The Priest's 50 Favorite Band Names of All-Time
What makes a great band name? Not the music, that’s for sure. The mere mention of the Rolling Stones brings nods of approval and talk of the greatest bands of all-time. But as a band name, is the Rolling Stones a good one? Or, as I advocate, is the name elevated artificially by its positive association with the band’s music? Yes, it’s a decent name, with some historical inspiration, but it’s really nothing overly special when stripped for parts. The Rolling Stones would’ve been loved the same if they were called the Lovin’ Spoonful or the Black Keys—as long as they made the same music. How about the Beatles then? In truth, it’s a pretty stupid name—a bastardized spin on Buddy Holly’s Crickets, with the dreaded intentional misspelling that has felled so many other band names over the years. (Def Leppard even did it twice in two words!) Even if the Beatles was meant to honor beat generation poets, it’s still an example of a great band succeeding despite a pretty lame band name. We’ve started at the top not to pick on the big boys, but instead to illustrate how very hard it is to come up with a truly great band name. The list below attempts to highlight the bands that got it right—at least in the naming phase of starting a band.
This list includes only includes artists that have gained some measure of success.
This list is compiled based on a band’s name only, not the quality of the music they play.
No Swedish metal bands.
50 Einstürzende Neubauten
Gratuitous umlauts* (the two dots over a letter that in theory alters that letter's pronunciation) are relatively common in band names, some to great, others to preposterous, effect. Here’s a case of an umlaut being used because the word actually requires an umlaut when written in its native German language. Which begs the question: Can a band name be considered cool just because it sounds, or looks, cool in a different language? Isn’t that cheating, in a way? Also, does the translation need to be cool or is the name alone a worthy qualifier? This band is from Germany and its name literally translates as “Collapsing New Buildings.” To be completely honest with you, if they named themselves Collapsing New Buildings, they wouldn’t be on this list at all. But Einstürzende Neubauten is simply fun to say once you’ve figured out the phonetic rhythm. How many band names provide a sense of pride when the mere pronunciation of their name is mastered? The German language is notoriously difficult, full of harsh sounds that tax the back of your throat and compound words that combine like Lego blocks into unwieldy beasts, but this multi-syllabic mouthful unfurls like a flag receiving a stiff wind. As far as Kraut bands go, it’s way more satisfying than the relatively unchallenging Kraftwerk, and it blows the diminutive duo Can and Neu! out of the water. Perhaps Rammstein is a challenger, but not a formidable foe.
*I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; the word “umlaut” should have an umlaut in it for demonstrative purposes. Another missed opportunity for redemption from the Germans. That said, The Grätuïtous Ümlauts would’ve been a great band name, foreshadowing/memorializing a lifetime of umlaut misuse throughout rock and roll history.
49 Guided By Voices
Creativity manifests itself in many ways, but rarely does a band name sum it up for you so succinctly. Musical inspiration is a mystery to many artists. Few know how their songs come about; many claim divine intervention, some can’t definitively locate the source. A tiny amount, I imagine, have the answer built into their band name. Considering the prolific output of Robert Pollard and GBV, there’s little doubt there are a host of voices pitching ideas to him 24/7 and he just writes them down and records them. So this is one band name that defines truth in advertising.
48 Del Fuegos
Named after Tierra del Fuego, the Southernmost tip of Argentina—and the last stop before Antarctica—because this Boston band wanted their name to be “as low down as you can get.” Conveniently, and ironically, Tierra del Fuego translates as “Land of Fire.” Which means the shortened band version translates as “of the fires” or “the fires” for simplicity’s sake. That makes the name cool and hot simultaneously. “Fuego” is simply a much snazzier word than “fire” as well. The Fires wouldn’t be nearly as effective as a band name. The Spanish translation simply has an exotic appeal.
47 The Smiths
Some band names are chosen for flash, some for attention, and some to stand out from the crowd. Others are chosen because they want to accomplish the exact opposite. To be as generic as possible perhaps to allow the music to be the only definition of the band. Which is what makes the Smiths name genius. The most common surname in the UK (and the US), it’s the perfect choice if you want to blend in. But sometimes trying to blend in elevates you, which is the paradox of the situation.
