Making the Brand: The 40 Greatest Band Names of All Time
December 1, 2020
The 40 Greatest Band Names of All Time
It's true: You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Honestly, would we still love Pink Floyd if they were called the Screaming Abdabs? Would we be defacing our jean jackets if Led Zeppelin were still the New Yardbirds? Would we maybe listen to Umphrey's McGee if they were called literally anything else besides Umphrey's McGee? The SPIN staff gets approximately one Them!-sized anthill worth of promo packages a day, and we can assure you that band names matter (we'll get riiiight back to you, Cocaine Mustache). Our nerd cabal decided to get downright technical about it, crafting a faultless mathematical theorem for figuring out the most timeless, iconic, critic-proof, world-changing, desk-despoiling names of all time — and we even caught up with a few bands to better understand their techniques! This list includes the 40 highest scorers extrapolated using qualitative data and the following scientifically sound blueprint:
P = Perfectly and succinctly embodies the spirit of a band's sound or era (3 points) This is the most important aspect of any name and makes grokking the band’s style as effortless as understanding Ivory Soap, Fatburger, or the Snuggie.
VA = Graphically or typographically appealing (1.5 points)
If the letters look cool on a piece of notebook paper, they will definitely look amazing on a T-shirt or tattooed on your forehead.
WP = Clever wordplay (1 point)
There's a fine line between clever and stupid. But there's a thick shark-filled moat between clever and Timbuk 3.
I = Creates an image (1 point)
Names you can see, touch, and possibly smell.
T = Transgressive (1 point)
The Revolting Cocks of yesteryear pave the way for the AIDS Wolfs of tomorrow.
JNSQ = Has that certain je ne sais quoi(2 points)
We're invoking the Justice Potter Stewart defense here. Honestly, no one needs to think very hard to know that Slayer rules.
Scraping Foetus off the Wheel
Known Origins: Australian expat experimental musician JG Thirlwell released his debut seven-inch under the name Foetus Under Glass in 1981. Its back cover teased a future release by a group called You've Got Foetus on Your Breath; from there, he began naming all his releases with different "Foetus" phrases. This approach lasted for two albums of spastic, rhythmic, and catchy mindfucks. He then abandoned it for Foetus Interruptus and a bevy of other versions before eventually settling on just plain Foetus in 1993.
Why It's Great: Thirlwell best explains the appeal: "A foetus is such a fundamental, universal thing. We have all been one. Additionally, I use the Anglicized spelling, which is confusing to people who only know the spelling 'fetus.' The extra 'o' is so much cooler." (T, I)
From the Band: "I would hate to exclusively be known for having unusual names," Thirlwell says. "Each of the Foetus variations had a different sound musically — Foetus Art Terrorism was heavy programmed beats and the main song on the Foetus All Nude Revue was like grinding strip music. Scraping Foetus off the Wheel marked my move to working with bigger budgets and in 24-track recording studios, so the sound is bigger and more realized. I stopped doing these variations about 20 years ago. By the time I signed with Sony, it was just Foetus. I was over the variation thing. I always hated it when people suggested Foetus-variation names." KORY GROW
Three Times Dope
Known Origins: The underheralded Philly trio originally recorded as 3-D on the local Hilltop Hustlers label. The name extension may have been thanks to Arista not wanting the rappers to get confused with the early-'80s new-wave band of the same name...but we like to just think it's due to its general acknickulousness.
Why It's Great: Because it's three times as dope! (JNSQ) CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN
Behead the Prophet No Lord Shall Live
Known Origins: These metal-punk, art-damaged Northwesterners borrowed their name from the fifth track on Deicide's 1992 album Legion, whose lyrics also feature the great, as-yet-unused band name "Behead the Prophet and We Win."
Why It's Great: The true test of a band name is how it plays in a radio DJ's back-announce: "Before that, we had the new one from Behead the Prophet No Lord Shall Live" stands in the company of any sentence involving Shit Horse. Bonus points for its cool throwback to the immortal initials-punk era of the early '80s: On sleeves, the name was sometimes rendered as "Behead the Prophet N.L.S.L." (JNSQ) JOHN DARNIELLE
Known Origins: "'Das racist!' is something we would yell at the television when something racially insensitive would pop up in an ad or on a TV show, which is basically a longer ad," explained DR rapper Himanshu Suri to The New York Times Magazine's Deborah Solomon in 2010, shortly before defusing a minor argument about politics with "Deborah, chill. Fall back."
Why It's Great: The moniker conveniently encapsulates the hilarious dilemma of white listeners worrying if it's racist to laugh at jokes made by people of color about how racist white people can be. Names that squares can mispronounce hilariously (saying "Das Racist" like it's a submarine, for example) are always prized too. (WP, T)
From the Band: "We don't really like the band name anymore," says Suri. "It takes too long to explain to people. We've been thinking about changing our name, but that's corny too." ROB HARVILLA
Known Origins: A few years after singer-guitarist Thomas Miller rechristened himself Tom Verlaine (after Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine), he reconfigured his band, the Neon Boys, and named the new lineup after another TV entirely. Though Verlaine explained that "Television" referred to "the visionary aspects of art, rather than the media aspects. It's really not like TV as something 'supermodern' or something 'media' or 'electronic' or that kind of far-out William Burroughs kind of stuff."
