” a bastardization of “Casanova”? I suspect it is but that’s okay; I just love their publicity shots. I could swear they’re the four guys at the end of my soi wearing orange tunics with numbers on their backs.
There’s also a band called “Sweet Mullet”. Are they talking about the fish or the haircut? The four-man “Pancake” has a lead singer who sings as flat as their namesake. “Chick-Ka-Chick” is made up almost entirely of men. And what about “Clash” and “Prince” – weren’t they around in the 1970’s and 80s? The answer is – no.
On another day we will talk about solo singers and their dubious names which have littered the Thai charts, but one of my favorites was “Moddy”, who dressed in such revealing costumes it was lucky the Ministry of Culture hadn’t come into existence. “I’m a modern girl, so I want to be known as ‘Mod’, and a cute form of that is ‘Moddy’,” she revealed, leading us to suspect that “Idiotty” might have been a more appropriate moniker.
Which brings us back to “Stamp”. It’s not a band; “Stamp” is a young man who is still populatr to this day, so it is probably unfair to lump him in with Blackhead and Smile Buffalo. But still … Stamp? Try as I might, I just can’t get excited over that name. Or perhaps I am simply no longer moddy enough.