46 Talking Heads
Why not the Singing Heads? Music group, after all. Answer: because that would be a stupid band name. The name of the band, chosen in the 70s, was far ahead of its time—Max Headroom and the 24-hour news cycle still a ways off into the future. Technically, it’s jargon for a news shot of just the anchorperson from the shoulders up, but in David Byrne’s and the Heads’ perspective it was an abstract name denoting no particular sound, and no particular style.
45 Molly Hatchet
Hatchet Molly was a fictitious (hopefully) 17th century prostitute from the deep South who allegedly mutilated and chopped the genitals off her customers with an axe. Which makes her perfect fodder for a rock and roll band’s name of course. Why they felt compelled to switch the name around is anyone’s guess, but it works either way. I’m not sure old Molly would be pleased or angry at the honor. But wear a codpiece just in case.
“The Queens” wouldn’t have been as effective. Queen sans plural and sans definite article is much better. It’s a powerful word when it sits by itself. It’s also shrouded in mystery. Is “Queen” a real queen or someone dressed like a queen? A transvestite possibly? A chess piece? Maybe all of the above. Either way, when you see the word Queen, you take notice. Doesn’t hurt that it’s the rare name that starts with that most elusive letter, Scrabble’s very own 10-pointer, Q.
43 T. Rex
The coolest, and most notorious, of all dinosaurs. A T. Rex couldn’t play guitar with those short arms (a ukulele perhaps?), but the band version can. You expect a band with this name to rock heavy and hard, trampling everything in its path.
42 The Chemical Brothers
A loaded name with endless possibilities, the Chemical Brothers could’ve been just about any kind of band and the name would’ve been cool. It was convenient that they were electronic wizards in the end, mixing sounds in a computer lab—perhaps the most fitting style for the name. (Note: The Chemical Brothers narrowly won this spot over fellow English electronic duo, Groove Armada)
41 Pink Floyd
There aren’t many bands with a color in their name on this list. If it once worked (Deep Purple and King Crimson, to cite two good examples), it doesn’t anymore. Most of the Crayons have been used so much they are tiny little nubs now. There’s no bigger offender than the color black. Once upon a time, it was the symbol of all things unholy in rock and roll (Black Sabbath, Big Black). Now, it’s just a convenient modifier (The Black Keys, the Black Angels, the Black Lips, Black Mountain, the Black Crowes, Black Kids, the Black Eyed Peas, et al). While pink is on a comeback trail now (Pink, Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti), in rock history the color has made just an occasional appearance (The Pink Fairies, Music from Big Pink, the Legendary Pink Dots, “Pink Cadillac,” etc). Which makes the name Pink Floyd that much more novel. When assessing a name, you can’t expect people to know its origin. While it’s a fact that Pink Floyd was named after two bluesmen, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, most people aren’t able to recall the name’s origin when asked. On its own, the name is still unique, however. Who, or what, is Pink Floyd? Is it an old piece of machinery, a famous gangster, a turn-of-the-century transsexual, a 50’s dragster? It’s a name that welcomes speculation and fires the imagination. What more can you ask for?
40 Windsor for the Derby
A relatively obscure choice, I know, but I’ve always loved the name of this Austin, Texas, via Florida, band. You might expect a British band based on the name, possibly in the Kinks’ neighborhood stylistically, but you’d be wrong. The name has a distinctly royal sound, recalling the famed Windsor Castle. And “for the Derby” could reference anything from a bowler-style hat to a horserace to the city of Derby, located in central England. More likely, it’s just a combination of those elements sequenced in a whimsical way that’s just fun to say with a British accent.
39 Chairmen of the Board
If you have no power, give the illusion that you have some. Appoint yourself to a position of authority by giving yourself a band name that exudes prestige and demands respect. In 2010, we finally got an artist to call himself CEO (Swede Eric Berglund), but we’ve had the Chairmen of the Board since the late-60s. They may not have lived up to the band name among their soul music contemporaries, but they did release a few killer tunes, including, of course, one called “Chairman of the Board” (“I’m the chairman of my baby’s board!”). Adding to the band’s stature was their lead singer, the militarily named General Johnson. You tell him he’s not in charge.
