Two years ago, Hack’s Back Pages first addressed the intriguing topic of where bands’ names came from.
I examined the fascinating/amusing derivations of big names like The Who, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Doors, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Pink Floyd, Buffalo Springfield, Steely Dan, Jethro Tull, Grateful Dead and The Lovin’ Spoonful.
(You can see this essay if you click on the horizontal bars in the upper right corner of the home page, then click on July 2015 on the archives. Look for “Pleased to meet you, won’t you guess my name.”)
It’s high time I revisited this topic, for there are so many other bands with interesting stories behind the names they picked for themselves.
Let’s take a look at 20 more groups from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s and why they chose the names they did.
Fans of the late ’60s science fiction cult film “Barbarella” will instantly recognize Duran Duran as a derivation of the film’s character Dr. Durand-Durand, who invented the positronic ray, which could supposedly end humanity if it fell into the wrong hands. When John Taylor and Nick Rhodes were first forming a group, they used to play in a popular London club called Barbarella’s. Once they watched the movie, they agreed they should name their band after the key figure in the film.
Earth Wind & Fire
I don’t follow astrology much, but Chess Records session drummer Maurice White was a big devotee. His first band, a Chicago-based group called The Salty Peppers, broke up in 1970, and he moved to L.A. to start over. White’s astrological sign was Sagittarius, which apparently has the “primary element” of Earth and the “seasonal elements” of Air and Fire. So when he established his new group, he settled on Earth, Wind (Air) & Fire, and the lyrics of many of the songs in EW&F’s catalog reflect his interest in the environment and world peace.
When the Beatles were writing and first recording “With a Little Help From My Friends,” its working title was “Bad Finger Boogie,” because Lennon had injured a forefinger and was playing piano with only one finger at the time. When the time came to rename The Iveys, one of the first groups signed to The Beatles’ Apple Records label, Badfinger was suggested, based on that previous working song title. (George Harrison later said he thought the band had been named after a stripper they had admired in Hamburg named Helga Fabdinger…)
The London-based group that started as the Bo-Weevils and the Ravens eventually became The Kinks, but there are conflicting views about that. One version says the band liked the idea of a name that brought them “fame though outrage, something newsy and naughty, on the borderline of acceptability.” Others said, “The way you look, the clothes you wear, you ought be called The Kinks.” Either way, despite their half-dozen hits in the ’60s and early ’70s, they never came close to the success of their British peers, even though they lasted well into the ’90s. Lots and lots of great music, though, for those who want to explore…
In 1978, Steve Averill, a punk rocker with The Radiators and a friend of bass player Adam Clayton, offered up six suggestions for the name of the new group Clayton had formed with drummer Larry Mullen Jr., guitarist David “The Edge” Evans and Paul “Bono” Hewson. The band members settled on U2 “because we disliked it the least of the six names offered,” said Clayton. “It’s ambiguous and wide open to interpretation, which appealed to us.”
Grand Funk Railroad
Mark Farmer and Don Brewer spent time with a ’60s Michigan regional band called Terry Knight & the Pack, and Pack ended up managing Farner, Brewer and Mel Schacher in a new power trio in early 1969. The Grand TRUNK Railroad Line, a subsidiary of a Canadian railroad that had been a crucial link since the late 1800s between Ontario and Chicago, ran right through Flint, where the group was based. Pack thought, “Hey, how about you call yourselves Grand FUNK Railroad?” They loved it, although it was eventually shortened to Grand Funk.
“The Autobiography of a Supertramp” was a well-regarded book by Welsh poet/writer W.H. Davies, who had lived a vagabond life in England, Canada and the U.S. in the late 1800s and wrote about his curious life. Some fifty years later, a British progressive rock band that had been known as Daddy needed to make a change because of a similarly named group, Daddy Longlegs. Composers Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies both liked the tattered but noble image of a “supertramp” from the book, and Supertramp they became.
When TV news producers edit together the various clips they need to tell their on-air stories, they have a term they use to refer to ‘head-and-shoulders” shots of people talking but not doing anything: “talking heads.” Bass player Tina Weymouth recalls sitting around skimming through an article in TV Guide in 1976 that explored the TV producer’s job. “I saw that ‘talking head’ basically means, ‘all content, no action,’ and we thought that described us perfectly. It just fit, so we went with that.”
Lead singer and front man Mick Hucknall sported a head of long, unkempt red hair, which made him the undisputed visual focal point of his group. Originally a Manchester punk band known as The Frantic Elevators, they disbanded in 1984, and Hucknall started anew with a fresh lineup, performing British soul music. They adopted the name Red (Hucknall’s nickname, of course), but one night, when a club promoter asked them their name, Hucknall responded, “Red. Simply Red.” They were then promoted and announced on stage as “Simply Red.” They liked the error and kept it.
