These days, bands might use a name generator that they found on some random website to come up with their name. Others have thought long and hard about what to call themselves, yet even some of the biggest fans have no idea about the back stories behind their favorite band names. We’re taking a look at the actual stories and historical figures behind these music sensations.
Irish rockers U2 have reached such a high level of popularity that hearing their name automatically brings to mind the scene of a mega performance; Bono center-stage, serenading tens of thousands of people. In their early years, the group went through multiple band names before settling on U2. They included The Larry Mullen Band (after drummer and band co-founder, Larry Mullen), Feedback, and The Hype.
With the departure of former bandmate Dik Evans, the rest of the guys settled on the name U2 in part because of its ability to be openly interpreted. One of the interpretations drew on inspiration from the famous U2 reconnaissance airplane, which is still actively used on spy missions today. More specifically, the plane became infamous for the 1960 U-2 spy incident, where an American spy plane was shot down over Russia; the pilot was captured.
2. Jethro Tull
The name Jethro Tull was selected for the band by a booking agent who also happened to be a history buff. In the 1960s it was common for booking agents and their staff to provide band names for up and comers who were on the cusp of success. Viewing their new name as somewhat lucky, the name stuck when the manager at the club where they were performing invited them back to perform for a second time.
Jethro Tull was a real historical figure, a very significant British agriculturist who helped pioneer the British agricultural revolution in the eighteenth century. In the year 1700, he perfected the horse-drawn seed drill to help sow seeds in neat rows. Later, he would help develop the horse-drawn hoe, as well.
3. Foo Fighters
The Foo Fighters were founded by former Nirvana drummer, Dave Grohl, following the death of Kurt Cobain and subsequent dissolution of the group. When he first started out, Grohl was essentially a one-man band, so naming the group was entirely of his own conception.
He explained that at the time he recorded what would eventually become the band’s first album, he was also dipping into quite a few books on UFOs. The term “foo fighters” was first used by radar observer, Donald J. Meiers, when he noticed several unidentified flying objects on radar flying near Allied pilots during World War II.
4. Fall Out Boy
Fall Out Boy formed in Wilmette, Illinois, a suburb outside of Chicago, in 2001. Bassist Pete Wentz and lead guitarist Joe Trohman were working on a pop-punk project of their own, when they decided to add Andy Hurley and Patrick Stump, who were more associated with the local hardcore scene in Chicago.
When they first started out, Fall Out Boy went by several different names. They needed one that would stick, so Wentz and Stump compiled a list that included the name they’d ultimately agree on: Fall Out Boy. The name was taken from an episode of The Simpsons, where the sidekick of superhero Radioactive Man goes by the same nuclear name.
5. Franz Ferdinand
Scottish alternative rockers Franz Ferdinand are best known for their hit songs “Take Me Out” and “Darts of Pleasure”, and have been nominated for multiple Grammy awards throughout their career. This most memorable of band names has become famous in its own right, but the group originally selected their name without knowing its historical significance.
When deciding on a name back in 2002, they chose Franz Ferdinand after a race horse with the same name. Only later did they learn about the significance of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This nephew of the King of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated with his wife while on a tour of Sarajevo in 1914. The event was the straw that broke the camel’s back after years of escalating tension between competing European nationalisms, and began World War I.
All four members of the English band Alt-J attended Leeds University where they formed in 2007. In their first three years, they began making music using the Apple program GarageBand, often serenading their fellow student-neighbors in the school’s dormitories where they were living at the time. After graduation, the band moved to Cambridge and signed their first record deal.
The name Alt-J refers to the Greek delta symbol, or triangle, which also serves as the band’s logo. The combination of the key “alt” and the letter “j” on a Mac computer combine to create the symbol. In fact, many of the bands lyrics allude to their infatuation with triangles, and the cover art for their debut album, An Awesome Wave, is an overhead view of the triangular tributaries of the Ganges River delta.
Radiohead released their first hit “Creep” in 1992, which became a worldwide smash success after their debut album Pablo Honey was released the following year. When the band first came together in the mid-1980s, all five members were still in high school at the Abingdon School, a school for boys in Oxfordshire. They first called themselves On A Friday, because they used to rehearse together every Friday in the school’s music room.