Why It's Great: In the '70s, band names tended to be pretty concrete; it was a poetic leap to name a group after a form that specifically didn't embody anything — think how different "The Television" would have been. Verlaine loved to toy with the name’s poetic resonances, too: One early song was called "Elevation"; another included the line "He's just trying to tell a vision." (WP, I, T) DOUGLAS WOLK
Known Origins: As legend has it, guitarist Eric Bell suggested the Irish hard-rockers name themselves after Tin Lizzie, a robot in the U.K. comic book The Dandy. In their Irish brogues, words like "thing" quickly became "t'ing," so they flipped the script with hopes of getting it to stick in their countrymen's heads. Alternative origins suggest that the name refers to a beautiful Dubliner at the time named Liz Igoe or possibly a Ford Model T, also known as the Tin Lizzie.
Why It's Great: There's something about Lizzy: whether it's the suggestion of a female-fronted band, the alluring appeal of the word "thin" (see: Thin Mints, Wheat Thins), or just some cosmic interplay in the arrangement of Ts, Ls and those unlikely Scrabble-winning Zs. (JNSQ, WP) K.G.
Teenage Jesus & the Jerks
Known Origins: Underage go-go dancer/waitress Lydia Lunch liked to get in people's faces, and in early 1977, she and boyfriend James Chance tried to start a band called the Scabs. A few months later, they met drummer Bradley Field and started working up ten-minute sets of 30-second songs, before devising their snot-rocket of a name.
Why It's Great: TJ&TJ, and the no-wave scene to which they belonged, took a baseball bat to every aspect of rock orthodoxy. Borderline blasphemous, deliberately ludicrous, an absurdist salute to rock'n'roll tradition itself, their name suggested (accurately) that Lunch took herself both very, very seriously, and not at all. (T, JNSQ) D.W.
Known Origins: It was evidently suggested by Pete Townshend’s art-school pal Richard Barnes during an official rename-the-band rap session ("The Detours" was taken), responding to a request for something generic. (Also considered: "The Hair.")
Why It's Great: Attention, all you young garage-bound chumps threatening to name your band "Free Beer" or "To Be Announced" or whatever: You were beaten to that joke by, like, five decades. It's short, it's knowingly self-deprecating, it lends itself to a (hilariously phallic) logo, and it looks fantastic on T-shirts, posters, banners, and especially a bass-drum head. And there really should be no other criteria for a rock band's name beyond "It looks cool on a bass-drum head." (WP, I, VA) R.H.
Three 6 Mafia
Known Origins: The official party line says that they started with three members (DJ Paul, Juicy J, and Lord Infamous), then ended up with six (becoming a sextet for their 1995 debut, Mystic Stylez) — but the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn't exist.
Why It's Great: By combining the classic gangsterisms beloved by hip-hoppers ("Mafia") with the VHS-brewed satanic imagery adored by metalheads ("666"), Three 6 created something truly unique and mysterious, a horrorcore fog bubbling up somewhere miles away from hip-hop's two coasts. (I, VA, T) C.W.
Known Origins: The alterna-metal heroes plucked their name from '50s beatnik slang for the hopelessly uncool. Shape one thumb and forefinger into an L and another into a 7, fit 'em tight together, and you've got a square. You dig, daddy-o?
Why It's Great: Had some college-rock nerdballs resurrected the term, the knowing irony would’ve been unbearable. But these unquestionably cool grungesters make the dated slang sting. The stark letter-number pairing stands out visually, too, especially when surrounded by the bold circle of the band's logo. L7 is also apparently mistaken for a sex position — a variation on 69 — by Internet commenters who either have limited bedroom experience or only can bend at the waist like Lego people. (WP, I, VA)
From the Band: "We were all shooting down each other's band-name ideas, most of which were god-awful," says vocalist and guitarist Donita Sparks. "I halfheartedly threw out L7, which was met with silence and shrugged shoulders. So we went with it! Gender-wise, it was nonspecific, which we liked. We also discovered it could be made into a silly gang symbol using one's hands, which we also liked. L7, of course, is slang for someone who is a square. If you don't know what that is, sadly maybe you are one." KEITH HARRIS
Known Origins: Before even forming the Japanese extreme-metal band, vocalist Masato Henmarer Morimoto came up with the name while writing the lyrics for songs like "Shit and Peace." "I wanted an original word that could mean something like 'motherfucker,'" he says with a laugh. "'Bathtub Shitter' was what I came up with. Also, people use the word 'fucking,' but I'm always saying 'shitting' in place of it."
Why It's Great: The name's gross-out level lands somewhere between the image out of 2 Girls, 1 Cup and something a Garbage Pail Kid might do (meet Barney Bathtub Shitter). It's certainly not the first or only or grossest over-the-top band name in existence (Strangulated Beatoffs, the Cummies, and Anal Cunt come to mind), but what makes it work is its lighthearted, nonmacho feel in a sea of XXX Maniaks. (T, I, JNSQ)
From the Band: "The name is meant to be eccentric," Morimoto says. "It was meant to make language a little more original. I was surprised to see it when I was reading a porno magazine in a Japanese convenience store called Knuckles EX. It had a gossip page. And it was like, 'Bathtub Shitter is in fact a Japanese band, but their name literally translates to "shitting in a bathtub." Does this make sense?' It was so shitting funny for me." K.G.
