The Four Types of Band Names
Posted on August 6, 2023
Picking a band name can be very, very tough. As I know as much because I’ve fallen victim to the struggle myself. My old band had a name we were all ambivalent about, so we changed it to a name we somehow decided we liked even less. And then we broke up.
After reading about home some groups picked their names, I think I’ve blown the lid off of the whole thing. In my opinion, almost all band names can be placed into one of four categories. Let me demonstrate:
Blank and the Blanks
Perhaps the most uninteresting name, this kind of band name is just named after the bandleader, with reference to the supporting cast. I would classify everything from Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers to The Jimi Hendrix Experience under this. I would also include mononymously–named bands like Santana and Van Halen.
Fleetwood Mac is in this vein, the name coming from drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie. Taking a band name from the drummer in the bassist is probably the last thing many groups would do…
There are a few fun stories of this sort. Foster The People was originally Foster & the People, but frontman Mark Foster discovered that, despite his efforts, nobody could remember (or even hear) the “and”. So Foster the People it was. Mark has said he likes how “foster” is on double duty as both his last name and as a verb: to foster.
Here’s a smattering of other band names that are basically “Blank and the Blanks”, with some added creativity here and there:
- The Tommy Igoe Groove Conspiracy
- Alan Parsons Project
- Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
- Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band
- Fitz and the Tantrums
- Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band
- Tom Scott and the LA Express
- Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
- Mumford and Sons
- Buddy Holly and the Crickets
- Florence and the Machine (some fun trivia: “Machine” comes from the nickname of the band’s keyboard player)
The Great Unifier
This one is the most attractive and the most lofty — a band name that connects all members together. It’s also the most difficult since a good band won’t have members that are especially similar, and trying to find something unifying that also has a nice ring to it can be difficult indeed. The second name my old band cooked up came from the Saint Vrain River in Colorado, which just didn't work out. Have I mentioned that we broke up?
One option is to just use the names of the band members, as is the case of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. NSYNC (aside from being an unusual way of spelling “in sync”) comes from the last initial of each singer’s first name.
Lynyrd Skynyrd is a good example of a Great Unifier band name. This one comes from a gym instructor some of the bandmates had in high school — a guy named Leonard Skinner, who apparently hounded the boys for their long hair (the band and Mr. Skinner would eventually grow to be on better terms).
+44 is a fun case. After the break up of Blink-182, Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker talked about a new project while they were in the UK; the dialing code for the UK is plus forty–four.
Led Zeppelin has a famous story, with Jimmy Page being told by Keith Moon and John Entwistle that his new project would go down like a balloon made of lead. Where exactly “zeppelin” came from is a bit of a mystery; some say it came from Moon or Entwistle, while others think Page was drawn to it himself, liking the imagery of “zeppelin”. And of course, lead was spelled “led” so nobody would think the name of the group was “leed zeppelin”.
Here are a few others — there aren’t many examples of this kind of band name:
- Green Day — Taken from a mutual love of cannabis, and a Bay Area slang term for smoking weed all day. I never heard anybody say that in the Bay, but I grew up right when the band got big.
- Guns N’ Roses — The band members came from two other bands: Hollywood Rose and L.A. Guns.
- Dire Straights — Apparently the band was in “dire financial straights” from its early days.
- Earth Wind and Fire — Frontman Maurice Wallace learned his star sign, Sagittarius, has the qualities of earth, wind, and fire.
- The Postal Service — The indie duo sent recording tapes in the mail to each other, circa 2001. Ahead of the times, I say.
- Average White Band — This one explains itself I reckon.
Stolen Like an Artist
Wouldn’t you know, most band names are just lifted from something else. There are way too many examples to write in prose (there’s a whole Wikipedia article about band names lifted from just songs), so I’ll just rip through some bullet points:
- AC/DC — Seen on a wall adapter from an appliance (often described as a sewing machine).
- Bad Company — Many speculate the name comes from a 1972 movie of the same name, but singer Paul Rodgers says it came from a picture caption he saw in an old book.
- The Beatles — Inspired by Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Beetles were chosen as a homage crickets, and spelled in a way to make a pun on the word “beat”.
- Black Sabbath — From a 1963 film of the same name.
- Blue Öyster Cult — From a poem written by the band manager.
- Buffalo Springfield — Taken from the Buffalo–Springfield Steam Roller Company
- My Chemical Romance — From a book called Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance
- The 1975 — Found in a poetry book, with one of the pages labeled “1 June, The 1975”.
- Panic! at the Disco — Lifted from the song “Panic” by Name Taken.
