Wednesday Words: Rock Band Names

If you want to have a lot of fun with words, learn to play a musical instrument, form a band, and then name it! One of the interview questions I want asked of bands is how they chose their name. Were they inspired by a person, a place, or a thing? Did they choose it out of a hat or consider the possibility for hours on end before arriving at their moniker? Did one person name it or did all of them agree?

Some band names are rather straightforward – like Heart, Train, and Alabama. Others are a mouthful like Credence Clearwater Revival or Toad the Wet Sprocket.

Here are a few curious rock band names and the origin of those names:

10,000 Maniacs– Originally The Burn Victims, the band changed its name to 10,000 Maniacs based on the low-budget flick Two Thousand Maniacs. According to one source, Steven Gustafson said none of them had seen the 1964 horror movie and thought the title was 10,000 Maniacs.

ABBA – ABBA is an acryonym for its four members: Agnetha, Benny, Björn, and Ani-Frid. It’s catchy and means “father” in Aramaic.

Butthole Surfers– I hate this band name, but you do wonder where they got it. It’s based on an early song they did with the same title. The band called themselves many irreverent or even offensive names and eventually stuck with this one.

Def Leppard –Originally called the Atomic Mass, Joe Elliott joined the band as vocalist and suggested changing the name to Deaf Leopard – which he had come up with at school. Joe also changed the spelling to match up with Led Zeppelin’s name – you know, misspelling.

Duran Duran –This 1980s band was named after the villain in the movie Barbarella, starring a scantily-dressed Jane Fonda. Dr. Durand Durand is the inventor of the Positronic Ray. I have no idea what happened to the extra D’s when the band adopted his name.

Foo Fighters– World War II pilots from the United States War described anomalous balls of light they saw flying alongside them at high altitudes as “Foo Fighters,” based on the Smokey Stover comic strip phrase, “Where there’s Foo, there’s fire.” So essentially, the Foo Fighters are named after UFOs.

Hootie & the Blowfish – Hootie & the Blowfish were named after two friends of lead singer Darius Rucker – one of whom looked like an owl and the other who had fat cheeks.

Led Zeppelin– When Jimmy Page formed the band, Keith Moon, The Who’s drummer, commented that the band would go down “like a lead balloon.” Band member John Entwhistle remarked that it would be more like a “lead zeppelin.” The spelling of the first word was changed, presumably to prevent anyone from mispronouncing it “leed.”

Lynyrd Skynyrd– Lynyrd Skynyrd is a butchering of the name Leonard Skinner, a gym teacher at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Florida, where three of the band members attended. Apparently, Mr. Skinner did not appreciate long hair and sent each of these boys to the principal, resulting in their suspension. All those y’s were used to avoid the legal trouble involved with matching his name too closely.

Mr. Mister –Why the two misters? It was an inside joke about the Weather Report’s album Mr. Gone ,in which there are references to Mister This and Mister That. Then it simply became Mr. Mister.

Nickelback –Thank Starbucks for this one. Before stardom, band member Mike Kroeger worked at the local coffee shop. Whenever a customer ordered a $1.45 coffee and handed over $1.50, he had to give them a nickel back.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys chose their name by combining various words Andy had written out as part of song ideas and lyrics.

Pink Floyd –Pink Anderson and Floyd Council were two blues men who inspired founding member Syd Barrett.

Smashing Pumpkins– Seriously, I could not get a straight answer on this one. The band has given various responses to the question, none of them making any more sense than the “Smashing Pumpkins” moniker itself. Does anybody out there know?

The Grateful Dead– Originally called the Warlocks, that name was being used by another band also. Presumably, Jerry Garcia found the phrase “grateful dead” in a dictionary one night, which refers to a spirit who is thankful to a living person who has helped him find peace. From the Egyptian Book of the Dead: “Amidst the sullen darkness, there shown a solitary light. For it is known ‘neath the sands of the pharaohs that deep in the land of night, the ship of the sun is drawn by the grateful dead.”

Thompson Twins– Growing up, I could never figure this one out since there were three of them and no one was a twin. But the band is named after Thompson and Thomson, Scotland Yard detectives in a Belgian comic bookseries called The Adventures of Tin-Tin. Though not related,the two fictional characters are at times referred to as twins.