38 Cabaret Voltaire
This “enlightened” name sounds like a place for pretentious artists to gather and discuss highbrow matters of great import, and sure enough it was. Cabaret Voltaire, named after the legendary French poet, was a Zurich café “that served as headquarters for Swiss Dadaists in the years before WW I” (according to Adam Dolgins’ book Rock Names published by Citadel Press in 1993) and also provided the inspiration for this long-running Sheffield electronic dance trio’s moniker. It sounds timeless and contemporary at the same time, which is a rare characteristic for a band name.
37 The Damned
Are names that start with “The” inherently less creative and original than names that don’t? Why should we reward bands that have gone the easiest route possible? The + noun (or plural noun in most cases) form a name seemingly hatched from a game of Mad Libs. How hard is that? It’s amazing, however, what can hinge on that solitary word choice. Most of the time, the name turns out fine, but unremarkable (The Antlers, The Busboys, The Eagles, The Raspberries, et al). Sometimes the selected word is striking. A word is chosen that fits the times, the music, and/or the nature of rock and roll itself. The Damned is such a name.
36 The Queers
There is a jagged history of straight bands presumably named to capitalize on the shock value of atypical sexual orientation. London’s Homosexuals (stellar punk from the late-70s/early-80s) were an early entry into this arena. Detroit’s underappreciated Fags appeared in the mid-00s (technically named after the British term for a cigarette, as evidenced by their excellent 2006 debut record Light ‘Em Up, but certainly aware of the duality of the word). Then there’s Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s long-running Queers, a punk band known for their irreverent, politically incorrect humor (“Kicked Out of the Webelos” a personal favorite). In our opinion, the Queers is the best of their ilk. Not as crude as the Fags, not as overt as the Homosexuals. Plus, queer is a more versatile term, allowing a host of sexual preferences and kinks to fall within its scope.
35 Public Enemy
This is an old school gangster name, from back in the days when Eliot Ness was hot on the heels of Al Capone in Chicago’s Prohibition-era “glory” days. In modern America, it definitely takes on less of an individual designation and applies to whole races of people struggling for equality that feel like they live on the outside of society looking in.
34 Ozark Mountain Daredevils
Trivia is great. This exercise has uncovered a lot of interesting stories about how and from where band names were derived and settled upon. But stories must be put aside, as only the final names count here. It’s moderately amusing that the original suggested name for OMD (who pre-dated English synth collective Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark by six years) was Cosmic Corn Cob & His Amazing Ozark Mountain Daredevils. If they’d gone with that, they might’ve made the short list of worst band names ever. That’s why, as with any creative pursuit, a strong editorial eye is crucial. One moment of weakness and you’re saddled for life (as we’ll see in our second segment highlighting the worst band names of all-time). By trimming down the name to Ozark Mountain Daredevils, they went from sounding like a trailer park jug band to sounding like a Southern biker gang, or at least a backwoods circus act doing God knows what for thrills. Either way, you’re going to want to check out the group in person to find out. As the band’s motto says, “If you wanna get to heaven, you’ve got to raise a little hell.” And with rewards as sweet as “Jackie Blue,” you’re likely to jump on the bandwagon.
33 Massive Attack
The Attack would’ve been a good name, too. Simple, effective, dangerous. But Massive Attack? That’s a name for World Wars, blockbuster movies, fatal heart trouble. It’s a name that you have to take seriously or live with the dire consequences.
32 Violent Femmes
Band names are usually about clever, or not so clever, combinations of words. The Strawberry Alarm Clock, the Electric Prunes, Neutral Milk Hotel, etc. are all given a pass in service to the perceived eccentricities of the people who create art. Most of us understand that the band name isn’t that crucial to our love of the music anyway, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Then there are the good ones. The names like Violent Femmes that draw attention via the contradictions held within such a small space. Femmes, by nature, aren’t violent. So what happened to make these particular femmes violent? Are there even femmes in the band, or is the band name an attempt at irony? All valid queries. One common denominator for bands on this list is that all of them have picked a name that compels people to find out what kind of music they make. Like a cool album cover, like a cool band photo, like a clever album title, like a killer logo, you can never have too many lures in the water with which to snag a potential listener. Here’s the perfect example of that scenario.