This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb
Known Origins: Over the years, these Florida folk-punks have claimed that they chose their name because it's "memorable," because it's "long and stupid," and because they liked bikes.
Why It's Great: They've had to explain their name to the press more often than most — mainly because when their fans slap stickers on their bikes, folks with badges take notice. On at least three separate occasions (in Athens, Ohio, at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, and in the Memphis International Airport) a bike bearing the band's sticker has caused panic, police action, and mass evacuations. Now that's rock'n'roll! (T, I, JNSQ) K.H.
Known Origins: As the Hawks, they backed Bob Dylan on his transformational electric tours. Nobody cared what Dylan's band was called, so they just got called "the Band." It stuck.
Why It's Great: The comically generic tone epitomizes a certain strain of feigned hippie modesty that, upon closer examination, turned out to be arrogance every damn time (watch what happens when you put the emphasis on the word "the"). In the case of the Band, that arrogance happened to be backed up by monster chops; their first three albums stand tall during an era when all the heavy-hitters were punching at weight. (T, WP, JNSQ) J.D.
Known Origins: Upon discovering that another band was using their chosen name of Panic, the hardcore pioneers started looking for a new moniker. Raymond Pettibon, brother of guitarist Greg Ginn and the band's visual director, suggested Black Flag, explaining that it meant the opposite of a white flag: No surrender! Anarchy! He went on to invent the group's "bars" logo: four thick black lines that approximate a black flag. Punk (and T-shirt) history was made.
Why It's Great: Second, perhaps, to a middle finger, the idea of a black flag most accurately represents hardcore punk. And when the band flew the flag in late '78, they effectively declared war on popular music, modern life, and America. "The name represents how we lived: without a map, with no certainty of success," says Chuck Dukowski, the group's bassist from 1977 to 1983. "Our existence was an affront and a threat. It's the leftover frisson of that danger and energy that keeps the name meaningful." (P, I)
From the Band: "The name 'Black Flag' makes me think of life lived on a razor's edge," Dukowski says. "It captured our mood, our stance, and it put us next to Black Sabbath in the record bins! It fits with the best names. I have to thank Ray Pettibon for that and for our bars logo. That was a huge part of Black Flag's impact. Someone told me the bars is one of the most frequently tattooed images in the world. I see it everywhere now. I've seen joke T-shirts with the bars and the name of something crappy or something incongruous. I found it carved in the cement on the sidewalk near my house. People put it on tanks, they put it on war protest signs. It's a great, powerful name." K.G.
The Strawberry Alarm Clock
Known Origins: A psychedelic L.A. rock band with the trendily faux-Brit-archaic name Thee Sixpence recorded a song in 1967 called "Incense and Peppermints." Depending on who's telling the story, either the band or their new label, Uni Records, brainstormed a more resonant name, inspired by the Beatles hit "Strawberry Fields Forever," the madcap free-associative energies of the '60s and, uh, an alarm clock.
Why It's Great: Like "Incense and Peppermints" itself, the name sums up everything dippy and crass about American corporate hippiedom, suggesting what a junior-high kid might think synesthesia was after his buddy relayed an older brother's description of an acid trip. And, just maybe, it's a reminder that sometimes you should listen to your record label. (P, I) K.H.
Known Origins: The name was floated by founding member Kate Korus as a fairly genius fount of punk provocation: "It was sharp, cutting, memorable, and rather biological," writes author Zoë Street Howe in her Slits bio, Typical Girls?Why It's Great: As transgressive self-empowerment goes, this is tough to beat. (Though bassist Tessa Pollitt's previous outfit, the Castrators, comes close.) A band name no self-respecting radio station/newspaper/PR agency/major label would touch is a prerequisite for punk, really, and the Slits had quite literally the mother of them all: "The concave mirror to the convex phallic innuendo of Sex Pistols," as Simon Reynolds once put it. Or just listen to the way James Murphy drawls out "the Slllitttts" during the neurotic band-name-rundown conclusion to "Losing My Edge." (T, I, JNSQ) R.H.
Tony! Toni! Toné!
Known Origins: Each member of the early-'90s R&B group that helped launch Raphael Saadiq's career has a slightly different recollection of how the triple T came to be, but all involve clowning a superfly guy by calling him a Tony Tony (in some versions of the tale, Tony was a TV character; in others, he was an acquaintance). "Tony! Toni! Toné! was a nickname that I used to call a roommate of mine," D’Wayne Wiggins said earlier this year. "We called him that because he thought he was the freshest slice of bread ever."
Why It's Great: The group's name is slick and clever, just like their music. And you cannot deny the pure alliterative pleasure of saying Tony! Toni! Toné! out loud, coupled with the knowledge that you're actually pronouncing three words spelled totally differently. And! Punctuated! With! Exclamation! Points! (VA, JNSQ, WP) CARYN GANZ
The Shitty Beatles
Known Origins: A brief, profound scene from Wayne's World, which is worth recounting here in full:
WAYNE: Hey Tiny — who's playing tonight?
