Being a rock star is a bit like dressing up, full time – assuming a new persona that transports you somewhere different. But even that guise can itself become a restriction, especially when it's associated with a specific sound or aesthetic.
The solution is to flip the script with a new identity, a reinvention often packaged with its own novel backstory. This might be a permanent rebrand to inject new life into a stale career, or a temporary diversion to explore new artistic ground.
Bands often assume an alias for a secret warm-up show to test out new material away from the spotlight before an upcoming tour. It's an opportunity to bring out those wacky band names they originally rejected for good reason – yes, we're talking to you Bingo Hand Job (or R.E.M. as they're better known). In the case of the Sex Pistols, whose reputation for carnage preceded them, going under an alias was sometimes the only way to get a booking.
But there are many reasons for going incognito, from sending up the critics to simple personal amusement. While distinct from the idea of supergroups, the concepts often share some DNA – a chance to let off steam outside of the limitations of the day job. A liberation from the preconceived notion of what they 'should' look or sound like.
So, Louder presents ten examples of classic alter-egos, including a few of the worst kept secrets in rock history.
10. Los Unidades
In 2018, new signing 'Los Unidades' arrived on the scene with their dance orientated Global Citizen – EP1. For an unknown act, they could certainly pull in the stars on a collaboration that featured Pharrell and Stormzy among others.
However, you didn't need to be Inspector Clouseau to figure out that this was simply Coldplay hopping into a disguise for a charitable project, particularly when Chris Martin was its patron. Still, it got the internet quite excited (very briefly), and it helped to further the project's cause to raise awareness towards ending world poverty.
Convinced that radio stations were refusing to play his music for not being trendy enough, Cliff Richard conducted a little experiment. In 1998, he put out a white label dance release, Can't Keep This Feeling In as the 'Blacknight'.
His fears of an unspoken radio blacklist weren't exactly unfounded: his secret rebrand swiftly notched up a respectable amount of spins before he dropped the mask. Upon discovering the ruse, one jock admitted to the BBC that “to be honest, if we knew it was by Cliff we would have never played it, so it proves his point.” On this particular occasion, Sir Cliff had the last laugh.
8. Father John Misty
In some cases, the creation of an alter-ego leads to an existential crisis of sorts as the artist gets stuck within some strange Freudian No Mans Land – torn between their original form and the Frankenstein's monster they've created.
After releasing several albums under his own name, Josh Tillman re-imagined himself as Father John Misty. But just for the ultimate head-flip, Misty then broke the fourth wall in the song The Night Josh Tillman Came Into Our Apt, in which the new alter-ego sings about the questionable pursuits of the original creator in the third person.
The tension between creator and character is perpetuated when said monster becomes more famous and successful than the original artist. Damon Albarn and Blur couldn't get arrested in the US, whereas Gorillaz frequently pull in the Hollywood A-listers, from Bruce Willis and Jack Black to Dennis Hopper.
The group's real identities have obviously been the worst kept secret in pop pretty much since their inception and even the band tired of keeping up the schtick on stage. But we have still have a clash between universes as both real and virtual members compete for our attention in interviews.
US indie-rockers Car Seat Headrest have produced umpteen critically-lauded, if often lo-fi, albums. Their latest record, Making A Door Less Open, raised a few eyebrows. It features guest spots from 'Trait', a mysterious character wearing a gas mask who seems otherwise to have the exact same profile as frontman Will Toledo. Indeed, the character originates from Toledo's side project, 1 Trait Danger.
In other words, his alter-ego essentially features as a separate guest on his band's own record. Or something. It's like the classic 80s time-travelling film plot where the lead character can meet their own double from the future/past and all is well, provided they never make physical contact – was that Terminator or Bill & Ted?
5. The Black Parade
Shortly before stage time at a sold-out London show, it was announced that My Chemical Romance would no longer be appearing. Instead, they would be replaced by an unknown group dubbed 'The Black Parade'.
After much booing as the mysterious ensemble took to the stage, the crowd soon realised it was their favourite emo band all along – those cheeky jesters! Of course, as we all know, the record of the same name would become MCR's most successful album, particularly in the UK, earning them a number one single. Ok, so the 'secret' barely lasted five minutes, but they've certainly got a lot of mileage out of those alter-egos since.
4. The Wonder Who?
The East Coast's equivalent of the Beach Boys, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons owned much of the 60s with a string of number one hits, from Sherry to Walk Like A Man. Valli simultaneously enjoyed a 'solo' career while still active in the Four Seasons, although in reality his backing band was simply the Four Seasons going uncredited.
After plans for an album of Bob Dylan covers by the Four Seasons was abandoned, the record company dusted off their jokey version of Don't Think Twice, It's Alright (featuring chipmunk vocal delivery) for release. To avoid diverting attention from another Four Seasons single that was then in the charts, it was put out under the cheeky alias 'The Wonder Who?' The light-hearted in-joke reached number 12 on the Billboard Top 100 in 1965, becoming a surprise favourite cover for many Dylan fans the world over.
3. The Men
Virgin Records were so impressed with the Human League's futuristic sound and aesthetic that they signed them... then swiftly sought to turn them into every other pop band. Hardly ecstatic about the idea, though left with little choice, the group cut a single that ditched the obscure art-electro for shiny accessible pop, featuring two female backing singers. Their only concession was it would be put out under an alias.
So out came the disco-infused I Don't Depend On You, ostensibly by a group called The Men. The track bombed, which allowed the band to reassume some creative control and continue making the music they always had done. But the experience must have made some impression. Ironically, a few years later a new line-up would go back in that poppier direction, finding huge fame under their own name.
2. Foxboro Hot Tubs
Their energetic frontman is one Reverend Strychnine Twitch, but you might know him better as Billie Joe Armstrong. In downtime during the recording of Green Day's 21st Century Breakdown, the band let off some steam... by recording another album!
The resulting garage rock record Stop Drop And Roll!!!, was put out in 2008 under the moniker 'Foxboro Hottubs'. Armstrong clarified the situation, stating: “The only similarity between Foxboro Hot Tubs and Green Day is that we are the same band!” However, the water was muddied somewhat when Foxboro Hot Tubs were covered by yet another group, appropriately titled 'The Coverups', which includes several of the same members of Green Day and their road crew. Confused? We are.
1. Dukes Of Stratosphear
In 1984, a long-lost album from the forgotten psychedelic 60s group, Dukes Of Stratosphear, was unearthed. The combo comprised of Sir John Johns, The Red Curtain, Lord Cornelius Plum and E.I.E.I. Owen. How had this masterpiece of trippy psychedelia gone unnoticed for so long? Answer: because it was actually a brand new recording from art-rockers XTC letting their wigs down using vintage equipment and recording techniques.
As the Dukes' popularity grew, XTC continued to deny any involvement with it, and the group even began to outsell XTC's latest output. Although originally intended as a tongue-in-cheek outlet for material they couldn't play in the group, Dukes Of Stratosphear proved a liberating experience that informed the sonic expansion on future XTC records thereafter.