31 The Embarrassment
Every once in a blue moon, a band taps into a little self-deprecation that is a welcome change from the usual cocksure grandstanding. There is nowhere to go but up when you call yourself the Embarrassment. As it turns out, they never made it big, but in certain circles they were heroes—including mine.
30 Body Count
It seems like body counts don’t phase people anymore—we see so many mass killings that the bad news almost rolls off our backs. But as a band name, it seems painfully blunt when it stands on its own. Almost like it’s waiting for the next number of victims to be filled in at the end. Not every great band name is a feel-good affair and this one comes with a heavy price.
29 The Slits
When you hear this name, you expect an irreverent girl-group playing nasty punk rock to be behind it. What else makes sense for a band with this name? Yes, there’s always the chance the name is being used ironically, like the Queers (who were not queer), but this is a name where it’s clearly most effective if it’s truth in advertising. You want a strong, powerful band of girls to take back the derogatory term and spin it on its head. And that’s exactly what you get, thankfully. Hilariously, the Slits were formed from the remnants of two bands—the Castrators (which would’ve made this list if they stayed together!) and, I shit you not, the Flowers of Romance! The latter sounds nice, but the more you think of it, the more it seems the natural precursor to the name they ended up with.
28 Velocity Girl
There’s nothing wrong with naming your group after another band’s song. Song titles are a great place to mine for band names, and it has been done many times before. Just ask Radiohead.* (It’s also a common practice when naming websites and blogs—Pickled Priest was inspired by the Who song “Athena.”) Velocity Girl was named after a Primal Scream B-side from 1986. Trivia aside, the real beauty of the name of this female dominated, but co-ed band, is the fact the name sounds like a superhero you’d love to see come to life to save humanity. This is not a comic book, but it should be.
*Named after the Talking Heads song of the same name.
27 The Sex Pistols
26 Naked Raygun
A Naked Raygun sounds like a product you might find in one of those wacky ads in the back of a comic book. Hey kids! Try this gun that makes people (a word that includes cute girls in its definition), naked with one focused laser blast!!! Sign me up! I also briefly considered adding X-Ray Spex to my Top 50, but they lost out to the much sexier and efficient product offered here. (Apologies to Poly Styrene—but you’ll be back when I make a list of the best rock and roll aliases of all-time.) Which leads us to the Sex Pistols. The members of Naked Raygun have said that their name was directly inspired by the Sex Pistols, and they do seem like close thematic relatives. The Sex Pistols was a pretty controversial choice back in the day. Putting the word Sex in the name alone ruffled a lot of feathers, but then to add a gun (slash penis euphemism) to the mix was even more threatening. Keep that thing out of my face! To this day, if I had a choice between the two, I’d go with the more playful Naked Raygun. It’s more subtle, too.
25 Suicidal Tendencies
One of the hardest decisions when making this list was Suicide, Suicidal Tendencies, or both? The word suicide is simply jarring—among the most distressing words in the English language, loaded with heartbreaking connotations. But, like it or not, it makes for a band name that’s going to get noticed. There’s something powerful about the word sitting all by itself, isolated from the world, but it’s almost too real to glorify. With Suicidal Tendencies, on the other hand, there’s still time. A tendency means nothing final has happened yet. Plus, it captures, in a couple words, the outcast culture that has launched many great bands and artists over the years. There’s always been a self-destructive streak underlying the whole enterprise that’s taken some of its greatest heroes from us over the years. Maybe the name can do some good by spotlighting some of the warning signs before they turn tragic.
24 Urban Verbs
Washington D.C. new wavers Urban Verbs never made it big, but they certainly had their share of admirers. Brian Eno once worked with the band on a few songs, and they were slotted to open for Joy Division on their 1980 North American tour, which was canceled after the suicide of singer Ian Curtis. Count us among their fans, as well. I would kill for a vintage Urban Verbs t-shirt based on the name of the band alone. It’s a linguists delight, requiring moist, roly-poly lips and a loose jaw, only difficult to say if you’re dealing with a fat lip at the moment. Pronunciation aside, the name hints at a proprietary inner-city language that you’d only understand if you’ve ever lived in the belly of a major metropolis. It’s a “language” partially made up of sounds (often startling), smells (usually appalling), sights (emotionally disturbing), and words (usually made up), that all coalesce to form an exclusive subculture. Urban Verbs, that’s what’s happening.
