By Steve Peake
Perhaps rock musicians are not best-known for being studious, but over the years many have shown a propensity for naming their bands after places, topographical features, countries and continents. In some cases, artists just happen to have surnames that you might find on a map, but most of the time they appear to fall back on whatever rudimentary education they got before hitting the road for a living. Who says American kids don't know their geography?
It's usually best to start with the basics, so where better to start than with this meat-and-potatoes country-pop band whose members figured they would just match their name up with their geographical origin. The working-class group Alabama became one of the decade's biggest stars with its blend of ballads and foot-stompers that not only ruled the country charts but made quite a mark on the pop charts as well. Along the way, the boys served as a great advertisement for their home state's marketing division.
These masters of '80s soul matched their name somewhat with their New York origins. But the group's career never peaked until its leaders orchestrated a clear change of direction from soul and funk to pop. As a result, the outfit is best-known for two cheesy but nonetheless engaging ballads, "Secret Lovers" and "Always." If you were luckier than most of us and had a girlfriend at this time, she probably liked these songs, which meant you could use that obligation as an excuse for listening.
This vehicle for Gloria Estefan's voice and image deserves credit for injecting some Cuban sounds and rhythms into pop music in the '80s. Nonetheless, the group didn't achieve its highest level of success until it shed most Latin music predilections for pop, such as the ballad "Words Get in the Way." Still, the catchy if sometimes infuriating "Conga!" had a way of drilling itself into the brains of unsuspecting listeners. So what would Castro do? I'll tell you what, he'd freakin' dance!
This synth pop/new wave outfit matched its elegant name with alluring frontwoman Terri Nunn and went on to significant pop chart success with the smash hit from the Top Gun soundtrack, "Take My Breath Away." I don't know if the band harbored any Teutonic origins, but that doesn't make the name any less fitting for the glossy look and sound exemplified by Nunn & Co. "No More Words" tells us, I suppose, that the band doesn't speak much German, but it's still a good song.
He was probably no Jacques Cousteau in terms of sea-related knowlege, but Billy Ocean was a significant '80s crooner known for a string of adult contemporary ballads and bouncy pop tunes. The hit "Caribbean Queen" shows that Ocean feared straying too far from his nautical name, or maybe it was just a good song with hit potential he thought he'd go ahead and record. Maybe I'm reading too much into this name thing. Nonetheless, I'll bet Billy has enjoyed a few mai tais on the beach as a result of that Top 40 success.
OK, this one might be pushing the spirit of the list a little, but I'm doing it anyway, despite the fact that this band actually hails from the rather small country of Scotland. Anyway, this apparently title-challenged quartet forged its greatest success with the single "In a Big Country," a tune with a unique, vaguely Celtic sound that's actually pretty memorable, even if its name is not. It should be noted that the band released a number of quality songs without "country" in the title.
This British pop/rock band has the distinction perhaps of being a little too unique to garner much commercial success. Maybe the group would have fared better if it had waited a few more years to become active, which would have helped it coincide with the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Some record exec would have loved to get a hold of that, especially that meant recording the band's videos in a Chinese prison or something. Sincere apologies, but the the Emergency Broadcasting System has issued another cynicism alert in my vicinity. So I'll take this opportunity to get back on topic, by pointing out that one of the group's finest tunes, "Arizona Sky," nimbly deepens the geographical motif.
Maybe all along this quintessential supergroup fooled us into thinking their name referenced the continent when in fact it's a nod to Italian horror film director legend Dario Argento's lovely daughter and actress Asia Argento. She would have been a young girl when the band hit, so there would have been - one would hope - nothing untoward in such a dedication. Anyway, that definitely takes us a bit off-topic, doesn't it? All I know is that vocalist John Wetton and bandmates certainly created an epic sound in tracks like "Heat of the Moment" and "Only Time Will Tell" that is comparable to the world's greatest landmass.
There wasn't much room in the glitzy '80s for a jazz vocal group, but this NYC group found a place somehow anyway. Their take on "Boy from New York City" found its way onto pop radio and puzzled kids like me listening to Casey Kasem in 1981. But the group has exercised a pretty impressive longevity over the years, continuing to crank out albums and even landing a surreal video on MTV in the late '80s featuring claymation puppets, I think.
OK, I admit it, the desperation is showing through a bit when I reach into my bag of tricks for a minor hair metal band to round out a list. Nonetheless, one must be willing to wake up to what we call reality. I remember that the band's leader, former Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Jake Lee, received quite a bit of attention at my high school lunch table from buddies of mine who christened Lee the next great guitar hero. Despite that endorsement, the band faded soon after, disappointing South Dakotans everywhere.