Feature photo by Philip Cosores.
The High Numbers. Sigma 6. Tom & Jerry. Angel and the Snake. The Golliwogs. Tony Flow & the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem. Do these sound like Hall of Fame bands? Of course not. They sound like bands gearing up to compete in a Battle of the Bands competition, with the prize being an opening slot for some ‘70s band where the only original member left is the backing vocalist. But Hall of Famers they became, at least after they shed those hideous names and landed on something decent and memorable.
Great bands do have to start somewhere, though. Few acts land on an iconic band name like The Clash or Nirvana without running through a few stinkers first. To be fair, though, not every original band name is cringe-worthy. For every Polka Tulk Blues Band, we’re bound to come across a name like The Hype or The Quarrymen, memorable names that might not have been as iconic, but definitely didn’t earn the eye-roll that other names did. And maybe, just maybe, there are some bands out there that got it right the first time around, only to throw common sense away and go with something completely absurd.
We went through the original band names of hundreds of popular bands and pulled out 10 that are actually quite good. For curiosity’s sake, let’s take a look at how those names match up against what we now know the groups by and see who got it right, who got it wrong, and who would have won either way.
The Band vs. The Hawks
Let’s start with one of the more iconic band names out there: The Band. A perfect group name if there ever was one, I wonder how many bands at the time kicked themselves when they realized they could have gotten away with a name as fundamental as The Band. Their tenure as Bob Dylan’s backing group is well-documented, but it was their time spent supporting another musician, rockabilly artist Ronnie Hawkins, that gave them their first name in music: The Hawks. Keep in mind, this is the early ‘60s, and it seemed you couldn’t go wrong with using an animal for your band name. The Turtles, The Monkees, The Stone Ponies; hell, you could get away with naming yourself after an insect like a cricket or beetle and become a legend. Avian names were quite the rage, too, from The Flamingos and The Penguins to The Yardbirds and The Byrds, giving The Hawks an easy in to the music industry. Still, legends forge their own path, and it wouldn’t be long before Levon and the boys separated from Hawkins and began trying out other names like Canadian Squires. Before they knew it, they were The Band, a group so great they needed no description or moniker. Even if The Hawks was a great band name left unexplored in the pantheon of rock music, nothing beats being known by all as just The Band.
Winner: The Band
Barenaked Ladies vs. Free Beer
Long before “Chickity China the Chinese chicken” became a renowned lyrical gem, Barenaked Ladies were a band without a concrete name struggling to make it in the Scarborough, Ontario, bar scene. And then it hit them, a stroke of brilliance that pre-dates P.C.U.’s Everyone Get Laid band name by at least six years: change the band name to Free Beer. People will show up in droves expecting to get wasted and instead be given songs about Yoko Ono and the 9th Grade that are so great it makes them forget all about the false promise of unrestricted booze. Solid plan, right? No? Well, technically, yes, since all they did was change the promise of alcohol to exposed females and they were able to keep on chugging along for years to come. Says a lot about what establishments are willing to put up with, huh? Years later, the humor of the name Barenaked Ladies is lost in a sea of bands exploiting gender terms while claiming irony, while Free Beer still seems like a kind of fun-natured band that wants to make their audience say underwear in their songs. Overall, both band names were designed to lure people into their gigs under false pretenses, and since Free Beer doesn’t seem to haplessly profit from a maligned gender, let’s say the harmless fun of Free Beer should have stuck around.
Winner: Free Beer
Destiny’s Child vs. Girl’s Tyme
Looking over the names of original band names for other girl groups, it didn’t seem that necessary for Destiny’s Child to ever change their name. The Primettes were just another in a long list of “ette” girl groups before a name change to The Supremes allowed them to assert dominance. 2nd Nature seemed like a contrived way for women to get in on New Jack Swing before a name change to TLC gave the trio the keys to ‘90s R&B stardom. And as for Spice Girls and The Bangles, well, it’s a good thing for everyone that Touch and The Bangs never stuck around if only so we bypassed all those easy sexist and misogynistic jokes. On point, though, a name like Girl’s Tyme would have done just fine for the talented young musicians, outperforming the aforementioned original names even with its then-hip, now-goofy misspelling. It would have given them a song or two that would have dominated TRL for a few weeks in 1999 before the band put out a bunch of minor hits you come across in a “Songs from the 2000s You Totally Forgot Existed” list. They would have had their time and that would have been it. Destiny’s Child, though. Well, we know they dominated TRL much longer than a few weeks, and you’d be hard-pressed to forget any of their chart-topping songs. It wasn’t their time. It was their fate.
