On the night of Sept. 11, Burning Airlines, a D.C.-based post-punk band, was scheduled to take the stage in Tempe, Ariz. But, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, the band members were faced with a conundrum: to play or not to play?
“I was so dazed by what had happened, I didn’t even think about the band name,” writes Burning Airlines’ frontman J. Robbins in a letter recently posted on the DeSoto Records Web site. “I just didn’t know how to process it all. It was [guitarist/keyboardist] Ben [Pape] who brought it up, and then we all sort of froze for a minute.”
Burning Airlines took its name several years ago from a Brian Eno songlong before Sept. 11, when the image of exploding airplanes would become emblematic of the day’s tragedies. “I’m still mulling over a name change,” writes Robbins, “but I don’t know if the rest of Burning Airlines are at all; it’s an internal, personal debate spurred by the recontextualization of the name.
“The whole question of sensitivity vs. oversensitivity has been vexing me,” he continues. “I loved this band name when we came up with it, but whatever it’s worth to me, it’s worth a lot more to show some respect for the gravity of what happened. Yet I don’t know if the name of a rock band is a particularly meaningful arena to express this. Should I care? Changing the band nameis that real sensitivity?”
DeSoto’s Kim Coletta says that musicians work for years to establish their band’s identity. Ultimately, it’s the group’s name (and fans’ recognition of that name) that sells albums and brings people to shows. “After putting out two albums under the name Burning Airlines, it would be nearly impossible for them to change their name,” says Coletta. “If they had a new name, everyone would think that they were a new band. They’d lose their name recognition. And they’d probably lose a bunch of their fans.”
After much debate, Burning Airlines did perform on Sept. 11and finished off the remaining stint of its West Coast tour. “And I’m glad we played,” writes Robbins, “because that was one moment of clarity and focus in an otherwise insane day.”
For Robbins, old songs took on new meaning, such as the first line of “Identikit”: “Century opens like we’re breaking yellow tape at the scene of something criminal, beyond obscene.”
“I didn’t even think about it until I was singing it,” writes Robbins, “and on that first night, it definitely didn’t feel so good.”
According to Robbins, the rest of the tour proceeded remarkably smoothly, with only a few exceptions. The band’s show in San Jose was canceled (in response to the national tragedy more than the group’s name), and in Los Angeles, the name appeared as “B. Airlines” on the venue marquee.
“[W]hatever inconveniences [the attack] may have caused for us are beyond trivial in the light of real human tragedy,” writes Robbins. “For us, getting on with what we do, finishing the tour we started, was the only response that made sense….[A] lot of what used to be passionate controversies are now trivial. But creative activity is still essential.” Felix Gillette