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How The Beatles gave Death Cab for Cutie their name

Obsessive Beatle fandom is nothing new, especially among those who have gone on to have famous music careers themselves.  

Jeff Lynne, for example, was so taken by the late-period orchestrations of the Fab Four that he based his nascent prog rock band, the Electric Light Orchestra, off of their sound. The Gallagher brothers shoehorned Beatles references into their lyrics and videos anywhere they could, with ‘I Am the Walrus’ currently being the last song Noel and Liam ever played together. Songwriter partnerships, from Jagger/Richards in The Rolling Stones to Chilton/Bell in Big Star, looked to emulate the magic produced from those singular Lennon/McCartney tracks.

The trick with Beatles fandom is that it’s becoming harder and harder to find something relatively obscure to swipe. Considering how the band is the most famous group of all time, there are practically no unknown corners left to explore, no stones left unturned, and no second of the band’s existence that hasn’t been meticulously tracked and catalogued. If Ringo Starr ate a can of beans in Rishikesh, chances are someone can tell you the exact day he did it (somewhere between February 20 and March 1, likely every one of those days considering it was the only thing Starr was comfortable eating at the ashram. See? Ludicrously catalogued).

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It’s perhaps bizarre, then, that one of the most successful indie rock bands of the 21st century has been flaunting a Beatles reference right under our noses for over two decades. In terms of “obscurity”, it’s hard to get more unsung than the Magical Mystery Tour film. Especially in America, the hour-long made for television film never saw much in the way of widespread distribution or cultural impact. Poorly received in the UK and nearly impossible to view in the States while the band was a present tense entity, the Magical Mystery Tour film still rarely finds reference (or reverence) beyond the most dedicated of Beatles fanatics.

One of those fanatics was Ben Gibbard, a young upstart musician from the Seattle area who was looking for a new moniker to release his more refined solo music under after creating the lo-fi project All-Time Quarterback. Hanging out with producer friend Chris Walla, who would eventually join the band as a guitarist and keyboardist, Gibbard found a bootleg version of the film and became obsessed.

“Ben was in a Magical Mystery Tour all-the-time kind of phase,” Walla recalled. “He made a grand proclamation from the couch at one point that if he ever had another band, he was going to call it Death Cab For Cutie.”

The name in question might have been in a Beatles film, but the reference didn’t actually have to do with the Fab Four. Instead, avant-garde pop tricksters The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, who had ties to Monty Python and were friends with The Beatles, performed a parody of ’50s teenage car crash songs called ‘Death Cab for Cutie’ during a scene where the tour’s male patrons visited a strip club.

The name was originally meant to obscure the fact that it was initially just Gibbard performing, akin to Dave Grohl choosing to release his solo recordings in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death under the name ‘Foo Fighters’. However, as the band ascended to greater popularity, Gibbard came to somewhat regret the name.

“The name was never supposed to be something that someone was going to reference 15 years on,” Gibbard replied. “So yeah, I would absolutely go back and give it a more obvious name. But thank God for Wikipedia. At least now, people don’t have to ask me where the fucking name came from every interview.” 

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