In 1983, two guys in San Francisco who delivered singing telegrams decided to form an a cappella group they called The Oral Bobs (a play on evangelist Oral Roberts’ name). One of their humorous original songs, called “Naming the Band,” has a chorus that goes like this: “We should be writing tunes and learning where to stand, /Instead we’re spending all our time doing nothing but naming the band…”
Coming up with a suitable name for your band does seem to be an important factor in your success. Is it meaningful, or indicative of the music? Or maybe it’s just silly, or outrageous, or none of the above. (I’m surprised there’s no band out there called None Of The Above. Maybe there is!)
Where do rock band names come from? In its infancy, rock and roll 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, We Five, The Kingston Trio, The Dave Clark Five, Sir Douglas Quintet.
The Regular Names: Some solo artists merely used their given names — Elvis Presley, 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, 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 preposterous, some blatantly offensive: Men Without Hats. Death Cab For Cutie. Bare Naked Ladies. Tears for Fears. Garbage. Hootie and the Blowfish. 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. 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.
I’ve picked 30 classic rock bands from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s with intriguing names that have noteworthy 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 eventually flattered by the gesture oncer they became successful, and he even appeared on stage once to introduce the band at a Jacksonville show years later.
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 at the time. It just fit, so we went with that.”
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.”
A ragged band known as The Blades 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 Jethro Tull, not Ian Anderson, was the name of their flute-playing frontman.
Earth Wind & Fire
Chess Records session drummer Maurice White was a big devotee of astrology. 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 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.
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”).
In the mid-20th Century, the Buffalo Steamroller Company merged with the Kelly-Springfield Road Roller Company to become the leading manufacturers of road building equipment. In 1966, guitarists Stephen Stills and Neil Young had just formed a new group but hadn’t come up with a name yet. They walked outside their manager’s Los Angeles office and spied one of the company’s steamrollers parked at a construction site. They saw the nameplate and loved the sound of the two words together, instantly settling on it as their new band’s name.
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.”
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.
Counterculture author William Burroughs wrote a bizarre novel called “Naked Lunch,” which included a reference to a Japanese dildo 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 sexual device.
“The Autobiography of a Supertramp” was a well-regarded book by Welsh poet/writer W.H. Davies, who had lived a vagabond existence 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.
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.)
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.
When the Beatles were writing and first recording “With a Little Help From My Friends,” its working title was “Bad Finger Boogie,” because John Lennon had injured a forefinger and was playing piano with only three digits. 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…)
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.
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…
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.
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)…
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 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.
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.
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).
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 have enjoyed The Doobies’ music over the years may not even realize what “doobie” means.
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.
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.
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 the next day, the group took it as a sign that it was the right name for their 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.
“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.”
He’s literally the only person of note to come from the village of Shalbourne, where my most recent novella was set. 🙂
Hey Bruce, this post held some interesting revelations for me. But, as someone who came up in the NYC Greenwich Village scene, I knew the Spoonful. And I was always under the impression that, like the Rolling Stones, the Lovin’ Spoonful was named for the well-known blues song by Howlin’ Wolf (and also Bo Diddley). Cheers, Ted
I loved your column this week. My sister got us going to wear blue shirts and, finally bell bottoms. She was turned on to the sixties, the wild child.
But eventually I got turned on by the causes of the sixties and it was fun to read the explanations of the records she brought home.
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Thanks for the kind words. I enjoyed the memories you shared. Music is so amazing the way it can do that.
Good job Bruce!
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