23 The Misfits
If ever there was a common theme in the stories of rock stars, musicians, songwriters, basically anyone with an artistic bone in their body, it’s that at one point they were considered outcasts, or at least weird, by their classmates. The only ones that understood them were a select group of like-minded peers. The Island of Misfit Toys, if you will. So naming a band the Misfits is the perfect summation of a life lived on the fringes.
22 Led Zeppelin
While it’s true that intentionally misspelled names are almost always lamentable, Led Zeppelin is one exception. If you don’t misspell lead (the element Pb) as Led, people might’ve, at least initially, mispronounced the name as “lead” (as being in the “lead” of a dirigible race). The bottom line is that there’s something extremely menacing about the image of an ultra-heavy dirigible looming over crowded cities threatening to pull a Hindenburg at any moment due to its excessive weight.
21 The Jesus Lizard
When you see the name of this band, your first reaction might be that it is sacrilegious in some way. How else to rationalize the unholy hybrid of the Son of God and a desert reptile? Perhaps this lizard was a creation of Satan himself, or maybe just the byproduct of some demented souls who have no respect for the sanctity of organized religion. We don’t object to either hypotheses in theory, but the reality is that the band was named after the common basilisk, a lizard found in Central and South American rainforests, gifted with the totally cool ability to run across the surface of the water without sinking. Just like the David Copperfield of Galilee, Jesus Christ himself! Sometimes it’s better not to know the truth. This is one of those times.
20 Judas Priest
Judas, despite his reputation as a traitor, was basically an actor filling a role. Someone had to betray Jesus so he could fulfill his destiny and save all the commoners from their disgusting sins. So, no Judas, no crucifixion—and how much fun would that be? If Jesus were just identified through good old detective work instead of being served up on a silver platter via a kiss on the cheek, the story wouldn’t translate nearly as well into a Mel Gibson-produced blockbuster film. Speaking of movies, in the old days, “Judas Priest” was used as a stand-in for “Jesus Christ,” the epithet, before film studios felt comfortable taking the Lord’s name in vain. Thankfully, that’s changed. As a rock band name, Judas Priest is an irresistible blend of the name Judas, a guy who basically sold his soul to the devil for gold (like a rock star), and Priest, a member of the same group that tempted Judas with riches in the first place! Is this the perfect parallel to the typical artist/major label relationship, or what!? While Pickled Priest would've also worked, even we'll admit that Judas Priest is a far superior band name.
19 The Cult
Simplicity is king when naming a band. If you’re at a loss, default to minimalism (and not Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin). There are always exceptions to every rule, but the Cult is one instance where trimming down to the basic elements worked the best. We considered My Life With the Thrill Kill Cult for this list, but they've always seemed to be trying too hard. The Thrill Kill Cult would’ve been better. And then, of course, there’s Blue Oyster Cult, which never sounded like a fun cult to join—mainly because I hated oysters. There’s nothing worse than a poorly named cult. Plus, it pigeonholes and/or confuses your followers if it should ever evolve with your beliefs.
18 Dead Boys
More death obsessed than fans of the Walking Dead, Cleveland’s legendary Dead Boys were spawned from the remains of Rocket From the Tombs and were originally named Frankenstein, so the next step on the horror ladder had to be something creepier than a slapped-together dude brought back to life. And the answer was dead children, of course. Punk was once a scary sub-culture, and the Dead Boys were even more of a nightmare for worried parents. Imagine your impressionable kid heading down to the Bowery in New York City to see a punk band called the Dead Boys, who had an album called Young, Loud and Snotty out at the time, no less. It would’ve freaked your shit out.
