A group of musicians isn’t a proper band until they’ve settled on a name. But in deciding what to dub themselves, ensembles must account for a litany of considerations. The name needs to have a nice ring to it, that’s a given. And of course, similarities to existing bands ought to be avoided – otherwise you’re basically asking for a cease-and-desist letter. It can’t be too predictable either; you want something nuanced and quirky. Ideally, musicians craft a band name that captures the essence of their music. You don’t see Christian Rock bands operating under the moniker Bastards of Lucifer’s Bestial Bloodbath. Sometimes a group hits the jackpot by venturing outside the box to claim a name that enhances its mystique, encapsulates its sound, and looks great on a Hall of Fame induction plaque. So to elucidate some of the more unconventional names out there, we’re asking the same question as Juliet Capulet: “What’s in a name”?
First formed in London in 1962, the formidable years of Jethro Tull were rife with change. Members shuffled between instruments, individual’s names were changed, and founding member Ian Anderson picked up the flute. By 1967, the group had also developed a knack of changing their name to help pick up more regular gigs in the London circuit. Aided by their booking agent’s assistant, who had a love for history, the group happened upon the name of an 18th Century agriculturist named Jethro Tull. It wasn’t that the group was particularly fond of the name. But, after a performance behind the Jethro Tull alias led to a repeat booking, the name just stuck. Unfortunately for the original Tull, the name will forever be more associated with the band that took home the first metal Grammy on the prowess of a flautist. –Derek Staples
Not many bands are named after the subtleties of film subtitles, but dance punks !!! fit that bill. In the 1980 South African film, The Gods Must Be Crazy, the clicking sounds in the language of Botswanan tribesman was represented in the film’s subtitles by exclamation marks. While, technically, each of the three !s in the band’s name could represent any monosyllabic sound or word, the band’s long been tied to a vocalization of chk chk chk. So, if you’re interested in being a nonconformist, go ahead and call them pow pow pow in conversation; you won’t be wrong. –Adam Kivel
Jazzy rock outfit Steely Dan touts two absolutely virtuosic musicians: Donald Fagan and Walter Becker. Strangely, neither is named Dan. After meeting at Bard college’s Red Balloon café, Fagan and Becker began playing together in a series of local groups. First came the ironically titled The Bad Rock Group, and when that fell apart, they tried again as The Leather Canary (featuring none other than comedian Chevy Chase on drums). A relocation to Brooklyn and series of session gigs followed, but Fagan and Becker still couldn’t make ends meet in the Big Apple. Out to seek their fortune, the two musicians migrated westward. Joining up with guitarists Denny Dias, Jeff Baxter, drummer Jim Holder, and singer David Palmer in Los Angeles, the Bard grads signed with ABC records under the name Steely Dan.
Drawing inspiration from William S. Burroughs, Fagan and Becker named their band Steely Dan after “Steely Dan II from Yokohama”, a freaky steam-powered dildo from the Beat writer’s ‘59 book of interconnected vignettes, Naked Lunch. Channeling the band’s puckish blend of quirky lyrics and dense arrangements, Steely Dan provided a perfect namesake for the art school rockers. Aside from a confusing — and hilarious — similarity to English folk-rock ensemble Steeleye Span, the name has served Fagan and Becker quite well over the years: 40 million in album sales, an inexplicable 2001 Grammy for Album of the Year, and a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. –Henry Hauser
Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo have always been obsessed with the esoteric fringes of pop culture history, a band as keen on referencing Pauline Kael (“Deeper Into Moves”) and Thomas Pynchon (“The Crying of Lot G”) in its songs as it is Iggy Pop and Big Star. But its band name is a different type of homage. Lead guitarist and singer Ira Kaplan grew up a fan of the bedeviled New York Mets franchise, and the phrase “Yo la tengo”– Spanish for “I got it”– harkens back to one of the team’s most iconic mishaps. In 1962, Mets shortstop Elio Chacón and centerfielder Richie Ashburn had trouble communicating on shallow pop ups because Chacón barely knew any English. Therefore, the two decided to agree on a phrase to avoid collisions: “Yo la tengo.” On one fateful play, Ashburn successfully yelled “Yo la tengo,” getting Chacón to back off and not go after the ball. But leftfielder Frank Thomas, who didn’t speak a lick of Spanish, had no way of understanding Ashburn’s plea, and the two ended up crashing hard into each other with the intensity of a squelching Kaplan guitar solo. –Dean Essner
There are numerous origin stories to Don Van Vliet’s Captain Beefheart alias. In 1992, the avant-garde singer-songwriter informed David Letterman that the name referred to “a beef in my heart against this society”, negating his earlier reports to Rolling Stone that his friend and frequent collaborator/competitor Frank Zappa came up with the name. With the moniker first popping-up in Zappa’s adolescent movie script, Captain Beefheart vs. the Grunt People, one could certainly assume the later reasoning to be factual. However, the term has roots further back in the pair’s shared childhood. According to some accounts, Vliet’s had an uncle who would expose himself, squeeze his penis until the head turned purple, then comment about it looking “like a big ole’ beef heart.” If this truly was the case, we certainly understand the many myths behind the alias. Even for someone as idiosyncratic as Vliet, nobody wants the world to know they drew their alias from a throbbing penis head. –Derek Staples
