A little bit of self-aggrandising isn’t the worst thing that you can do in music. When nobody else is going to make your own myth for you, why not do it yourself? Establishing a unique identity in a crowded field of other bands and artists can be one of the most difficult things you can do, so any leg-up that you can get is necessary.
For scores of bands, one of the easiest ways to establish themselves is to make sure people know your name. There is a very straightforward way you can do that: write a song about yourself. While most self-titled songs aren’t theme songs, per se, they are instantly identifiable to the artists that make them.
If you have a particularly cinematic name at your disposal, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t boost your own profile and write your own theme song. As previously mentioned, most of these entries aren’t themes, but they still say more about their respective artists than the average track does.
This clever trick has been used across music for more than 50 years, and it shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. Below, are ten artists who’ve used this manoeuvre expertly, and written beautiful songs about their own band.
The 10 best self-titled band songs
It’s no surprise that Black Sabbath pioneered the art of the self-titled song. As the forefathers of heavy metal, Sabbath forged their own path with just about everything they did. With a band name borrowed from a gothic horror film, it shouldn’t be a shock that Black Sabbath had dark theatrics in mind when they constructed their debut album, also titled Black Sabbath.
Whereas bands like The Monkees had their own light and fluffy “theme songs”, Black Sabbath’s is spooky, dead-filled, and terrifying in its own right. Featuring Tony Iommi’s central tritone riff, ‘Black Sabbath’ is everything that made its eponymous band great, distilled into four minutes of pure, unfiltered darkness.
Not quite as dark as Black Sabbath, Bad Company nonetheless had similar blues roots as Sabbath. Assembling members of previous British rock bands like Free, King Crimson, and Mott the Hoople, it was a necessity for Bad Company to establish their identity outside of their members’ previous groups. Therefore, why not have your own song that accomplishes the same thing?
A moody piano-led blues number, ‘Bad Company’ is atmospheric and vaguely outlaw-like, which helped listeners key into the band’s style immediately. Bad Company never again conjured up the heady atmospherics of their title track, but it was a hell of a start for the band.
Before he transformed into a pioneer of post-rock, Mark Hollis was simply the leader of a synth-pop band. Talk Talk was among the many British synth-rock groups that battled for attention in the 1980s, and Hollis decided to name the group after the song that he performed with his previous group, The Reaction.
Frenetic and hard-hitting, ‘Talk Talk’ was also poppy and mainstream in ways that Talk Talk themselves would soon move away from. By the time Hollis and the band reached the end of the ’80s, there was little that remained of ‘Talk Talk’ and the band’s synth-pop early days.
What does a kid who loves smoking weed and playing punk rock music write about during their earliest songwriting sessions? How about smoking weed and playing punk rock? Billie Joe Armstrong would gain a reputation for snotty and strangely impactful insights in his lyrics, but early Green Day material wasn’t quite as ambitious.
‘Green Day’ starts with the sound of a bong and only gets headier from there. The only song that possibly communicates the band’s early modus operandi better is ‘One of My Lies’ (“And all I wanna do is get real high”), and even that song has some other themes in mind. ‘Green Day’ is the purest strain of Green Day that money can buy.
To be a ‘motorhead’ is another way of saying someone is a ‘speed freak’. Lemmy himself had a reputation as a hell-raising drug taker, so much so that his bandmates in Hawkwind fired him for his excesses. This was after the band had already released ‘Motörhead’ as a single, so Lemmy decided to base his next band on the song.
Motörhead’s version of ‘Motörhead’, unsurprisingly, is more impactful and aggressive than Hawkwind’s take. One thing that didn’t change between versions is Lemmy himself, who was just as nasty on the original Hawkwind as he was on his own band’s version.
A recurring theme among bands who choose to record songs after their own names is that the name has some kind of thematic resonance. At the very least, the name has to be referring to something worth singing about. Iron Maiden was no different, taking their name from the medieval torture device.
With original singer Paul Di’Anno helming the original song’s recording, ‘Iron Maiden’ closed out the band’s self-titled debut with a little self-mythologizing. When Bruce Dickinson took over, the song continued to be played live, often serving as the entrance music for the band’s mascot, Eddie.
Rap metal gods Body Count had plenty going against them during their career. It was already difficult enough for a group of black musicians to make it in the cliquish world of heavy metal. Lead vocalist Ice-T’s connection to rap music didn’t make it any easier. When you throw in the controversy around the band’s signature song, ‘Cop Killer’, it’s no surprise that Body Count was largely censored out of existence.
Before that happened, the band were able to lay out their identity with two different songs on their 1992 self-titled debut. ‘Body Count’ starts with a ‘Stairway to Heaven’-like riff before descending into the band’s hard-edged takedown on America and racism. ‘Body Count’s in the House’ is a more self-aggrandizing track, one that foreshadows the high impact of ‘Cop Killer’.
Bad Religion had a new take on hardcore punk. What if hard-driving punk rock was paired with vocal harmonies and lyrics that focus on evolution and modern ignorance? It wasn’t revolutionary, but it was completely different from anything the band’s peers in the early 1980s Los Angeles punk scene were doing.
Looking to make a direct call out to listeners, ‘Bad Religion’ takes Brett Gurewitz’s singular view on the sameness of punk rock and packs it into a potent punch. “It’s your indecision/ your indecision is your bad religion” is almost impossible to misinterpret, and it served to kick off one of the most impressive runs in punk rock.
‘Built to Spill’
Built to Spill was hardly ever a “band”. In reality, it was mostly singer/guitarist Doug Martsch assembling new musicians around him for each new project. Keeping a band identity solid is hard, so Martsch decided to take a book out of rock history and make his own theme song from his band’s name.
‘Built to Spill’ sounds exactly like Built to Spill, which is obvious now but wasn’t as clear when the band’s debut, Ultimate Alternative Wavers, originally came out in 1993. Even though “Built to Spill” doesn’t have a specific meaning, it still conjured up the perfect image that the band needed to survive.
The trend of naming a song after your band has largely fallen by the wayside in modern years. So leave it up to pop-rock superstars The 1975 to flip the script and do something completely new with the concept. On every single album that the band has released, the opening track is always called ‘The 1975’.
Each song is different, and the version that appears on Notes on a Conditional Form is even an ambient spoken-word piece with vocal courtesy of climate change activist Greta Thurnberg. We’ll leave with the band’s most recent version of ‘The 1975’, released on Being Funny in a Foreign Language.