TINY: Jolly Green Giants, Shitty Beatles.
WAYNE: The Shitty Beatles? Are they any good?
TINY [gravely]: They suck.
WAYNE: Then it's not just a clever name.
Why It's Great: Because that's hilarious. Because there you have all 82 minutes of This Is Spinal Tap's venom and affectionate wit condensed into, like, 15 seconds. Because "the Shitty Beatles" is now permanent universal shorthand for "Band X" or "Band Whose Name I Can't Remember." Because it's the best fake band name of all time. Because they're the Beatles that the '90s deserved. (WP, P, T) R.H.
The Art of Noise
Known Origins: Common sense dictates that you should never bring a rock critic into your band...but if you do, he or she might as well pen a good name. These booming-beat pioneers brought on NME journalist Paul Morley as an official, non-instrument-playing, McLaren-esque fifth member, and his first order of business was proposing the crew's iconic name. Sampled (er, borrowed) from the English translation of the infamous 1913 manifesto by Futurist composer Luigi Russolo, Art of Noises — and mercifully depluralized by the band's J.J. Jeczalik — it was a nerdy-beyond-nerdy nod to music's original rule-breaker.
Why It's Great: The original Art of Noises screed basically declared instruments a dead scene, imagining orchestras as an organized assembly of explosions, hisses, scrapes, and shrieks. The '80s Art of Noise did too, but you could breakdance to it! (P, WP, I) C.W.
Known Origins: Get it?
Why It's Great: It's the rare pun that can elicit an "Ohhhh...now I get it!" forehead slap years after first being heard. But the salacious double P, business-y vibe of the "Inc.," and technophilic lip-syncing (see!) association also encapsulated the aspirational and goofy garishness of the late-disco era. (WP, I, P)
From the Band:: "I was in the studio and opened up a phone mbook and saw something with an L, but I didn't like it," remembers founder Steven Greenberg. "So I said, 'How about Lip Service? But someone at the studio said that they worked with a voice-over company called that. I like funny spellings...I can't stand the name, though." DAVID MARCHESE
The 13th Floor Elevators
Known Origins: In olden times, garage bands just picked ordinary plural nouns for names. So when former members of the Spades and the Lingsmen joined forces in Austin in 1965, drummer John Ike Walton suggested "the Elevators." Clementine Hall, the wife of lyricist/electric jug player Tommy Hall, and the band's surrogate mother figure, added "13th Floor," riffing off the superstitious building owners' practice of not assigning that unlucky number — a perfectly spooky touch for the ominous night-trippers.
Why It's Great: The Elevators' name taught bands that hinting at some arcane supernatural knowledge could spook both nervous squares ("What're they, Satan-worshippers or something?") and enrapture stoned kids ("They're talking about elevators to nowhere, man — or maybe to an another plane of existence entirely!") Some fans also have noted that the 13th letter is M, the first letter in "marijuana" — further proof of the endless, obsessive theorizing that the right band name and the right substance can generate. (P, I, WP) K.H.
Known Origins: If you don't have your urban dick-tionary handy, member Cosey Fanni Tutti broke it down matter-of-factly in a 1978 interview: "Throbbing Gristle is Yorkshire slang for an erection." When asked why they chose that as a name, Genesis P-Orridge replied, "Because it was daft."
Why It's Great: Evocative and provocative, it's Chaucer-level as far as wiener jokes go. And the idea of Throbbing Gristle really couldn't be more appropriate for a formless, pulsating primal noise that equates the throbbing of sex with the throbbing of the headaches that often thwart it. P-Orridge especially relished how writers would over-intellectualize the band, yet be forced to pop his boner into their prose, turning their highfalutin arguments instantly absurd. (P, I, T) C.W.
A Tribe Called Quest
Known Origins: They started out as plain old QUEST, until high-school pals and future Native Tongues conspirators the Jungle Brothers suggested something far more unwieldy — and way, way cooler.
Why It’s Great: Because the most cerebral, arty, gracefully pretentious hip-hop crew of the ’90s needed a cerebral, arty, gracefully pretentious name to match. It’s like they’re an emo band. The “Tribe” part solidified their indelible camaraderie in a time when mainstream rap crews were becoming passé; “Quest” hints at their Cross Colours-style granola utopianism without overdoing it. And the whole thing folds up into an intangibly pleasing, elegantly cumbersome acronym (ATCQ). And certainly we can agree that Q is the most satisfying acronym letter, no? (JNSQ, I, P) R.H.
Known Origins: Between 1978 and 1987, Mark Arm and Steve Turner passed through a series of rock bands with more or less unfortunate names — Mr. Epp and the Calculations, Limp Richerds, Green River (the last shared with a Washington serial killer who was still at large) — before settling on the title of a mid-'60s exploitation flick (which they hadn't seen), directed by boobmeister Russ Meyer. As Arm put it, "There's at least something to like about all of his movies."
