How do rock bands select their names?
In its infancy, rock and roll music was played by bands and artists with simple, straightforward names that tended to fall into three general categories:
Somebody and The Somethings: Many dozens of bands used this linguistic structure, from Bill Haley and His Comets to Little Anthony and The Imperials, from Freddie and the Dreamers to Paul Revere and The Raiders. Among other things, this allowed the record companies to eventually spin off the leader as a solo act, like Tommy James (without The Shondells) and Diana Ross (without The Supremes).
The Numbers: The charts were full of groups whose names identified the number of members: The Four Seasons, The Four Freshmen, The Kingston Trio, The Dave Clark Five, Sir Douglas Quintet.
The Regular Names: Some solo artists merely used their given names — Elvis Presley, Bobby Darin, Lesley Gore, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry. Others concocted a stage name to mask their real name — Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman), Stevie Wonder (Stevland Morris), Elton John (Reginald Dwight), Sting (Gordon Sumner).
Beginning in the mid-’60s, bands started branching out by inventing more and more outlandish, bizarre names. California bands in particular popularized this trend, using sometimes unrelated words picked seemingly at random: Ultimate Spinach, Iron Butterfly, Moby Grape, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Flying Burrito Brothers. Conversely, some groups chose to use all their names as the band’s name: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Emerson, Lake and Palmer; Hall and Oates; Beck, Bogert and Appice. Or they took the last name of one or two band members: Santana, Van Halen, Fleetwood Mac.
By the ’80s and beyond, the rock music world was awash in creative names — some clever, some nonsensical, some silly, some blatantly offensive: Men Without Hats. Death Cab For Cutie. Bare Naked Ladies. The Talking Heads. Tears for Fears. Garbage. Hootie and the Blowfish. U2. Nine Inch Nails. 10,000 Maniacs. Toad the Wet Sprocket. The Psychedelic Furs. Right Said Fred. The Dead Kennedys. Jimmy Eat World. A Flock of Seagulls. The Jesus and Mary Chain. My Chemical Romance. R.E.M. Alice in Chains. The Butthole Surfers. The Goo Goo Dolls. Rage Against the Machine. Dashboard Confessional. Today, there are even websites that use algorithms to help aspiring artists come up with memorable names.
So where do these monikers come from? Sometimes it’s obvious — Cream was comprised of three superb musicians generally regarded as the best (the “cream”) of British instrumentalists of their day. Dire Straits was in bleak financial condition at the time they started out. Sometimes it’s a regional phrase that makes perfect sense once it’s explained — Three Dog Night is what you call an especially cold night in Australia’s outback, when you need not just one or two but three dogs to cuddle up to in your bed.
I’ve picked a dozen classic rock bands with intriguing names that have interesting back stories to share.
Pete Townshend and his band had called themselves The Detours and The High Numbers for a spell in their early days. At the time, Townshend’s hard-of-hearing grandmother was living in the Townshend household, and Pete recalls that whenever he was heading out the door to attend a concert, he’d mention the name of the band. Invariably, his grandmother would reply, “You’re going to see the who??” It didn’t take long for Townshend to decide that The Who would be a great name.
Three founding members of this Southern rock band attended the same high school in Jacksonville, Florida, where the hard-nosed gym teacher, a man who strictly enforced the rules regarding hair length, was a guy named Leonard Skinner. The fledging group had called themselves The Noble Five and then One Percent but, in a sort of mock tribute to the teacher they despised, they eventually chose to rename themselves Lynyrd Skynyrd, changing the spelling in case he objected. To the band’s surprise, Skinner was flattered by the gesture, and ultimately, he even appeared on stage to introduce the band at a Jacksonville concert appearance years later.
John Lennon’s first group was known as the Quarrymen (they went to Quarry Bank School) and then Johnny and the Moondogs, but once Paul McCartney joined, he suggested they emulate his idol Buddy Holly, whose band was called The Crickets. They picked beetles as their insect, but then changed the spelling to reflect the “beat music” they favored, and Beatles they stayed. (A side note: When they stopped touring and became a studio band in 1966-67, McCartney thought it would be fun if The Beatles pretended to be someone else with a long silly name, like the bands coming out of San Francisco at the time, like Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and The Holding Company, and The Peanut Butter Conspiracy. The result? Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.)