Father John Misty
In explaining how he came up with the name Father John Misty, folk singer-songwriter Josh Tillman is characteristically snide and derisive: “It’s all of me and none of me, if you can’t see that, you won’t get it. What I call it is arbitrary…You’ve got to have a name. I never got to choose mine.” According to Tillman, the moniker Father John Misty is meant to mock the misguided cultural assumption that mass music derives from an intimately personals place. By creating “a cartoon of an emotionally heightened persona.” Tillman places this dissonance right up front. Plus, the name Father John Misty perfectly encapsulates his psychedelic folk vibe. –Henry Hauser
I’d long wondered where Japanese noise rock outfit Melt-Banana had gotten their name. My best guess: the banana represented the band’s manic sugar-rush energy, and “melt” was the way that their off-kilter music would distort your reality. In a recent interview with Rebel Noise, though, the duo detailed the true origin of the Melt-Banana moniker. Yasuko Onuki explained that the banana comes from The Velvet Underground & Nico album cover and Andy Warhol’s pop art. As for melt? “The word ‘melt’ was in my brain, so I named the band Melt-Banana,” she added. That trippy, sugary meaning I’d long taken from the band’s name will still inform my repeat listens to Scratch or Stitch, but tying Melt-Banana back to one of the origin points of noise rock certainly adds another interesting layer. –Adam Kivel
The New Pornographers
What do Japanese novelist-cum-politician Akiyuki Nosaka and Carl Newman of The New Pornographers have in common? At first glance, absolutely zilch: Nosaka was born 38-years before Newman, 4,400 miles away from the sprightly Canadian’s hometown of Vancouver. But as the 20th century drew to a close, their paths would finally cross. Following the dissolution of Canadian power pop group Zumpano, Carl Newman recruited Destroyer’s Dan Bejar and singer-songwriter Neko Case to launch a Pacific Northwest supergroup. Newman dubbed his nascent indie-pop powerhouse The New Pornographers after he saw a ‘66 Japanese film entitled, The Pornographers.
If you dig a little deeper, you’ll learn that the film was actually based on Nosaka’s dark, satirical novel about pornographers and small-time gangsters in post-war Osaka, Japan. Sure, The New Pornographers’ idiosyncratic name cost the band a gig at Calvin College a few years back, but the Canadians ensemble’s unforgettable and unmistakable calling card has served the group extremely well over the years. At any rate, Newman definitely made the right call in refraining from, swiping the full title of Nosaka’s novel, “An introduction to anthropology through the pornographers.” Let’s face it, “The New Pornographers” sounds much better. –Henry Hauser
Born Joel Zimmerman, the Canadian producer has taken over the EDM world behind his deadmau5 moniker. Not only has the DJ/producer affected the course of modern dance music, he has (some would say unfortunately) changed the very way bands choose a name. With the advent of social media, leetspeak, emojis, there are now limitless characters to help build a new name. Zimmerman chose his name after discovering a literal dead mouse in his computer tower. And after trying to use the name “deadmouse” for his Starcraft tag — which was too long — he went with “deadmau5”, and the rest as they say is history. Challenging for some digital novices, the moniker has now been trumped numerous times for most difficult DJ name to initially pronounce, especially by trap artists who adore upside down letters and guns in place of easily pronounceable sounds. –Derek Staples
If The Yardbirds’ Chris Dreja hadn’t threatened to sue Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin would’ve been called The New Yardbirds. Talk about a blessing in disguise! Narrowly evading its initial, uninspired moniker, the English supergroup fashioned one of the most iconic and brilliant band names of all time.
After The Yardbirds blasted out their last electrified riffs in July of ’68, session blues guitarist Jimmy Page was looking to initiate a new project. With a shortlist of collaborators that included fellow Yardbirds guitarist Jeff Beck, Steve Winwood, Steve Marriott, plus The Who’s Keith Moon and John Entwistle, he set out to make his pitch.
Fortunately for Zeppelin fans, Page’s guitar chops far surpassed his recruiting skills. Unimpressed by Page’s idea of founding a supergroup, Moon and Entwistle summarily rejected the English guitarist’s proposal, dismissively quipping that it would “go over like a lead balloon.” To prevent folks unfamiliar with this British idiom from mispronouncing the band’s name, manager Peter Grant had the group drop the “a” from “lead”.
According to biographer Keith Shadwick, Page substituted “zeppelin” for “balloon” because it evoked the precise synthesis of “heavy and light, combustibility and grace” that his band sought to channel in its music. Seems like he picked a decent name in the end; each of Zeppelin’s nine studio LPs reached the top 10, six ascended to number-one, and they’ve notched over a quarter-billion unit sales (!) worldwide.
With the help of Robert Plant, John Bonham, and John Paul Jones, Page captained the highest flying lead balloon ever. –Henry Hauser