Recently I was made aware of an email from a promoter to the effect that he/she would never, ever work with The Burning Hell because our name suggested that we had a cavalier attitude toward the afterlife. The promoter, on the other hand, took the afterlife very seriously indeed. I laughed at first, but only a kind of stunted half-laugh, because it started me thinking. And thinking is no time for laughter or monkeyshines.
Here’s the thing: I named the band The Burning Hell before it was ever a band at all, back in 2000 when I just needed a name to put to some recordings I was doing. I self-released three CDs of lo-fi weirdness (no, you can’t hear them. they’re very silly) before I ever even thought about starting an actual band for my songs. I just kept calling my recordings “The Burning Hell”, as if it was an actual thing. When it did become an actual thing, around 2007, I was confronted with the reality of the strange name I had chosen for the first time. I thought “no, this won’t do! There’s an easily-offended public out there!” So at the release show for Tick Tock in Peterborough, I asked the audience members to write down suggestions for a new name. There were a lot of pretty good ones, and some abysmal ones too. I almost changed the name to Torah! Torah! Torah! (a goofy play on Tora! Tora! Tora!, the film about Pearl Harbour), but I realized that that would just be offending a new group of people instead. And I was surprised to see that a whole lot of folks had written down “The Burning Hell”. As in, don’t change a thing, it suits you fine.
And you know what? It had kind of grown on me. It was extreme, of course, but I liked the way it contrasted with the little ukulele I was playing at the time, and the fact that most of my songs back then were about seagulls and dinosaurs and things. I also, to be totally honest, didn’t expect to ever really be in a situation where it would matter all that much what the band was called. I mean, it’s not like we were actually going to go on tour or release much more music, right?
Well, seven years, six albums and around a thousand shows later, I can say I was officially wrong about all of that. What I wasn’t wrong about, however, was the decision to stick with the clumsy, inappropriate, violent name of the band. Sure, we had to bill ourselves as “The Burning H-E-double hockey sticks” that time we played in a high school auditorium in Fort Erie. But that was fun! And yeah, we have been booked into metal clubs now and then, especially in Latvia, but those metal fans ended up being really nice to us. Oh, and yes, it’s true that I sometimes get emails from some misguided church organizer asking for permission to screen the terrible 1970s evangelical film “The Burning Hell”.
But in seven years of playing music in almost thirty different countries—including a surprising number of shows in churches!—this was the very first complaint I had heard about. I think that most people, even very religious people, understand that the name is not meant to offend, but to juxtapose the dark with the light. Our songs, by and large, have a hopeful, even optimistic core underneath the doubt and the cynicism and the jokes. I know at least three ministers and two rabbis that are big fans. And we here at The Burning Hell Headquarters don’t want to see anyone, including ourselves, burning in hell. Unless they are very, very naughty, of course.
If you don’t like the name, that’s totally ok. I have no problem joining the ranks of The Dead Kennedys, Butthole Surfers, Circle Jerks, Napalm Death and Black Sabbath, all excellent bands that never gave a flying squirrel what anyone thought about their silly names, names that shocked and offended and made people think hard. People do some pretty terrible things to each other with language. The earth’s atmosphere is filled, at any given time, with the foulest racial slurs, sexist digs, homophobic barbs, and so on, and so much of that hateful language seems to come quite frequently from the sanctified mouths of religious zealots of all stripes. Isn’t this worse than some band calling itself The Burning Hell? I call horse-doody on the whole situation.
So to everyone who we may have offended with our abhorrently unwholesome name, I’d like to say I’m deeply sorry, but I’m really not, not at all. All I can offer is a humble suggestion that it may be a better use of the short time we have on earth to try confronting one of life’s actual problems. There are many to choose from.
Besides, we’re changing our name soon. The band formerly known as The Burning Hell will now be called “The Barenaked Ladies”.