In 1972, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley were in a New York City-based band called Wicked Lester which was going nowhere. They heard a club band called Lips whose drummer, Peter Criss, was also a pretty decent singer, so they recruited him for their as-yet-unnamed group, focusing on a harder rock sound. Once lead guitarist Ace Frehley joined, they started experimenting with costumes and makeup for their stage act. Criss said, “Hey, Lips was a pretty good name, but how about Kiss instead?” They chose to use all capital letters, which prompted some to speculate that it was an acronym for devil worship (perhaps for Kids In Satan’s Service)…
In 1976 in New York City, three British musicians — guitarist/songwriter Mick Jones, multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald and drummer Dennis Elliott — combined forces with three Americans — singer Lou Gramm, keyboardist Al Greenwood and bassist Ed Gagliardi. They called themselves Trigger until they discovered another band with the same name. Eventually, Jones came to the realization that “no matter what country we play in, we’re foreigners,” so the band adopted the name Foreigner.
Four struggling musicians met in 1980 in Athens, Georgia, home to the University of Georgia. Singer Michael Stipe met guitarist Peter Buck in a record store and discovered they shared an interest in punk and proto-punk artists like Patti Smith and The Velvet Underground. They formed a band with two other UGA students but remained nameless until after their first gig, after which they kicked around repugnant names like “Cans of Piss” and “Negro Wives” before settling on R.E.M. (which stands for Rapid Eye Movement), a random phrase Stipe saw in the newspaper that particular day.
Three Dog Night
One day in 1968, singer Danny Hutton’s girlfriend was reading an article about the Australian outback, and how aborigines there would hunker down in a hole in the ground on cold nights, cuddling up with their dogs for warmth. Most times, one dog, or maybe two, would be sufficient, but on rare occasions, they would suffer through a brutally cold evening, which was referred to as a “three-dog night.” The pop group, which featured three lead vocalists, decided it was a great name for their lineup.
The Velvet Underground
Lou Reed and John Cale met in New York in 1964 and formed The Primitives, which evolved into The Warlocks, and then The Falling Spikes. Around that time, Reed read the controversial counter-culture classic “The Velvet Underground,” by Michael Leigh, about the secret sexual subculture of the Sixties, and concluded it was exactly the name they needed for their fledgling band of societal misfits.
The Doobie Brothers
Nothing mysterious here: This bar band from San Jose, California, played to some rough biker crowds who were partial to marijuana, and the band enjoyed it as well, so why not name themselves after the slang term for a cannabis cigarette? It’s amusing to note that many otherwise conservative folks who enjoyed The Doobies’ music over the years didn’t realize what “doobie” meant…
Electric Light Orchestra
A “light orchestra,” popular in classical music circles in England in the ’60s, was a scaled down symphony orchestra, limited to as few as 10-12 instruments (mostly violins, cellos and woodwinds). Roy Wood, leader of The Move, wanted to merge classical instruments with rock and roll, “picking up where The Beatles left off.” New recruit Jeff Lynne, who shared Wood’s interest in the potential of a classical/rock merger, helped create an electrified “light orchestra” sound, ultimately realizing that that was the most appropriate name for the group (although it was often abbreviated as ELO).
Blue Öyster Cult
This Long Island heavy metal band was conceived as “the American version of Black Sabbath.” Originally called “Soft White Underbelly,” the group’s manager Sandy Pearlman suggested a different name, a term from the brand of science-fiction poetry he had been writing. The phrase described a group of aliens who had assembled to secretly guide Earth’s history. The umlaut (two dots) above the capital O was added “just because it was unusual.” Years later, Pearlman said in an interview that he came up with the phrase “Blue Oyster Cult” as an anagram for Cully Stout Beer, although exhaustive Google searches for such a brand have come up empty.
Guitarist Chris Stein and blonde-haired singer Debbie Harry formed a band in 1974 with drummer Billy O’Connor and bassist Fred Smith, at first known as Angel and The Snake. When Harry was walking by a construction site in Manhattan one afternoon, several hardhats taunted her with whistles and catcalls, and one guy yelled out, “Hey Blondie!” When a passing truck driver yelled the same thing a few days later, the group decided it was the right name for their band.
The E Street Band
Bruce Springsteen had played with several groups during his formative years in New Jersey clubs: Earth, Steel Mill, Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom. When he was signed in 1972 to a recording deal with Columbia, Springsteen was expected to make an acoustic album, but instead he brought some of his musician friends with him to the sessions: bassist Garry Tallent on bass, Danny Federici on organ, Clarence Clemons on sax, David Sancious on piano, and Vini Lopez on drums. This motley crew often practiced in the garage at Sancious’s mother’s house, located on E Street in Belmar, NJ. Springsteen’s second LP and leadoff single were entitled “The E Street Shuffle,” thus immortalizing the name for decades to come, even as membership in the E Street Band changed along the way.
Creedence Clearwater Revival
The Blue Velvets were a Bay Area band playing rock ‘n roll covers in 1964-65. Once they signed to Fantasy Records, the owner insisted they call themselves The Golliwogs, after a controversial fictional character with unfortunate racial overtones. Draft notices issued to John Fogerty and Stu Cook put the band’s dreams on hiatus for a year or so, and when they reunited in 1968, the label’s new owner wanted another name change. Everyone came up with multiple ideas but settled on Fogerty’s suggestion that combined three words: Creedence (from Tom Fogerty’s friend Credence Newball), Clearwater (from the slogan for Olympia Beer, whose promotion proclaimed “It’s the water”), and Revival (for the band’s renewed commitment after the dormant period). “It was a weirder name than Jefferson Airplane or Buffalo Springfield, that’s for sure,” said Cook.