Why It's Great: "Mudhoney" exemplified the spirit of late-'80s Seattle: sticky and earthy, overtly sexual right down to its double uh sound, a crate-digging reference to the trash culture of the past, with invisible ironizing quotation marks around it. (I, P, JNSQ)
From the Band:: "Besides sounding kind of sleazy, it had a late-'60s hippie kind of feel to it — like muddy hippies," says guitarist Steve Turner. "My argument against it is that Faster Pussycat named themselves after a Russ Meyer movie too, you know? But we've been around so long that whatever the name 'Mudhoney' evoked, it no longer does that anyway — it evokes us at this point. D.W.
Millions of Dead Cops
Known Origins: Originally known as the Stains, the hardcore group played a 1981 gig with Black Flag, where they saw policemen brutalizing teenagers who were simply trying to cross the street. "We started saying, 'These guys don't care. They're here to kill you,'" frontman Dave Dictor recalls. "Then a friend of ours, the bass player of a band called the Dicks, said, 'How about calling yourselves Millions of Dead Cops?'" The band did just that. They would constantly redefine and revise their acronym to mean Millions of Damn Christians, Multi-Death Corporation, Millions of Dead Children, and more.
Why It's Great: A decade before "Cop Killer" inspired Dan Quayle to wag his finger at Ice-T, MDC were using shock tactics to inspire people to question authority. And no matter which side of the coin you fall on politically, you’ve got to hand it to the bandmembers for having the stones to open themselves up to three decades of intense constabulary scrutiny. (T, P, I, VA)
From the Band: "We've gotten under-the-breath, unofficial threats to our lives because of our name," Dictor says. "Two different times in my life, two different cops — one in Houston, Texas, and one in Ottawa, Canada — took one of our buttons and said, 'Millions of Dead Cops? One day we're going to bury you out in that field.' And they pointed out to a field. Both cops said the exact same thing. Another time, right after 9/11, we played at CBGB, and we advertised it as Millions of Dead Cops and Firemen. And, oh, about 50 cops and firemen came to the show wanting to kick our asses. I was living in New York at the time and I guess I was being a wiseass. I have no regrets about naming the band Millions of Dead Cops. I did what I did and I am what I am, and that's just that." K.G.
Known origins: Singer-bassist John Doe scavenged a giant X that once sat atop a demolished Ex-Lax factory in Los Angeles. He kept in it his apartment. He later started dating a lapsed Catholic poet named Christine Cervenka who had X'd out the "Christ" in her name, á la "Xmas." There are no coincidences in God's universe, even after you've stopped believing.
Why It's Great:X is the most visually striking letter in the alphabet, and maybe the letter most heavily freighted with meaning too. In addition to the Jesus-y connotations, X stands for obliteration and denial. It marks the spot and represents the unknown. Also, it's probably the second-least-utilized first letter of a band name (after Q), ensuring that you'll stand out in the record bins. (VA, P, JNSQ) K.H.
The Velvet Underground
Known Origins: In 1965, Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Angus MacLise were providing music for multimedia happenings, but couldn't settle on a name they liked: The Warlocks? The Falling Spikes? Then MacLise found a book in their friend Tony Conrad's apartment: a sensationalistic 1963 paperback by Michael Leigh about "aberrant" sexual subcultures. As Morrison said, "It's abstract and the word 'underground' meant something, and so we said, 'Sure, why not?'"
Why It's Great: It turned out to be the perfect evocation of the band's work: not just a forbidding artifact of the counterculture, but an intoxicating, erotically charged one. The name promised a luxurious destination, but one that you'd have to dig through a rocky mantle to find. And its language subsequently turned up in hundreds of other artist’s names, from Digital Underground to Velvet Revolver. (P, I, T, JNSQ) D.W.
Known Origins: In 1974, before he departed London to turn the New York Dolls into fake communists, future Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, transgressive designer Vivienne Westwood, and future Clash manager Bernie Rhodes stitched up the manifesto (and T-shirt) that gave birth to U.K. punk. Titled "You're Gonna Wake Up One Morning and Know Which Side of the Bed You've Been Lying On!" it consisted of "Love" and "Hate" lists, and featured the first known mention of the name "Sex Pistols"; actually, the manifesto cited a group called "Kutie Jones and the Sex Pistols," a glib reference to the crap garage band led by Steve Jones that had been loitering around Westwood and McLaren's Let It Rock clothes and record shop. Later, after John Lydon became "Johnny Rotten" and turned McLaren's T-shirt gibe into a cultural bloodbath, the name was said to have a variety of more pointedly glib meanings — an obvious promotion for McLaren and Westwood's store, renamed "SEX" upon McLaren's return from New York ("I was out to sell a lot of trousers," he crowed); or, as bassist Paul Cook ventured, the name was a blunt expression of McLaren's relentless, nattering "fantasies about sex and violence." When he hissed the word "assassins," in reference to the group, McLaren's serpentine swindler side sent chills.