Winner: Destiny’s Child
Insane Clown Posse vs. JJ Boyz
More than any band on this list, Insane Clown Posse’s name change marked the difference in their career. Sure, JJ Boyz sounds like a decent hip-hop group that could draw a respectable crowd, but would they be enough to warrant a yearly gathering or even a march on Washington? Probably not. In that sense, there’s no doubt in ICP’s world which name is better, but in the real world, one where Juggalos rival Szechuan lovers for the most toxic fan base, who knows? Had they stuck with their original names, maybe they would have paid more attention in high school science and learned just how magnets worked. Maybe they would have taken up a writing class or two and created a mythology that better expounds on heaven and hell. Maybe they would have decided that carnies and clowns aren’t really something you want to make people obsesses over for decades. Who’s to say, but despite the endless fodder ICP and its fans provide us, I think it’s safe to say that the world would better appreciate Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope if they had stuck with the Jagged Joe and Kangol Joe alter egos all those years ago.
Winner: JJ Boyz
Grateful Dead vs. The Warlocks
Jerry Garcia and his jam band auteurs really could have been called anything. Though the name Grateful Dead lent itself to some of the music world’s most enduring imagery and fandom, the last decade alone has proved the name to be inconsequential as the demand for spin-off bands and associated groups continues to rise. For any other band, if a member splinters off with a new project, they’ll quickly find out that they can’t exploit their main band’s name enough in order to grab people’s interest. For the Dead, all you need is a strategically placed skeleton or band member name and you’ll have every card-carrying Deadhead in a 10-mile radius instantly clearing their schedule for you. Now, that’s not to say Grateful Dead isn’t a good band name. It’s easily one of rock music’s more iconic names, with a sense of vitality within the phrase that shines through their music and entices fans. But given the chance, The Warlocks could have made a similar impact on the music world, perhaps utilizing much of the same imagery with minor tweaks here and there. The only major difference that would have to be made is what to call the fandom, and while Deadhead carries a deal of importance, who’s to say some variation of Magehead wouldn’t have been as memorable? As long as the band was there in full force, you could have called them Chumbawamba and they’d still be every bit as successful.
Mott The Hoople vs. Silence
Today, Mott the Hoople are mostly known for their recording of the Bowie-penned song “All the Young Dudes”, but this English glam group was actually quite successful in the UK in the mid-‘70s, despite their absolutely terrible name. You know, it’s somewhat easy to imagine music fans in the ‘70s and 2017 having the same reaction when coming across their albums in a store: What the hell is a Hoople? To be fair, dozens of bands with worse names followed them, but what makes Mott the Hoople particularly frustrating is that they were originally named something simple, something memorable, something normal: Silence. Not Silence the Hobo. Not Silence the Halfwit. No, just Silence. Not a great band name, mind you, but practically anything shines bright when laid next to the phrase “Mott the Hoople”. I’ll give bands like Hoobastank and Limp Bizkit some credit here. At least they never performed under regular names like Sleep or Sound and then decided, “Screw it, here’s something better.” No, that distinction proudly belongs to Mott the Hoople, a band name that made fellow glam contemporaries Zolar X and Iron Virgin seem normal.
Talking Heads vs. The Artistics
This is an interesting one to look at if only because Talking Heads’ original name directly foreshadows the band’s pioneering sound. Maybe that disqualifies it a bit. Calling your art-rock band The Artistics is a bit too on-the-nose, like naming your metal group The Thrashers or your rap group Hip-Hop Inc. (Dibs on both.) Still, The Artistics does carry a bit of appeal to it that Taking Heads inherently can’t. “The __.” There’s just something about simple two-word band names starting with “The” that makes them so engaging. The Cure. The Doors. The Who. Band names like Vampire Weekend and Fleet Foxes just don’t carry the same punch like a good “The” name does. They just can’t. It’s terse. It’s basic. Done right, it can tell you everything you’ll need to know about a band like The Clash or The Strokes. The Artistics is extremely appealing in this sense, and the name certainly has a nice ring to it, but ultimately, nothing can compare to the phrase that encapsulates so much of the band’s sound and charm: “The name of this band is Talking Heads.” Any other name would just fall flat.
