Bad Band Names (and good ones?)

The subject I am about to touch upon–and don’t be distracted by the brevity with which I treat it–is one that is close to my heart because I was in two bands for nearly four years each and both  had rather terrible names. How do I know that the names were bad? When people ask me what the names of my bands were, I am too embarrassed by them to even utter them. In fact, I often find myself saying a silent prayer of thanks for the fact that both of my bands disappeared before the full rise of the internet. It is very, very hard to connect my proper name with those terrible, awful names.

This band has some pretty good beats and a rather tough sound for some ladies. Where are they now? While a rose by any other name still sounds as sweet, words have intrinsic attractiveness based on their sound and that sound’s relationship to the language at large. If a thorned flower were called ‘turd’, would we have bands named the Stone Turds and Guns N’ Turds? The sound matters.

How did I end up in bands with bad names? My best friend in high school and I decided in seventh grade that we liked one name. We used it. After two years we realized it was bad. We even tried to come up with a new one. I distinctly remember a long night with a dictionary during which we wrote words like ‘Turbid’ and “Wheat Worm’ on the wall. We never changed the name because people knew us by that name and no other. My band in college? Our name (which was actually our second) started out as a joke. The joke stuck and became unfunny. How do you re-brand a band?

Yeah, it has been like three weeks since I mentioned They Might be Giants. This is actually a fine song. A pet name, or nickname, is all about intimacy. Names are about expressing the relationships between things. Having a special name for something can be about power or closeness. Pet names can be embarrassing; but they are also comforting.

What made me think of all of this? While avoiding work the other day, I came across a reference to bad band names. The list made me angry. But let’s start with the list. According to Rolling Stone, the following bands have the worst names in music history

  1. The Devil Wears Prada
  2. Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head
  3. Dogs Die in Hot Cars
  4. Cherry Poppin’ Daddies
  5. Anal Cunt
  6. Panic! At the Disco
  7. Hoobastank
  8. Confrontation Camp
  9. Dave Matthews Band
  10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
  11. Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe
  12. The Beatles

Now, while I agree that number 5 is truly dreadful, I have more than a few issues with this list. First, numbers 1, 2, 3, and 8 are just too obscure to really matter. Number 11 is barely a real band. And number 12 is really just there to piss people off. This list is meant to provoke but it in no way is rigorous. Where would rigor come from? For a start, if the author offered examples of good band names, we would have a comparison to enlighten us. Or, for another matter, if the article proposed some idea of what makes for a good band name, then we could talk about ideas instead of cheap shots.

Mike Doughty’s early music offers some of the most well-written songs I can think of. Somewhere in the mid 2000s he lost his way a bit, but he has a talent for lines that are both memorable and meaningful. This combination is important for this post. Rolling Stone mocks Dave Matthews for naming the band after himself, but, hey, that’s a pretty safe bet. As long as your name isn’t “Asshole Youhate” or “Osama Bin Laden”, why take a risk with something like Foo Fighters or Insane Clown Posse? ( I like one of those names, can you guess which?)

So, let’s think about this. What makes for a good band name? The first question to be answered before addressing this is ‘What does a band name do?’ For me, a band name’s function is bipartite: (1) it must be memorable (people who hear or see the name should be able to recall it easily later); (2) It can convey some meaning but should not provide negative connotations.

Let me take each assertion in turn. First, The Beatles is a good name because it is memorable. It is short and sounds nice. It has prior associations with animals (foreign or unfamiliar names are often and easily forgotten). It has some euphony, in short. How else can sound make names memorable? Alliteration, rhyme and inversion are helpful. The Ting Tings have alliteration and repetition. Modest Mouse has alliteration, assonance and sibilance. You remember names that sound cool or familiar–when consonants and vowels invite repetition you are more likely to remember them.

I don’t ever talk about the White Stripes and I kind of feel bad about this. The reason is two-fold and lame. I was a little ‘old’ to get into them when they first came out. And I had a good friend who knew and hated Jack White. I suspect, however, that if he heard some of their music under a different name he might actually like them.

So, on to my second point. Names should sound cool and, under ideal circumstances, have a positive or important meaning. Modest Mouse, for example, sounds like it is named after a cartoon character but really comes from a line by Virginia Woolf. More importantly, the name, if you don’t know that it comes from Woolf, invites speculation because its meaning isn’t readily apparent. That is a good thing. You remember the name because of its sound and its mystery. Bands that sound stupid are often rejected. Names that have clearly negative associations are avoided (who would name their band The Child Molesters, Syphilitic Dick, or AIDS?)