Why It's Great: What's the most elemental compound of pop or rock'n'roll? Sex. And how many great band names include that word? With apologies to Disco-Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes, Tupelo Chain Sex, and Sex Clark Five, only one. Paired with the pop-savvy Situationist rhetoric and ransom-note graphics of McLaren and artist Jamie Reid — which gave Johnny Rotten a fiery S&M playpen to inhabit — the Sex Pistols expertly promoted the image of dole rejects in bondage pants threatening random, vaguely political acts of mayhem. Which was subversively potent enough in the mid-'70s. Plus, how could you not laugh? As Lydon said, in a vintage, no-duh remark: "I liked that name very much. I thought it was hilarious….I thought it was perfect to offend old ladies." Punk, in a word. (T, P, I, JNSQ) CHARLES AARON
Known Origins: While watching a film adaptation of The Man in the Iron Mask, bassist Steve Harris heard a passing reference to a seven-foot-tall metal sarcophagus with spikes inside called an "iron maiden." He just had to name his band after it. It's a real-life horror, too: The most recent application, allegedly, was by Saddam Hussein's son, Uday, who is said to have used it to torture Iraqi athletes.
Why It's Great: We could try to sound all smarty-pants and talk about how it juxtaposes beauty and horror, how its sociopolitical implications played beautifully during the early-'80s rise of England's Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher — but really it's just one of the most metal names ever. Its brutal origins dovetail nicely with the band's early gritty material, especially its eponymous song, which bears the promise that "Iron Maiden's gonna get you…" Yowch! (I, WP, P, JNSQ) K.G.
Known Origins: In 1988, Tobi Vail began publishing a feminist punk zine called Jigsaw, which drew the attention of the likeminded Kathleen Hanna before the two teamed up on their own DIY publishing project, a handmade manifesto called Bikini Kill, which read, "Oh yeah and BIKINI KILL is an angry girl zine too, and we are gonna do more so stay tuned." It arrived in 1991. A few months later, its makers — Hanna, Vail, and Kathi Wilcox — along with guitarist Billy Karren, put out a cassette called Revolution Girl Style Now, adopting the zine's name as their own. A British band called Jigsaw had been around since the '60s, so they made a wise choice.
Why It's Great: Like babydoll dresses paired with combat boots or lipstick repurposed as a magic marker, Bikini Kill blends the explicitly feminine with the expressly violent (there's even a twinge of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! by eternal band-name muse Russ Meyer). Both words are ear-catching on their own, but their seemingly illogical juxtaposition — and the name's harsh repeated K sound — is meaningfully uncomfortable: a call to action, a rallying cry, a kick in the ass. (T, P, I, JNSQ) C.G.
Known Origins: Don’t believe the long-standing myth that they shortened the name of the Disney fantasy flick Dragonslayer: ‘Slayer’ simply was born from the vivid, bloodthirsty imaginations of bored teenagers.
Why It’s Great: It’s just 18 short, violent strokes completely devoid of the pesky, intrusive curves of Os or Gs: the perfect band name to spray paint on a retirement home or razor-blade into your forearm. A stroke of metallurgical genius, it turns the wildly vivid verb “slay” into an unexpected agent noun. If slaying is an occupation, business has been very good. (I, P, JNSQ, VA)
From the Band: “With a lengthy career like we’ve had, I think when it is all said and done, it’s as good as they come,” says guitarist Kerry King. “It definitely kept the girls away in the beginning. A buddy of mine sent me a photo of himself standing under it, in Jerusalem, in the church of the tomb of Jesus Christ. Seems to be paint, but I’m not sure. Made me feel awesome!” C.W.
Known Origins: Guitarists Malcolm and Angus Young's sister-in-law Sandra reportedly came up with the name when she saw the abbreviation for "Alternating Current" and "Direct Current" on the back of a household appliance. Little did the fledgling Aussie rockers know that AC/DC was also Down Under slang for "bisexual," which led to a bunch of early bookings in gay bars.
Why It's Great: Do all AC/DC songs have four chords because the band has four letters in its name, or is it the other way around? That's an emu-or-the-egg question, but in addition to its beautifully indicative bluntness — and the fact it's the most euphonious band name ever — AC/DC provided the Young brothers with a career's worth of related electrical iconography, from its lightning bolt logo to the Powerage, High Voltage, and Flick of the Switch album titles. Fellow Australians sometimes call the band "Akka Dakka," which is just adorable. (VA, WP, P, JNSQ) D.M.
Known Origins: Bandmates Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh met in the early '70s at Kent State University. While there, they discovered a theory that God created man using apes (see their lyrics to "Jocko Homo") and that mankind was devolving back to its primordial state. So they shortened the word "de-evolution" to create the moniker for their new-wave band (originally known as Sextet Devo) and wore it as a badge, literally, on their yellow hazard-removal jumpsuits.
Why It's Great: It's short and postmodern, two qualities it shares with the group's rigid, retro-futuristic music. It also has a catchy, almost cute, brand-like quality about it, which also jibed with their commentary. The Walt Disney Company noticed the branding possibilities and, in collaboration with the band, released a CD and DVD in 2006 of child actors singing homogenized versions of Devo tunes, using the name DEV2.0. Bassist-vocalist Casale says he's never had any second thoughts about naming the group Devo, though he jokes, "Maybe we should have named it SexDevo." (P, T, I, VA, WP)
From the Band: "De-evolution is real," Casale says. "Our name means more now than ever before. The most trouble it gave us in the past, though, was when we were attacked by Creationists who didn't understand that 'Devo' bridges the gap between them and evolution theory. The most unusual place I've ever seen the name, though, is on [Tool frontman] Maynard Keenan's son's birth certificate." Devo H. Keenan was born in 1995. K.G.