The band recorded a demo that earned them the attention of Island Records, who offered a record deal. The band turned the offer down to focus on their university education. Regrouping in 1991 with music managers Bryce Edge and Chris Hufford (who still manage the band today), On a Friday signed a six-album contract with EMI Records, who requested that the band change their name. They changed their name to Radiohead after a song of the same name by the Talking Heads.
8. Bon Iver
Justin Vernon, the front man for Bon Iver, had just ended a serious relationship and bout with mononucleosis that left him bed ridden in his hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina. When he came to, he packed his belongings and headed to an isolated cabin in Dunn County, Wisconsin. There, he planned to turn inward in response to the difficult times he had just endured, spending an entire winter there in complete isolation.
Though he didn’t plan on it, multi-instrumentalist Vernon eventually wrote Bon Iver’s first studio album cooped up in the old cabin. For the band name, he drew on inspiration from the ’90s TV series Northern Exposure, which he’d watched while he was laid up with mono. In one episode, at the end of winter, the show’s characters greeted one another by saying “bon hiver“, French for “good winter.”
9. Daft Punk
Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter met in middle school in Paris. The two instantly began recording music together, and with the addition of guitarist Laurent Brancowitz they released their first album, under the band name Darlin’. The album was released to mix reviews.
One review from the British weekly Melody Maker called the music “a daft punky thrash”. Rather than take the review negatively, the trio found the description interesting enough to name their band after it. Darlin’ soon split when Brancowitz left to join another popular French band, Phoenix. It was then that the Daft Punk we know today began their early experimentation with different drum kits and synths, helping to eventually create their signature sound.
10. Depeche Mode
In March 1980, Vince Clarke, Martin Gore, and Andy Fletcher formed a band called Composition of Sound. The lineup had Clarke on vocals and guitar, Gore on keyboards, and Fletcher on bass. Soon after banding together, Vince Clarke became intensely interested in electronic music.
Drawing on influences from The Banshees, Iggy Pop, and synth-pop bands like the Human League and Fad Gadget, a new sound was born. Gore and Clarke spent long hours working odd jobs to save up enough money for their synthesizers. They named themselves Depeche Mode, after the French magazine of the same name. Keen on its meaning, keyboardist Martin Gore slightly misinterpreted the title to be “updated, or hurried fashion”, when in reality it means “fashion report”, or “update”.
11. Dropkick Murphys
Celtic punk rockers and proud Bostonians, the Dropkick Murphys were nice enough to name themselves after a famous local legend. Dr. John E. ‘Dropkick’ Murphy was a PhD-turned-professional wrestler. He competed all across the United States, particularly in the northeastern states, during the 1930s and 1940s.
Following his retirement from wrestling, Dr. Murphy would return to Boston, where he opened up a sanatorium with his then-wife. At the time, alcoholism was frowned upon in the United States, and Murphy saw a business opportunity in having a place where alcoholics could stay and “dry up”, as they used to call it. Although the facility was actually called the Bellows Farm Sanatorium, almost everyone knew the place as Dropkick Murphy’s.
When he was just a teenager, Ontario-born Joel Zimmerman, better known today by his stage name deadmau5, received his first keyboard as a Christmas present. Heavily influenced by chip tune, or synthesizer-influenced electronic music, he has been one of the key figures in progressive electronic and dance music since his first release in the late 1990s.
deadmau5 was also deeply inspired by the demoscene movement, an international computer-art subculture with a focus on audio/visual video imagery. He is known for the technical complexity of his music. Zimmerman decided on his name during his early years as a computer programmer. A strange smell emitted from his computer, and he found a dead mouse inside. He pays homage to his name with his iconic mouse helmet-mask.
13. The Grateful Dead
When you think of The Grateful Dead, you probably picture Jerry Garcia, clad in beard and black sunglasses, playing an insane guitar solo before thousands of glassy-eyed fans. But did you ever stop to think where this most iconic of band names came from? Before the formation of the band, nearly all of its members had played with various groups in and around San Francisco during the art renaissance associated with the psychedelic music scene of the 1960s.
Although there are competing stories, according to former bassist and founding member Phil Lesh, Jerry Garcia picked up a dictionary and read out the definition he found for “grateful dead”. It was defined as, “the soul of a dead person, or his angel, showing gratitude to someone who, as an act of charity, arranged their burial”. Garcia simply thought it sounded cool, and decided to change the band’s name from…The Warlocks. Talk about an upgrade!