Winner: Talking Heads
Linkin Park vs. Xero
There’s a short list of misspelled words in band names that actually come off as cool instead of gimmicky. The Beatles make it. Lynyrd Skynyrd, of course. The Monkees and Def Leppard, too. And I think it’s safe to say that both Linkin Park and their original name, Xero, could make it, too. They just pop off the screen, enticing you with a bit of intrigue, something that their nu metal counterparts often fail to do. So which one’s better? With the passing of Chester Bennington, the inclination is to go with Linkin Park and punctuate it with a “Duh!” After all, the band was Xero up until he joined, when the chemistry between Bennington and Mike Shinoda prompted a name change that eventually became Linkin Park. But don’t discount Xero, a name succinctly captivating in a way that Linkin Park never could be. Side by side, unknown record with unknown record, a band name like Xero is always going to out-flash Linkin Park with its four letter statement. But we’re not viewing these as unknown. The name coincides with the arrival of Bennington, the crucial aspect of the band’s success, bringing the name Linkin Park back up to the level of Xero and ending this argument in a stalemate.
The Beach Boys vs. The Pendletons
There are few band names more iconic and evocative than that of The Beach Boys, whether you remember them for their perky sunshine pop or artistic golden harmonies. Still, there’s something grating about watching acts with the words “girls” and “boys” age while continuing to perform. Backstreet Men and Indigo Women just don’t roll off the tongue as well, though, so I guess they’re stuck being boys and girls into their 40s, 50s, or 70s if your name is Mike Love. Well, that one might fit considering his petulant behavior towards bandmates and the music industry over the years. Love actually gave the group its first name, The Pendletons, back in the early ‘60s, and as wrong as it is to give him any credit whatsoever, the name is actually quite good. Not only does it fit in well with the vocal groups of the time, but it also lends itself to a variety of moods just like The Beach Boys name. Pendleton feels homey and American, like your next-door neighbor, but it also has a tinge of sophistication behind it. You could easily imagine pop-art records like Pet Sounds and Smile coming from a group named The Pendletons, but in the end, it’s a fool’s errand. Good name or not, there’s no beating The Beach Boys and the bright, gorgeous melodies that come to mind when you hear that name.
Winner: The Beach Boys
Nickelback vs. Village Idiot
At this point, it seems pointless to slam Nickelback for their musical output. You either like them, or you don’t. Why beat a dead horse, even if Chad Kroeger does it on every album with his songwriting? Oops. I tried. Oh well. They’re just an easy band to hate, even as Kroger and his band mates have begun to take the vitriol in stride. Too little too late for most fans it seems, which makes you wonder: What would have happened had Kroger and company offered up some self-deprecating humor from the start? Back then, they were a cover band performing under the name Village Idiot. Not Village Idiots. Just Village Idiot. A singular moniker that encapsulated their collective identity. “We are Village Idiot,” they probably opened sets with, as audience members laughed in pity before deciding to give the band a bit more lee-way in their set than they normally would have. Keep the band name, fast-forward 20 years, and that could have been Nickel… I mean Village Idiot’s role in music.
Think about it. Imagine you’re hearing the flaccid rock song “Rockstar” for the first time, and it’s introduced as a new Village Idiot song. What do you do? Spend your energy bemoaning how it’s killing rock music or chuckle at the on-the-nose name of the sound and move on with your day? It’s not like it would have affected their fanbase either. If a song like “Rockstar” or “If Everyone Cared” didn’t drive them off, surely a name like Village Idiot wouldn’t. Basically, the band’s career could have played out in two ways. As Nickelback, they’re one of the most hated bands in music history that are somehow also massively successful. As Village Idiot, they’re equally successful and get a far fairer shake from the music world because after all, what should people expect from Village Idiot? Which option sounds better there?
Winner: Village Idiot