Rising from the ashes of two groups — Mother McCree’s Jug Champions and The Warlocks — came San Francisco’s most celebrated band, The Grateful Dead. There are conflicting stories about the derivation of the name. Bass player Phil Lesh says leader Jerry Garcia randomly opened a book and saw the word “grateful” in the text of the left-hand page, and the word “dead” lined up next to it in the text of the right-hand page. Others maintain it was a phrase from 19th Century literature, referring to “the soul of a deceased person showing gratitude to someone who, in an act of charity, arranged their funeral.”
Flautist/singer Ian Anderson and his ragged band were still learning their chops in 1968 when their manager got them booked in clubs in and around London. Sometimes the club owners didn’t like their act and refused to invite them back, so the manager simply changed their name and got them re-booked under the new name, much to the club owners’ chagrin when the same musicians showed up. One week, the manager’s assistant, a history buff, suggested they call themselves Jethro Tull, who was an 18th Century British agriculturalist and inventor of the seed drill, a device which vastly improved efficiency in farming. This time, as it happened, the club owners liked the act and gave them a regular gig, and the name stuck. Through the years, many fans were under the mistaken impression that leader Anderson’s name WAS Jethro Tull…
In 1966, a recording session took place involving drummer Keith Moon of The Who, keyboard session man John Paul Jones, and Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, then sharing guitar duties in The Yardbirds. They recorded “Beck’s Bolero,” among other blues tracks, and someone suggested they ought to form a band. Moon dismissed the idea, saying he thought they wouldn’t be well received. “We’d go over like a lead balloon,” he said. “Hey, we could call ourselves Lead Balloon.” Two years later, when Page had formed a new group from the ashes of The Yardbirds, he remembered Moon’s comment and decided on Lead Zeppelin, “the perfect combination of heavy and light, combustibility and grace.” Manager Peter Grant encouraged Page to make it “Led” instead of “Lead” so people wouldn’t mispronounce it (as in “I’ll lead the way”).
One of the leading manufacturers of heavy equipment — earth movers, steamrollers, back hoes — was a company called Buffalo Springfield, named after the two cities where their manufacturing plants were located. Guitarists Stephen Stills and Neil Young had just formed a group and happened to walk by a construction site in Los Angeles, where several Buffalo Springfield vehicles were in use. They loved the sound of the two words and instantly settled on it as their new band’s name.
Jim Morrison was a film student at UCLA who loved esoteric poetry and challenging literary works. He and his band members were denizens of Venice Beach, where psychedelic drug use was rampant, so it’s not surprising Morrison became obsessed with a book by celebrated British author Aldous Huxley called “The Doors of Perception.” It explores how users of psychotropic substances describe their trips as moving from one consciousness to another, passing through doorways like Alice in Wonderland stepping through the looking glass. The band loved that image and chose the book title as their name after shortening it to simply The Doors.
Two Piedmont bluesmen from the Carolinas — Floyd Council and Pinkney “Pink” Anderson — were among the blues artists in Syd Barrett’s record collection. He and his band had been known as The Tea Set for a year or two, but when they tried to book a gig in London and learned that another band called Tea Set regularly played there, they had to come up with a new name in a hurry. Barrett combined the first names of the two blues musicians he admired, and the band became Pink Floyd.
The counterculture author William Burroughs wrote a bizarre novel called “Naked Lunch,” which included a reference to a Japanese sexual device which went by the brand name “The Steely Dan II.” Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, songwriters whose lyrics touched on the macabre and deviant, were looking to form a band, since no one else wanted to record their songs. They decided the name Steely Dan would fit them perfectly, and they often chuckled subversively that they went on to become hugely popular despite the fact they were named after an Asian marital aid.
The Rolling Stones:
Originally steeped in the blues, the band featuring Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Keith Richards was first called The Blue Boys. When they signed a record deal with Decca Records, the management didn’t care for their name and, in a phone call with Jones, asked them to change it. Jones looked around his flat and his eyes fell on an old Muddy Waters album that included a favorite blues track called “Rollin’ Stone.” He immediately said, “Right, then, we’ll be The Rollin’ Stones.” They put the “g” back on “rollin'” and have gathered no moss ever since. (According to publisher Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone magazine was named after both the song and the band.)
The Lovin’ Spoonful:
Some thought this pop band’s name came from the illegal drug trade, where a “lovin’ spoonful” described the way a dose of heroin or cocaine was prepared. But leader John Sebastian has always maintained that the phrase refers to the amount of an average man’s emission during sex. The same meaning, by the way, is behind the name of the ’70s British band 10cc.