Brian Jonestown Massacre
Known Origins: Legendarily mercurial frontman Anton Newcombe's explanations for his band’s name are typically hard to pin down, ranging from "We were all eating a lot of LSD and it seemed like a good idea" to the eminently reasonable "Led Zeppelin was taken."
Why It's Great: Combining a 1969 rock'n'roll tragedy with a 1978 religious-cult tragedy nailed the band's particular sense of darkly nostalgic cultishness, ultimately resulting in the hands-down best example of the har har celebrity portmanteau name trend that ran wild in the '90s. Newcombe beat the likes of John Cougar Concentration Camp and REO Speedealer and Deathray Davies to a punch that only needed to be thrown once. (WP,T, I, JNSQ, P) D.M.
Known Origins: Two different people at a party — a friend named Richard Stott and the Mysterians drummer Mark Bliesener — approached DK frontman Jello Biafra with what the latter called "the greatest band name no one could ever use." There's still conflicts over who slipped it to Biafra first: Bleisener says it was inspired by "Ted Kennedy," a teddy bear owned by his girlfriend; Stott confessed to Biafra that he nicked it from an earlier band from Cleveland with the same name. Either way, the wildly provocative moniker succinctly represented the savage gutting of the American dream. Says Biafra, "The deeper meaning came quickly as we had to justify the name. Keep in mind, this was the '70s. It was when all the cool things of the '60s were co-opted, stale, sold back to people; when people went from antiwar hippies to hanging-plant yuppies. What made people so apathetic and greedy and dispassionate? What really got the ball rolling was the Kennedy killings and the murder of Martin Luther King. The feeling that you as a citizen cannot stand up and change anything anymore."
Why It's Great: The name not only played perfectly into hardcore's neverending quest to push the buttons of buttoned-up suburban squares, but maintained an intense political feel that you wouldn't get from a name like "the Meatshits." It prevented the band from booking shows in Boston and New York for a while — and Biafra even had the pleasure of saying it in a court of law on more than one occasion. (T, P, I, WP, JNSQ)
From the Band: "I'd always been a strong believer in the value of shock value," says Biafra. "When it came time to name our band, the first one I proposed was Thalidomide, but nobody else in the band liked that one. The second one that came out of my mouth was Dead Kennedys and immediately they recoiled even more. I could tell it struck a nerve. East Bay Ray said, 'Record companies will never sign us with a name like that.' I thought, yeah, mission accomplished. There were major labels sniffing around the underground in '78 and '79. There was more than one major-label flunkie who told me to my face, 'You can have all the artistic control you want, as long as you change your name.' We had no interest in putting on any brown lipstick for clowns like that. The first time we came to New York in 1979, CBGB wouldn't book us because of the name. That didn't stop them from calling Klaus [Flouride, bassist] years later demanding we fly out and play a benefit for them....I think it affected [the band] in nothing but positive ways. The name was so notorious that people were curious about it from the moment we set foot onstage. So many people told me over the years they were blundering in their record store in their small or remote town looking for anything that was an antidote to MTV and bad radio and stumbled across something with that name. 'Oh, I know, I'll take this home.' And their lives were never the same." C.W.
Known Origins: Oh boy. After deciding that their original name Warsaw was insufficiently suffused with Nazi-tinged gloom and dread, the Manchester, England boys instead derived inspiration from a 1955 novel written by a concentration camp survivor, which took, as Simon Reynolds explained in post-punk bible Rip It Up and Start Again, "the point of view of a 14-year-old girl sent to Auschwitz's 'Camp Labor Via Joy,' the 'joy division' where females were kept as sex slaves for German troops fresh from the Russian front."
Why It's Great: It’s the gold standard for grim, deathly band names, and because the entity responsible for "Love Will Tear Us Apart" could be called nothing else. (P, WP, I, T, JNSQ) R.H.
Known Origins: When Alex Chilton (the mysteriously deep-voiced kid singer for pop group the Box Tops) joined Memphis locals Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, and Andy Hummel (then known as Icewater and, with another singer, Rock City) to record what would become their debut album, #1 Record, the foursome were nameless. But one day on a smoke break behind the studio, they spied a grocery store, part of a Southern chain at the time, and its familiar logo — a big, blue, five-pointed star with the words "Big Star" in the center. When it was suggested as a name, everyone laughed, then froze, silent. Wait a minute...
Why It's Great: Self-mocking, grandiose, inscrutable, copyright-infringing, "Big Star" wryly captured Chilton and Co.'s slouchy posture as bold rock aesthetes and reluctant pop pros (thus inventing the '90s indie/alt-rock template). Led by a restless former teen idol who actually believed he had a vision for improving upon the Beatles and the Beach Boys (and he was right), Big Star responded to a chaotic, disillusioned era with songs that felt like youth blooming and burning to ash, three minutes at a time. Sold in aisle four, next to the strawberry Pop-Tarts. (P, WP, I, VA, JNSQ) C.A.