14. Jefferson Airplane
Another staple of the San Francisco psychedelic rock scene, Jefferson Airplane got together in 1965, and helped the sounds from San Francisco traverse international borders. Their two biggest hits, “White Rabbit,” and “Somebody to Love”, are classics, and have both been listed by Rolling Stone as among the top five hundred songs of all time. Their sound is synonymous with their era, but where did their unusual name originate?
The name Jefferson Airplane came from the band’s guitarist, Jorma Kaukonen. Kaukonen had an eccentric friend, who was always coming up with funny names for people. He knew Kaukonen as Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane. It’s a silly play on the name of musical pioneer Blind Lemon Jefferson, one of the most popular blues singers of the 1920s. Kaukonen presented the name to his fellow band mates, who liked the idea, and it stuck!
15. Led Zeppelin
Rock deities Led Zeppelin evolved from the ashes of the British group The Yardbirds, whose lineup featured three of the greatest guitarists of all time: Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and Eric Clapton. Once Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham joined Page, they toured Scandinavia under the name New Yardbirds in 1968. Upon return to the UK, however, they received a cease and desist letter from former Yardbirds member Chris Dreja, demanding a name change.
Jimmy Page thought back to a conversation he’d had years before with fellow musicians, including The Who’s John Entwistle and Keith Moon, discussing the idea of a supergroup including himself and Jeff Beck. Someone (versions differ) said such a group would crash and burn like a “lead balloon”. Page remembered this joke, and the group opted to change “balloon” to “zeppelin”, the infamous German airship that bombed England during World War I.
16. Lynyrd Skynyrd
Despite the lyrics from their most famous song, none of the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd are from Alabama. Most of the band’s original lineup hailed from Jacksonville, Florida, where they first formed in 1964. They performed under many different band names, including My Backyard, The Noble Five, and The One Percent. Sick of hearing the same jeer from crowds mocking them for “one-percent talent”, they decided it was time for a name change.
Founding drummer, Bob Burns suggested they name themselves after their notoriously strict high school gym teacher, Leonard Skinner. Lead guitarist Gary Rossington was so tired of Coach Skinner harassing him about his long hair that he dropped out. By 1970 the band was spelling their name in its current form, headlining concerts throughout the southern United States. Later, when they played a show at the Jacksonville Coliseum they had the real Leonard Skinner introduce them on stage.
Nirvana first started as The Sellouts, consisting of Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and a rotating cast of different drummers. Cobain and Novoselic had met frequenting the practice sessions of alternative band The Melvins, who were instrumental in starting the punk/grunge scene in Seattle. After recruiting their first drummer, Cobain, Novoselic, and Bob McFadden (on drums), started their first project: a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover band.
They had gone by several different band names, including Skid Row, Ted Ed Fred, and Fecal Matter. Deciding to take an alternative route, Cobain decided on Nirvana, saying, “I wanted a name that was kind of beautiful or nice and pretty instead of a mean, raunchy punk name…” In Buddhism, nirvana is the ultimate goal on the spiritual path. It is the state of being that transcends suffering, which occurs when desires and the individual consciousness are extinguished.
It’s hard to believe that a young Pantera started out as a glam band. The original members consisted of brothers Darrell and Vinnie Paul Abbott, Terry Glaze (rhythm guitar), Tommy Bradford (bass), and Donnie Hart (lead vocalist). The group’s initial name was Gemini, and was then changed to Eternity. At this point, the band members were still in high school.
During a session practicing for the school’s drum line, a friend told Vinnie Paul to name his band Pantera after the De Tomaso Pantera sports car produced between 1971 to 1992. After researching further, Vinnie Paul learned that in addition to being a cool car, the name also meant “panther” in Italian, and generally liked the sound of the word. He brought the new name to the rest of the group, along with a cat logo, and everyone loved it.
19. Pink Floyd
Formed in London in 1965, Pink Floyd is one of the most commercially successful bands of all time. By 2013, they had sold more than 250 million records worldwide. Two of their albums, The Dark Side of The Moon and The Wall, are considered to be among the greatest in music history. But before fame, they were Sigma 6, a sextet made up of three architecture students, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright, with three of their friends.
