Where Do Bands Get Their Names?
Rock history is rife with lore about how our favorite musicians settling on a name. Many stories aren't as interesting as you would hope. Blues legend Muddy Waters (born McKinley Morganfield), for instance, enjoyed playing in the mud as a child. Nobody knows how Bob Dylan came up with his name, and Prince's real name is actually Prince. There's enough of these one sentence stories to fill a book.
Occasionally the story behind a band's name reflects their journey as musicians.
Perhaps one of the more interesting stories comes from the simplest of names: The Band. The group formed as The Hawks in the late 1950s as the backing band for rockabilly musician Ronnie Hawkins. Hawkins, a character who often described his personal style as "the big dick look," named the group after himself. After a five year stint, the Hawks hoped to break away from Hawkins and make it on their own. They tried a number of different names like The Levon Helm Sextet and Levon and The Hawks, but none of them stuck.
As time passed, the band struggled to separate themselves from the Strawberry Alarm Clocks and Chocolate Watchbands that flooded the industry in the mid-to-late sixties. They tried The Crackers, but that terrified the straights at Capital Records.
Then they tried The Honkies, but that didn't work either. They even tried The Canadian Squires, which proved to be too lame. The group's identity crisis ran on for so long that people didn't bother calling them anything anymore, just The Band. Satisfied with the name's minimalist and folksy feel, the guys just stuck with it.
Sometimes musicians design a band's name to create some sort of impact in the listener. Some take the easy route and just throw a "fuck" in their name (Fuck, Holy Fuck, Fucked Up, Fuck Buttons), but others take a turn for the subversive. Manchester post-punk band Joy Division sent the British press into a frenzy over their name. Singer Ian Curtis came up with it after reading the 1955 novella The House of Dolls which described Joy Divisions, the alleged code name for Jewish women set aside as prostitutes in Nazi concentration camps. Needless to say, slave-like prostitution rings in Nazi Germany didn't sit well with many Brits. However, the controversy was short lived, as Curtis hanged himself just after the release of the band's second album. After the remnants of Joy Division formed the appropriately named New Order, the public became too busy taking ecstasy and dancing to "Blue Monday" to care much about anything.
Being the self-referential dorks that musicians tend to be, many bands draw inspiration from other groups. An obvious example is The Rolling Stones, who named themselves after a Muddy Waters song. Some take it a step further. When forming their new project, Jesse Hughes and Queens of the Stone Age singer Josh Homme developed a theory that postulated the existence of two extremes in music: The Eagles and Death Metal. They wanted their group to fall directly between the two, so what did they do? They named themselves Eagles of Death Metal.
Musicians don't exclude movies from the naming process either. Many groups will simply lift the title and call it a band. Shoegaze pioneers My Bloody Valentine got their name from an early 1980s Halloween rip off about a ghostly coal miner who knocks off teenagers on Valentine's Day. Black Sabbath and White Zombie are both trashy exploitation films respectively starring aging horror pioneers Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Members of the Wu-Tang Clan proved that they've watched far too many kung-fu movies by taking their name from the title of the 1981 film Shaolin and Wu Tang. Even Bill Murray's Groundhog Day inspired the name of at least one band. Late 90s DC band The Dismemberment Plan took their name from a quote by the film's obnoxious insurance salesman Ned Ryerson (Needlenose Ned, Ned the Head. C'mon buddy! Case Western High!).
One modern trend for band names seems to come from too many trips to the zoo. Starting around 2005, many groups caused record stores to look like regular menageries. You've got Panda Bear and Grizzly Bear. Then there's Deerhunter and Deerhoof. Caribou, Swan Lake, Mountain Goats, Arctic Monkeys, Fleet Foxes, Cat Power, and Frog Eyes. There's the Department of Eagles and a Band of Horses. You've got The Ponys, New Young Pony Club, and Ponytail. You can watch Wolf Parade through your Wolf Eyes with your Wolfmother or Be Your Own Pet, Minus the Bear in an Animal Collective.
If you're starting a band and don't know where to start, the trend these days seems to be random nouns. You can start with things on your desk: Bottle Cap, Glass Elephant, The Cell Phones. Another trick is to take the nearest book, open it, and point to phrase, which gives surprisingly good results (Book Buyers, When the School Day Ended, Pall Malls). Just please, make a promise not to name yourself anything like Sink or Butt Plug.
Story by Kris King
Starpulse contributing writer
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