17 Jane’s Addiction
Ah, sweet Jane. The band was named after Jane Bainter, Perry Farrell’s roommate at the time, and considered by some to be the band’s muse. It could be assumed if the band was named Jane’s Addiction that her addiction was to the band (a groupie?), but that might be only partly true. Farrell, from what I’ve read, has never really clarified the point. However, the song “Jane Says” does reference Jane’s vow that “I’m gonna kick tomorrow,” so one could assume we’re talking about a drug addiction. However, some people have multiple addictions, so we’ll never know unless Farrell comes clean. Backstory aside, it’s a name that makes you curious upon hearing it. It makes you ask the obvious question: “What is Jane addicted to and why?” If there’s a remote chance she’s actually addicted to the music, then I want to hear said music. If a name can cause that much intrigue, then you know it’s a good one.
16 Joy Division
As far as the sound of the music, this may be the most ironic band name ever. I don’t know what you might expect from a band named Joy Division—upbeat power pop perhaps—but the deep, dark, brooding tones of Ian Curtis’s band ain’t it. When you consider that the band was named after a group of women who were forced into prostitution to pleasure guards at Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust, only then does the name seem somewhat appropriate for the mood. If you know the history, this name could be seriously disturbing to you; if you don’t, then it might be just an amusing contradiction. Either way, the name works.
15 Public Image Ltd.
The genius of Johnny Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, was that his public image as a member of the Sex Pistols was calculated with the help of Malcolm McLaren, but he ran with the idea and made it his very own. He was aware of what was going on all along, despite his outward appearance and reckless behavior. That awareness led him to name his first post-Pistols enterprise Public Image Ltd, a tweak to all bands co-existing with his at the time. He made no bones about it—music was a business and a shameless one at that. The name is brilliant in this regard. It’s totally aware of the machine and not afraid to criticize it. It’s only icing on the cake that a band with this name made some of the most experimental (post-rock, if you must), non-commercial music of the time.
14 The Velvet Underground
At first it was a book—a pulp novel, found on the streets of New York City by a friend of John Cale. Then it became the name of one of the most influential rock bands of all-time. A band that might’ve been known for eternity as the Primitives, or the Warlocks, if not for some anonymous person dropping a book in the Bowery section of Manhattan. I’ve always wondered if the person knows what they inspired. The concept of an exclusive underground scene was particularly attractive at the time the VU were forming. “Strange” music was being made on the fringes, outside the purview of even the hippest New Yorkers, that pushed the boundaries of rock and roll music. The underground was mysterious, dangerous, exotic. Imagine that same scenery draped in lush, crushed velvet, ideally a deep burgundy. It’s almost too much to fathom. It hinted at a world to which few had access. It’s a world you’d be stupid not to want to experience at least once. Which makes the Velvet Underground a great band name—you want to go to there.
As I made this list, one thing was soon clear: the best band names often come from the dark side. If I hadn’t decided to eliminate Swedish death metal bands from contention, out of the real fear you wouldn’t recognize any of them, this list would’ve skewed Satanic in a big way. Then again, how hard is it to come up with a good metal band name? Just slap two or three words together from a master list of demented or sacrilegious terms and call it a day. Impulse Manslaughter, Cannibal Corpse, Death Holocaust, Satan’s Church, etc. It’s almost too easy. Which makes the restraint of Slayer that much more impressive. It gets the point across in six letters, and it doesn’t seem like it’s trying too hard, either. But don’t ever forget this one message—your demise potentially awaits right here.
12 The Replacements
I’ve always loved the Replacements for playing incredible rock songs with just the right level of off-the-rails recklessness. They managed to do just that for almost the entire time they were a band. It’s not a recipe for long-term success, but it is a formula for short-term brilliance. The band name they chose perfectly mirrors who they were as a band. It’s a self-deprecating name for a reason—they knew they were inspired fuckups. Even in their prime, one night they’d be brilliant, and the next, they literally sounded like a last-second replacement for a real headliner that for some reason didn’t show up. Even without the backstory, as we require here, you've got to admire the cheek.
11 The Clash
If there’s a word that describes rock and roll in a nutshell, it’s “clash.” Rock and roll started out, and continues, being viewed as a threat to society—something to be feared or at least contained.* Later, it defined and soundtracked the decline of society as we know it. It was eventually used as the basis for political protest. Then it became big business, but the damage was already done. All along, it has been about rebellion of one form or another, and this simple word, in five measly letters, embodied the whole damn history of rock and roll. Be thankful that such an important name landed in such capable hands.