Known Origins: The incipient Compton supergroup were practicing in Eazy-E's garage, trying to come up with a name more evocative than Dr. Dre and DJ Yella's former act, the sequin-clad World Class Wreckin' Cru. Ice Cube tells the story in the movie Straight Outta L.A.: "Then Eazy saved the day. He said, 'How about N.W.A?' We were like, 'What's that mean?' He said, 'Niggaz Wit' Attitude.' We were like, 'Hell yeah.'"
Why It's Great: Sure, it forced suburbia to confront the most taboo word in the English language. But the genius of N.W.A's name was that it framed them not as a band that included an architectural-drafting student and a couple of electro-jam veterans, but as a gang — its scrawled, curveless initials marked territory like graffiti. There were plenty of acronymic hip-hop acts in their wake (BWP, AMG, KMD, the UMC's, the D.O.C.), but none of their names were as impressively mean and mysterious. (T, P, VA, JNSQ, I) D.W.
Known Origins: Coined by the band's singer Rob Tyner, because, as guitarist Wayne Kramer explained in punk oral history Please Kill Me: "It sounded like a serial number….You know, we were from Detroit, and the 'MC5' sounded like it had been stamped out of the auto factories." Ideal for a bunch of mid-'60s suburban grease monkeys who were obsessed with big-engine cars (Kramer even worked at a drag strip selling ice cream!).
Why It's Great: So many reasons, both serious, silly, and otherwise: One, it could've been either a sports car or a weapon. Two, the local connection was powerful — in addition to the auto-industry nod, "MC5" stood for "Motor City 5" — forever linking the group to the fiery crucible of Detroit, home to the era's most visible African-American progress (socially, economically, musically) and violent, racist pushback (on their debut album Kick Out the Jams, the 5 covered John Lee Hooker's "Motor City Is Burning," shouting out the Black Panthers' role in the 1967 12th Street conflagration, which resulted in 43 dead and 467 injured; later, the 5's manager John Sinclair cofounded the White Panthers as an antiracist collective in support of the Black Panthers). Three, the name was a winking dig at the Dave Clark Five and the squeaky-clean, Beatle-wannabe white mug that was being plastered on the burgeoning youth culture; plus, prophetically, after the 5's show outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention (which turned into a police riot), the name also resonated like a radical lefty political group (à la the Chicago Seven). And four, it spawned a logo — the winged white panther by activist/artist Gary Grimshaw — that ultimately rocked as hard as the band. (VA, I, P, JNSQ, WP) C.A.
Known Origins: Vocalist-bassist-God Lemmy Kilmister wrote a song titled "Motorhead," a '70s slang term for a speed freak, when he was a member of psych-rock astronauts Hawkwind. But it would be the last song he'd write for the group. Hawkwind fired him in '75, he says, for "doing the wrong drugs." He then started a new group called Bastard, but his manager convinced him that the name would keep him off TV, so Kilmister changed it to the name of his last Hawkwind banger. As for that totally, awesomely superfluous umlaut? "I copied it off Blue Öyster Cult," says Kilmister. "I thought it looked mean. That's the thing, innit? It's like the guy in Slap Shot when he takes the sledgehammers to the bus. 'What are you doing?' And he goes, 'I'm making it look mean!'"
Why It's Great: Lemmy's right: "Motörhead" looks and sounds vicious, conjuring visions of pumping pistons, dripping sweat, and copious drugs — images that complement the trio's gritty, raspy, three-minute rawkers. And just like a Motörhead song, the name is short and not so sweet. "I always say one-word names are good," Kilmister says. "Probably the greatest name in the history of rock'n'roll is the Who." But the Who's fans haven't repurposed their heroes’ name with as much spirit as Motörhead’s maniacal followers. "There's a Motörhead bicycle rental shop in Cypress run by one of our fans," Kilmister says with a laugh. When he went to register Motorhead.com online, a car repair shop had beaten him to the punch. "That's why our website is iMotorhead.com." (P, I, VA, T, JNSQ)
Did the name catch on immediately? Lemmy Kilmister: No. We've been called Motorhome. And we've been called Motor and the Heads. And Lemmy's Motörhead. Jesus, it was awful for a while. We'd see it on the billing outside of clubs: "Tonight, Motorhome!"
How did you get people to pay attention to the name?
Once, when we first started the band, we had this manager named Tony Secunda. He used to manage the Move in the old days. He was great at publicity. When he managed us in 1977, there was a block of houses by Shepherd's Bush Roundabout in London that had been bombed [during World War II] and the end house was gone. This was the row everybody had to take to come into Western London. There was just a wall at the end of the houses. So he got ten students and put them on some scaffolding. And he asked them to paint one square each. And when they were done, they had the Motörhead logo about 20 feet tall at the end of this block of houses. And it stayed there for months while the government argued about it. [Laughs] It was great publicity. Everybody who came into West London saw "Motörhead — England" on the side of that building. It was excellent.
Once it did catch on, what are some of the most gratifying places you've seen the Motörhead logo?
A lot of people put the logo on their cars. And a lot of people put it on the side of buildings. It's not much the graffiti thing now, though. It's a shame, really. It would be an ideal subject. You'd probably need a stencil; otherwise you'd be there all day.
Where would you like to see the band name in the future?
I was always hoping we'd get our own jet plane by now, so we could put it on the wings. Fly the friendly skies. K.G.