- Fall Out Boy — From The Simpsons. Within the universe of the show, there’s a fictional superhero named Radioactive Man, who has a young ward named Fallout Boy.
- Pink Floyd — A mashup of two blues performers: Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.
- The Rolling Stones — From the Muddy Waters song “Rollin’ Stone”.
- Daft Punk — When the two Frenchmen left their band Darlin’, they found a review in Melody Maker of a compilation album called Shimmies In Super 8. Two Darlin’ tracks are on that LP, which the magazine described as “daft punk thrash.”
- Darlin’ — While we’re at it, this short–lived group got its name from the Beach Boys song “Darlin’” because of course it did.
- Bring Me The Horizon — From the first Pirates of the Caribbean film; the final line has Johnny Depp saying “Now, bring me that horizon.”
- Animals as Leaders — From the book Ishmael.
- Steely Dan — From the book Naked Lunch.
- Chon — From a science documentary, an apparent acronym meaning carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.
- Death Cab For Cutie — From a Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band tune of the same name.
- The Fall of Troy — From the band’s high school history textbook.
- Rolo Tomassi — A character from the movie L.A. Confidential.
- Coldplay — This band was originally known as Starfish before another band gave away the name Coldplay. Coldplay itself comes from a book called Child’s Reflections, Cold Play.
- U2 — From the U–2 spy plane.
- Iron Maiden — From the medieval torture device, which itself might be just a work of modern fiction.
- Anberlin — A misheard lyric from the Radiohead tune “Everything in Its Right Place”.
- Radiohead — From the Talking Heads tune “Radio Head”.
- The Mountain Goats — A lyric from the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins song “Yellow Coat”.
- Avenged Sevenfold — From the Book of Genesis, chapter 4, line 24: “If Cain's revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech's is seventy-sevenfold.”
- Dropkick Murphys — From Massachusite pro wrestler John E “Dropkick” Murphy.
- Linkin Park — From a park in Santa Monica: Lincoln Park.
- Foo Fighters — A nickname WWII pilots gave to UFOs.
- Backstreet Boys — From the Backstreet Flea Market in Orlando, the band’s hometown.
- Bon Iver — From a French term meaning “good winter”, as heard in the TV show Northern Exposure. The proper French spelling would actually be Bon Hiver, but the band went with the English phonetics (although many people still say the name wrong, thinking it’s “Bon Eye–ver”).
- Fountains of Wayne — A lawn ornament shop in New Jersey.
- Tangerine Dream — A misheard lyric from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.
- Thin Lizzy — From Tin Lizzie, a character seen in a comic called The Dandy. The “h” was added as a joke; most Irish would pronounce “tin” and “thin” the same way.
And of course, we have band names lifted from locations around the world: Boston, Kansas, America, Panama, Beirut, The Middle East, etc.
Lastly, some terms and objects from common speech: The War on Drugs, Purity Ring, Yellowcard, Slipknot, Disturbed, Talking Head(s), etc.
Pulled From Thin Air
Perhaps my favorite is band names that are just made up — words or odd phrases that nonetheless have a nice ring to them.
Aerosmith got its name from drummer Joey Kramer, who became fascinated with the word “aerial” on account of the Harry Nilsson album Aerial Ballet, although he had to convince the rest of the band that his name had nothing to do with the novel Arrowsmith.
Jim James came up with My Morning Jacket after exploring an old hangout of his, a bar that had burnt down. Inside, he found a robe embroidered with the letters MMJ. James took this to mean it was someone’s morning jacket: my morning jacket. He soon realized the letters were probably the initials of whoever owned the coat.
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard has one of the most outrageous names of them all. The story is that one band member wanted a name using “gizzard” (as in stomach), while another wanted an homage to Jim Morrison, who had been nicknamed “the lizard king”. The result was King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard. At least, that’s the story — the band recently tweeted (or Xed, if you’re a dumbass) that the true origin may be forgotten.
Vampire Weekend apparently comes from an idea lead singer Ezra Koenig had about a vampire film, while Blink-182 was originally just Blink; the band found out there was already a band called Blink (a common theme in band name origin stories) so 182 was appended on a whim.
Many of these band names are just a few random words mashed together with some pleasing results: Mayday Parade, Fleet Foxes, The Joy Formidable, Local Natives, Vinyl Theatre, The Grateful Dead, etc.
Creedence Clearwater Revival has a story that’s threefold: Creedence comes from the name credence, spelled to be a hybrid of the word creed and credence; clearwater comes from a beer commercial; and revival from the band’s renewed passion for music after a couple members were drafted in the mid–1960s.