*Update: rock is now dead and/or unthreatening.
10 Iron Maiden
Heavy metal names are a dime a dozen, as noted above in the Slayer entry, but every once in a while one comes along that stands out from the crowd as original. Iron Maiden, music aside, is one such name. Named after one of the most disturbing medieval torture devices ever devised, it’s about as real and scary as names come. Making shit up out of thin air is easy, but seeing something that was actually used on real people is enough to put a shiver down your backbone. The image is way more disturbing than Eddie, the band’s evil cartoon mascot.
09 Alice in Chains
I’m not a huge fan of Alice in Chains’ music, but their name is a great one because it’s not just the usual hodgepodge of evil imagery—instead it makes you concoct an entire scenario of evilness. It requires you to piece together a horrible tale that, at some point, finds a woman being incarcerated in chains. Why and how did Alice, sweet Alice, end up in chains? The choice of the woman’s name is key here. Most have never met an Alice they didn’t like. Is this the same Alice that was the nanny on the Brady Bunch, perhaps? Did she label the kids’ sack lunches wrong or something? Or are we talking Alice Cooper? He surely incorporated chains into his macabre stage act, right? Maybe the band loved that band’s music so much they named their band after them. Either way we are left with a name that generates never-ending speculation as to its origin.*
*Spoiler alert: the band now admits they came up with it one night while they were partying, and it stuck. I almost wish I’d never read that explanation, but it’s too late now.
08 The Who
“This is a great song—who is this!?”
“No, Who sings this song?”
“Ugh. I meant who sings ‘My Generation’!?”
“That’s what I’ve been asking you!”
Blessed with a name made for an Abbot and Costello routine, that’s not where the genius of the Who ends. It’s in the simplicity—so obvious, so clever. It’s amazing it took so long for the name to be used. If only the Guess Who would’ve had the sense to drop the “The” from their name, we might’ve had the rock and roll version of “Who’s on First?”
07 The Grateful Dead
If you have a dictionary in your house, preferably one of those that will break your foot when dropped, open it up to a page randomly and plop your finger down. That’s your new band name. What did you come up with? I’m going to do it right now. And my new band name is…Isogamete! (An isogamete is “a gamete showing no differentiation in form or size or behavior from another gamete.”) When Jerry Garcia did the same thing upon discovering their original name, the Warlocks, was already taken, he came up with the Grateful Dead. According to the book Band Names, by Adam Dolgins, the entry was in reference to a certain type of British folk song. It makes a good story, and I hope it’s really true, but if Jerry came up with the Isogametes, my guess is that he would’ve stabbed another page. The name is great because it brings to mind a life lived to the fullest. We all should hope that when our days are done, we can go to our grave content that we’ve lived a good and happy life with no, or few, regrets.
06 Bikini Kill
Bikini Kill sounds like the title of a Russ Myer film, but it’s somehow not—and Russ’s movies have inspired their fair share of bands over the years (Faster Pussycat, Mudhoney, Motorpsycho, Vixen, plus the song “The Kelly Affair” by Be Your Own Pet). Ironically, the name, not to mention the purpose of the band itself, couldn’t be much farther away from the Russ Meyer formula of big breasts and gratuitous violence. If you’ve seen the great documentary about bandleader Kathleen Hanna (The Punk Singer), you’d know exactly what I mean. She’s spent her whole life pursuing feminist ideals. She’d either recoil or delight in the fact she’s now mentioned in the same paragraph as Meyer—she does have a wicked sense of humor. Bikini Kill is a great name from any angle. It draws your attention, and then lures you into its trap. It’s a feminist manifesto disguised as a movie featuring powerful, big-breasted women. Somewhere in the process, the name accomplishes everything it set out to.