After changing their name multiple times, the group finally decided on Tea Set in 1964. The band became regulars at the Countdown Club in London, developing their signature style. When another group appeared also calling themselves the Tea Set, they decided to change band names. Vocalist Syd Barrett came up with the name Pink Floyd. Barrett was a fan of two famous blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, and mashed their names together.
20. The Beatles
Though The Beatles are unarguably one of the most influential bands of all time, even some of their biggest fans have not paused to wonder where their name came from. The group formed once all of John Lennon’s then-high school bandmates left for college, and he needed to recruit new talent. The original bassist for the band, Stuart Sutcliffe, actually selected the name The Beatals as an homage to Buddy Holly and his band the Crickets.
The band went by the Beatals for a few months, until they changed it to the Silver Beetles. At last, by the middle of August 1960 they settled on the shortened version, The Beatles. Shortly after, the newly fashioned Beatles performed one of their earliest shows in Hamburg’s red light district, which resulted in an underage George Harrison getting deported back to Britain.
21. The Ramones
Although none of them are related, all members of The Ramones adopted names ending with the surname “Ramone”. The band blossomed out of a friendship between members John Cummings and Thomas Erdelyi, who had met growing up in Forest Hills in Queens, New York City. Cummings and Erdelyi, along with friends Douglas Colvin and Jeffrey Hyman, formed the core of what would become The Ramones.
Douglas Colvin is credited with coming up with the band’s name. When he started going by the pseudonym Dee Dee Ramone, he eventually inspired the other band members to adopt the surname themselves. Colvin was inspired by a story he’d heard about Paul McCartney, who supposedly used the alias “Paul Ramone” when booking hotels or other reservations. It was also Colvin who began counting off each song’s tempo with his signature “1-2-3-4!”.
The three founding members of Soundgarden featured bassist Hiro Yamamoto, guitarist Kim Thayil, and vocalist Chris Cornell. Cornell and Yamamoto were a member of a group called The Shemps. Yamamoto left the group to be replaced by Kim Thayil, and when The Shemps broke up, the trio banded together to form Soundgarden.
In the early days, Cornell played drums in addition to being lead singer. The Seattle natives drew on inspiration from a local art fixture to choose their name. A Sound Garden is a public work of art located adjacent to Warren G. Magnuson Park on the northwestern shore of Lake Washington. The work features twelve 21-foot-long sculptures, each one featuring a hanging organ pipe that produces music when rotated, or by picking up a breeze from the wind.
23. Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground formed in New York City in 1964, with Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Angus MacLise (soon replaced by “Moe” Maureen Tucker). In their early years, the band was managed by the famous artist, Andy Warhol. They were the house band at Warhol’s New York studio, The Factory, which Warhol used for several artistic ventures.
Like fellow list members The Grateful Dead, one of the earliest band names chosen by the Velvet Underground was also The Warlocks. At the time, multi-instrumentalist John Cale was introduced by an associate in the music business to a paperback that was becoming increasingly popular around New York City, titled The Velvet Underground by Michael Leigh. After a unanimous decision from fellow band mates, the name stuck.
24. Wu-Tang Clan
Presently featuring a rotating cast of different characters, some of whom have become bona fide hip-hop legends, Wu-Tang Clan has almost too many members to keep track of. The original group consisted of rapper-producer RZA, along with rappers GZA, ODB, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, and Masta Killa. All eight members grew up together in the New York borough of Staten Island.
It was two of the group’s original members, RZA and Ghostface Killah, who decided to create a group inspired by Eastern philosophies they’d seen in kung fu movies. The name Wu-Tang Clan was taken from the 1983 Hong Kong martial arts film Shaolin and Wu Tang. Their debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) featured themes reminiscent from the film, and has become one of the most iconic albums in hip-hop history.
25. Tears For Fears
English pop-rock band Tears for Fears is composed of Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, who teamed up after the breakup of their first band, Graduate. The duo’s debut album, The Hurting, reached number one on UK charts after its release in 1983, earning the band instant fame and an introduction to an American audience thanks to the budding popularity of MTV.
The band was first called History of Headaches, but they shortly changed their name to Tears For Fears, drawing inspiration from the American psychologist, Arthur Janov. Janov, who had become well-known for treating John Lennon, developed what he called primal therapy, a form of psychotherapy that seeks to bring conscious awareness to childhood trauma by re-experiencing certain incidents. This idea of revisiting childhood trauma is what spawned the name Tears For Fears.
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