What's in a rock band name?
The logic (or lack) behind Meatloaf, Def Leppard, The Grateful Dead, etc.
This article was originally published in the Boston Globe on Sunday, October 11, 1981.
Earth, Wind & Fire took their name from leader Maurice White's astrological chart, which includes the elements earth, wind and fire.
Asleep at the Wheel was the name thought up by a band member while sitting in an outhouse on a farm near Paw Paw, W.Va.
Conway Twitty was the name Harold Jenkins chose after pulling out a road atlas, closing his eyes and fingering Conway, Ark. and Twitty, Tex.
The ways musicians choose their names are as different as the styles they play. At one extreme, names are the result of pure accident; at another, they reflect a Madison Avenue guile.
Names may be inspired by politics ("The Gang of Four"), parody ("Genral Foodz"), defiance ("The Clash"), geography ("New England" and "Kansas") ambiguity ("Cheap Trick" and "A Certain Ratio"), machismo ("Iron Maiden" and "Rose Tattoo"), gloom ("Black Sabbath"), nihilism ("The Stranglers") and, of course, sex ("The Vibrators," "Buzzcocks," "Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band" and "Human Sexual Response").
Among cerebral musicians, names may be plucked from literature. The Doors took theirs from Aldous Huxley's book about mescaline ("The Doors of Perception") and from a William Blake quote ("There are things that are known and things that are unknown; in between the doors"). The English group Sad Cafe derived their name from Carson McCuller's novel, "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe," which involved a love triangle between a hunchback dwarf, a frustrated spinster and their boyfriend.
Just as taboos have fallen in society, so they've fallen in regard to band names. Back in the '50s, innocence prevailed and there were groups like the Five Satins, Flamingos, Mello-Kings and Harptones. The 60s became a little stranger and begat the Strawberry Alarm Clock, Ultimate Spinach and Cat Mother & the All Night Newsboys.
Today, there are groups like the Dead Kennedys, Sick F*cks, Circle Jerks and Dead Lennons. Decadence has become as much a reason for a name as humor.
The idiocy quotient is also on the rise. Take the new group, Beds. Musically the band plays insipid pop, but its leader Jan Warner contends, "We want to fuse elements which have been split apart. The intense conflicts arising from this split are most acutely felt in bed - hence the name Beds." (What's around the corner? Lamp-post? Bulletin Board?)
Occasionally, alhough there's no hard-and-fast rule, band names fit genres. The Blizzard of Ozz and Judas Priest - each conjuring images of destruction - can be expected to be heavy metal. Ambrosia and the Little River Band - each implying tranquility - are rightly associated with soft rock. Blondie (named for singer Deborah Harry's dyed-blonde hair) and the Bus Boys (named because some of them drove school buses) can be assumed to be a little campy. The Outlaws and .38 Special are giveaways for Southern rock, while the Eagles, Seabird and the Flying Burrito Brothers (anything associated with flight) are typically indicative of country rock roots.
But considering how long most musicians spend on their music, it's often shocking how little time is spent on their monikers. Stories abound on the spontaneous ways such decisions are made:
The Grateful Dead came about at a drug party at bassist Phil Lesh's house, when singer Jerry Garcia opened the Oxford dictionary, spotted the words Grateful Dead, and the group accepted the name immediately.
America was conceived while the band sat in a cafeteria, listening to a jukebox. "It was called an Americana. Thus America," according to charter member Dan Peek.
Blue Oyster Cult seized upon an image from a poem by their manager, Sandy Pearlman.
Australia's AC/DC got their name from the sister of the two Young brothers in the band. She was off-handedly referring to the high-voltage content of their music.
Def Leppard was the result of a brainstorm by singer Joe Elliott. "At school I just used to draw posters for imaginary gigs," he says, "and I made the group's name up. The rest of the guys were up in the bedroom one day, saw the posters and took to the name . . . It could have been anything."
In their exhaustive new "Book of Rock Lists" (published by Dell), featuring a goldmine of trivia, writers Dave Marsh and Kevin Stein cite the spontaneous name choices of two major '60s bands, the Jefferson Airplane and Led Zeppelin. The Airplane came from a joke about Blind Lemon Jefferson (the bluesman) that was made by San Francisco singer Steve Talbot, who got mixed up and talked about Blind Jefferson Airplane. Led Zeppelin came via a joke by The Who's John Entwistle, who hinted that Jimmy Page's new group would go over like the world's largest lead balloon - a lead Zeppelin.
Some names pay homage to people in the music business.