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Band names can be used to describe a sound or attitude (Buzzcocks), conjure up a certain image, (Black Sabbath) or can even be utter nonsense intended to leave the listener open for surprise (Neutral Milk Hotel). A band name is an important aspect of the success, the legend, and the image associated with that group. Some band names reach far beyond the music itself and become instantly recognizable totems of a movement. These are some of the most memorable band names ever created.
A controversial and aggressive name for a controversial and aggressive band, Jello Biafra (speaking of names…) started the seminal SoCal hardcore band in 1978. The story is actually a simple one; sitting in his bedroom one day Jello - then known by his given name Eric Boucher - was talking music with producer and former Question Mark and the Mysterians drummer Mark Bliesner. When Bliesner made a comment about his idea for an “unusable” band name based on his girlfriend’s teddy bear, "Ted Kennedy," a name for all time was born.
The Smashing Pumpkins
The origin of the name of this legendary Chicago band is shrouded in mystery, but the generally accepted truth is that it was a joke for lead singer and founder Billy Corgan before he even had a band. As the story goes, Corgan would tell people he was in a band called Smashing Pumpkins, based on the absurd sound of it. When he got older and actually formed a band, the name stuck.
Bass player D’arcy Wretzky is quoted as saying the band name is a “dumb bad joke and a bad idea” and laughed off the wild speculation surrounding the origin. She did make the distinction however, that ‘Smashing’ refers to an adjective, as in ‘great pumpkins.’ The band was one of the most popular of the early 1990s grunge scene, and is known for it’s heavy guitar sound coupled with dreamlike lyrics.
In the early 1980’s, Texas wasn’t exactly the epicenter for outsider punk rock. Gibby Haynes and company aimed to change that by forming their now legendary band of rabble rousers in 1981. They were known for their antagonistic stage presence, featuring nudity, fire, and violence, and this attitude came to shroud everything the band did.
The played their debut show in San Antonio, but had not yet settled on a name. Band names rotated with their chaotic gigs, with the group selecting different absurd monikers for each set. Finally, when they got their first paying gig, they kept the lucky name of the night, which happened to be Butthole Surfers. They remained a staple of underground music, garnering a cult like following for years to come.
Mike Ness and his band have been part of the working class punk scene for almost 40 years. Given their longevity, it might be surprising that their iconic name, representative of the attitude exuded by them and their peers in the SoCal punk scene, came out of two words the band thought sounded cool together. Distortion summed up the sound of the scene at the time, and social certainly represents the bands progressive and working class attitude towards political issues.
After a stint in jail, Ness and company altered the direction of the band, and had a large role in establishing a country/punk crossover sound - a natural progression given a shared history of agitation and disruption between the two genres.
One of the most famous rock and roll bands of all time, and preeminent ambassadors of Great Britain during the 1960’s British Invasion, The Who also have one of the most generically unique band names ever conceived. The group cycled through a couple of names, to varying success, but after being dropped from their label in 1964 under the name The High Numbers, guitarist Pete Townsend sacked their manager and went with The Who, at the suggestion of a friend.
It seems to have worked out for the group, as they went on to become legends with hits like ‘Pinball Wizard,’ ‘Baba O’Reilly,’ and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again.’ They’re one of the most popular rock bands of all time, selling over 100 million records.
When three students from the Rhode Island School of Art and Design got together in 1974, no one expected it to spawn one of the most monumental bands to come out of the post punk scene of the late 1970s. Starting with the much more deadpan “The Artistics,” a move to New York City inspired a more serious attitude and a name change. When Tina Weymouth’s friend flipped through a TV Guide, the phrase “talking heads,” - describing the participants in an interview show and conjuring images of a stuffy establishment - stood out to the group.
They were a revolutionary band, blending the pop sounds of new wave and the attitude and DIY spirit of punk rock. Eventually the group evolved to incorporate Bali Funk and other world sounds and rhythms into their sound and live shows. They remain iconic to this day, in spite of having split in 1989.
Queens of the Stone Age
When Queens of the Stone Age guitarist, vocalist, and leader Josh Homme started the grunge super group, he had no idea the success that would eventually come. Initially named Gamma Ray, Homme pulled together friends from the legendary bands Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, and Monster Magnet for his new project. However legal action over the band name from a German power metal group forced them to come up with something different. They settled on Queens of the Stone Age, based on a recurring joke from their producer.
The band has a revolving door of performers these days, but they remain one of the most popular groups in modern rock. Their first hit, "No One Knows", peaked at number 1 on the US Modern Rock Chart in 2002, and as band names go, the group will certainly go down in history.
Noise-rap trio Death Grips is not a band known for transparency. They are known for cancelling shows, angering fans, and producing some of the brashest, most aggressive music in the last twenty years. A group shrouded in mystery, origin and meaning can be hard to suss out, but in one interview in 2011 co-founder/producer Andy Morin claims that the meaning lies in a technological stalemate.
In spite of the group's standoffishness, they’ve gained a huge cult following with a number of mix-tapes and albums, generally pulling no punches in their obscure deconstruction of modern society.
Cage the Elephant
Sometimes band names are carefully considered, and rife with meaning. Others are almost incidental, something that just sounds good and kind of sticks. The latter is the case for Kentucky cum British Alt-blues band Cage the Elephant. The story is that a mentally disturbed man approached singer Matthew Schultz, hugged him, and repeated the phrase over and over in his ear. A bizarre experience, to be sure, and one that clearly left an impact on the members.
The band's enigmatic mixture of soul, blues, classic rock, and early grunge have proved a winning mixture, and earned the group a big following both in the US and the UK, where Cage the Elephant is now based.
Alice in Chains
One of the most iconic bands to come out of the Seattle grunge scene in the early 1990s, Alice in Chains remains revered by critics and fans alike. The name came out of a joke in lead singer Layne Steely’s former band, about dressing in drag and performing metal. Originally dubbed “Alice ’N Chains” due to fears of a reference to female bondage, the band eventually reverted to the original moniker “Alice In Chains.”
Their tremendous success in the early nineties was marred by Steely’s drug use and they went on hiatus after a self titled album in 1996. Steely eventually succumbed to his demons, overdosing on heroin and crack in 2002. In addition to their music, they’ll go down in history as having one of the most memorable band names of all time.
When a band achieves any kind of success, its name becomes part of the lore. There have been many memorable group names over the years, but the ones above stand out amor the rest.