What letter in our alphabet can stand alone like the letter X? What letter marks the spot? What letter can be substituted for a last name given by slave owners? What rays can see through our skin? What letter turns a movie blue? What do we label the intangible factor that separates the talented from the rich and famous? The only other letter I know of that even attempted to go it alone as a band name was M—and all we got out of it was the one-hit wonder “Popmuzik.” X is a great band name, but it’s a big one to live up to as well. Thankfully, the band that chose it was deserving. Lead singer Exene Cervenka was the inspiration for the name, and miraculously it hadn’t been taken yet. The cover of the band’s debut album, Los Angeles, remains one of the most iconic images in rock history: a flaming X, appropriately enough.
04 The Band
The simplest band name ever created, and therein lies its sheer genius.
03 Dead Kennedys
Tasteless and controversial isn’t always bad. Sometimes, in fact, it’s genius. Once you hear the name Dead Kennedys, just like hearing a really politically incorrect joke, you can’t help be amused and impressed by the sheer audacity of its creation. The curse of the Kennedys is well known, so it’s public fodder for parody, you could say. Whether you like it or not, it’s a name you’ll never forget once you hear it. And, cruel or not, four more Kennedys have died prematurely since the band was created,* so it’s just as appropriate now as it was back when the DK’s were formed in 1978.
*Michael Kennedy died playing football on skis; John F. Kennedy Jr. flew his plane straight into the ocean; David Kennedy died of a cocaine overdose; and Mary Kennedy hung herself.
It’s a tribute to how great a band name Motörhead is that they tossed in a gratuitous umlaut and nobody really called them on it. At this point, umlauts in the heavy metal community are commonly used via artistic license as visual effects rather than as a pronunciation tool. While umlauts normally change pronunciation, here it’s safe to stick with the phonetic approach. Now to the name, which may be one of the great rock and roll metaphors. Rock and roll bands are revving engines in a way, capable of great things if calibrated properly. There’s nothing more impressive than a band with a badass motor reserved just for race days. Some may think of the name as another word for “gearhead,” someone obsessed with cars, but I like to think of the name more literally. I imagine a band idling at the line, waiting for the green light to flash, wheels spinning, smoke rising, fire spitting out the back, hands tense on the steering wheel, and a fearless driver at the helm (Lemmy, of course). That’s the Motörhead image in my imagination. And thankfully, that’s how it went down in real life, too.
01 Black Sabbath
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
-The Fourth Commandment, Exodus 20:8
If you grew up with a religious education like I did, you never heard the end of this commandment, especially if you were trying to get out of church to watch the Lone Ranger. Without the Sabbath, the seventh day would’ve just been called Sunday. They had to give it an imposing alias to infuse the day with more of a guilt element for borderline cases like me. How perfect could the world have been for everyone if not for religion? We could all sleep in on Sundays, have an unrushed, well-prepared brunch upon awakening, and then settle in for a day’s worth of NFL football without having to miss the first twenty minutes because the sermon went long. When you give something its own special name to stress its solemnity, it takes on an imposing aura that’s hard to evade. Even Moses probably sighed when he saw the fourth commandment on the tablet. He knew then and there he was losing the one day that he didn’t have to lead the fucking flock through the desert. When rock bands these days evoke religious imagery during a performance, on their album covers, or in their names, it often isn’t overly shocking anymore. It almost comes off as low-hanging fruit for bands looking to gain immediate image credibility as devil-spawned outcasts. So much so, it’s easy to dismiss by Bible beaters, which is the last thing any of them really wanted. Black Sabbath, on the other hand, seemed much more of a threat when they emerged from hell back in the late 60s. The name ostentatiously takes the holy Sabbath and drapes its hallowed altars in a shroud of blackness. No redemption after all—just eternal damnation. If that isn’t a killer byproduct of choosing a band name, nothing is. So I backtrack on the holiness of the Sabbath a bit now. Without the Sabbath day, there would be no Black Sabbath, so maybe it was all worth it in the end. Without the Sabbath, would the boys have been called Black Sunday instead? Definitely not as cool. (And what would that have meant for the 1977 movie Black Sunday, which featured a terrorist blimp crashing into the Super Bowl?) Black Sabbath was the ultimate musical affront to religion and its sacred tenets. If a Black Sabbath record was discovered in a child’s record collection, salvation was immediately put on hold pending further review. Black Sabbath implied a day of reckoning for us all—the holy and the unholy alike. And for that reason, it’s the ultimate band name.