Three Dog Night– Vocalist Danny Hutton’s girlfriend saw a documentary on indigenous Australians who used the expression “three dog night” to refer to a night so cold, one needed to sleep with three dogs to stay warm. Appropriately, the band had three lead singers.

ZZ Top – It has been theorized that they were named after two brands of cigarette rolling papers – Zig Zag and Top. However, guitarist Billy Gibbons stated that it was a combination of blues men Z.Z. Hill and B.B. King which led him to ZZ King, and then – figuring that B.B. King was on top – ZZ Top.

What band names do you like? Have you ever considered what you would name a band? Do you like knowing the origin of band names? Be sure to also check out Erin Brambilla’s post on What Would You Name Your Punk Band? with a link to a band name generator.

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17 thoughts on “Wednesday Words: Rock Band Names

  1. How interesting to know how these bands came up with their names! I'm glad they didn't all use the random name generator :). A friend of my dad's always said the best name for a band would be "Free Beer". Then when they advertise on posters "Free Beer at XYZ Bar tonight!" tons of people would show up. Of course, they better be pretty darn good…or the audience will feel pretty cheated when the beer isn't actually free :).

  2. Man, I loved this. I knew some of those stories, but not all of them. And you know I love it when I can learn something new. Band names I love? Janis Joplin and the Full TIlt Boogie Band (Guess where I got my blog name.)MetallicaVelvet RevolverAlabama3 Doors DownThe CranberriesThe Sex Pistols38 Special

  3. Ooh, had to look up Velvet Revolver. According to wikipedia (maybe not the best source!), Slash based it on the word Revolver after seeing a movie by Revolution Studios. Then another member suggested Black Velvet Revolver, liking the opposites of something soft and something hard. Shortened to Velvet Revolver. I like it!Of course, Full Tilt Boogie is totally cool! But then Janis Joplin was totally cool (except for the addiction thing).

  4. Good one, Alica! There are differing reports for how Spandau Ballet got its name. Band members claim that it was a term used by Nazi guards stationed at a concentration camp (in the German city of Spandau) to describe the gruesome contortions of Jewish prisoners being gassed to death. Another band suggests that it came up with the name by pairing the city "Spandau" with a word from a hat "Ballet," wrote it on a toilet stall, and the moniker was taken by the band that hit it big. Sometimes, I wonder if bands remember the way their name came into existence. Who knows?

  5. @Patricia – You're welcome! I didn't know any of them (except ABBA) until I looked them up.@Jennette – I LOVE Rush! Saw them in concert in the late 1980s.@Abbi – Thanks so much for the compliment! I love language & words, so I blog about everything I can think of that involves them.

  6. Awesome idea for a post, Julie! I love what you come up with. So interesting! And here I thought Nickelback had something to do with football plays. Ha! I, too, was always confused about Thompson Twins…now it makes sense. Thanks for the enjoyable read!

  7. Love the post, Julie! I'm with Catie…I love to learn stuff like this. :-)I've always wanted to know where Oingo Boingo and Toad the Wet Sprocket came from.That's extremely cool to know about Nickelback and Led Zeppelin. 🙂

  8. I take these as challenges, I suppose!@Donna – Jefferson Airplane is either named for a marijuana joint holder or (according to band member Jorma Kaukonen) is a silly name invented by a friend in reference to oddly named blues singers/musicians. Canned Heat appears to be based on Tommy Johnson's song "Canned Heat Blues," which bemoans the result of drinking the methanol from a sterno can. (Wow, you can write a song about anything!)@Tiffany – From what I found, the Bangles were The Supersonic Bangs, then Bangs, then (due to some legal issue) changed their name to The Bangles. For Aerosmith, some want to link it to Sinclair Lewis's book Arrowsmith, but band member Joey Kramer says that he and a girlfriend thought it up after listening to Harry Nilsson's Aerial Ballet album.@Jenny – Oingo Boingo makes no sense. Some claims it's a phrase in Swahili that means "thinking w/o dancing." Don't believe it. I tried translators, and neither oingo or boingo appear to be Swahili! Best source I found was from Richard Elfman, a member: http://www.buzzinemusic.com/article/music-oingo-boingo-05072009. As for Toad the Wet Sprocket, the name is the brain child of Eric Idle of the Monty Python Circus – who referred to "Toad the Wet Sprocket" in a comedy sketch called "Rock Notes." You can probably YouTube it, if you care.

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