A good name makes you visible. A bad name can make you unknown or infamous. Why don’t I talk about Modest Mouse more? I really like some of their songs.

So, I really don’t like Rolling Stone’s list because it is really just a lazy act of provocation without much reflection. In the spirit of the magazine’s artile, here are some bands whose names I think are really bad.

  1. Goo Goo Dolls: Formerly named “Sex Maggot”; this name is memorable but stupid. Euphonic? Maybe. Meaningful? For idiots.
  2. Starfuckers: Really? This is memorable, but what kind of meaning does it project? Their music is mediocre too.
  3. Fun.: I do kind of like this band. I find punctuation in band names strange because it anticipates only a reading audience. Fun with a period next to it says “I am trying to be clever, because, hey, who wants fun followed by anything but an exclamation mark.” I don’t like mediocre cleverness. (Ok, that was rather subjective.) I really like the band Why?. The question mark in the name doesn’t make them better.
  4. I’m From Barcelona: I don’t know if I like sentences as band names. They Might Be Giants, yes, because it is intriguing. But ‘I’m From Barcelona’? What the hell does that mean? Surely not that someone is from Spain, right?
  5. Imagine Dragons: I like this band (or at least some of the tracks) but I don’t like being ordered to do something. And, why the hell should I imagine a dragon? The only way this name could be worse is if it were something like “Love Unicorns” or “Distrust Vampires”.
  6. My Morning Jacket: I have no idea what this band name means. It perplexes me. What the fuck is a morning jacket? Is it like a smoking jacket but different? Are we supposed to hear the homophone “mourning”? Good band. Strange name.
  7. Of Monsters and Men: This sounds pretentious. The music is pretentious. Good fit. Bad name.

And what do you think, my brother? How will your band’s name stack up? Anyone else have some ideas about good or bad names for bands?

7 comments on “Bad Band Names (and good ones?)

  1. theyoungerj says:

    I have somethings to say and I should be watering my vegetables because it’s 92 in Maine right now,studying for my math test Saturday, or writing a blog for tomorrow but I will take five to comment back. First off, I fully get the naming your own band enigma that never works for anyone. Case in point, my current band’s name which almost everyone likes except you, the Elder J, and a very close friend of mine from high school. I respect the Elder more than almost anyone and the friend quite a bit so it’s hard for me to move on with this name, but such is life. I think if I had a few beers and some time, I could convince both of you that it is a good name and apt for what we are doing. For the record, i always just thought you were so cool for being IN a band as a youth that I never gave much though to what the name was. Second, I have the album on vinyl that this White Stripes jam is on, De Stijl, and this song is one of my favorite ever. Very cool you picked it out, love the lazy slide licks coupled with the steady beat. I do think our friend would love this band if he didn’t personally know Jack White because they are so good, simple yet aggressive. I miss that guy, I need to get the band to NYC so see him and college roomates. Lastly, I’d like to say that Tool might be my favorite band name because their music is supposed to be a tool for whatever you want it to be. On that note, I’m going to listen to Aenima and study middle school math!

  2. […] White Stripes brother….they truly do rock and I hope they get back together because I missed them last time […]

  3. […] bullshit because she is one of the steadiest drummers in rock and roll and a perfect compliment to Jack’s roots playing. Her primal style is actually quite awesome. I love the White Stripes from the […]

  4. T.A. Gerolami says:

    Wait, if *you* were too old to get into the White Stripes, where does that leave my sister and I? Cherry Popping Daddies deserves to be a list of bad band names. One, it’s horrific. Two, it helped give an entire (admittedly faddish) group of bands a terrible name. You say “Swing Revival” and you don’t think “Squirrel Nut Zippers”, you think of those asshats. Plus their hit was terrible, even then. Hoobastank I also consider fair game as a bad band name, even if it was obvious.

    That being said, chiding a guy for using his name in a band is moronic. There are tons of bands that feature the front man’s name-for starters, just about every great (actual) swing band ever. I realize that was a different time (since I don’t think anyone had “band” names like we do now-now there’s a topic I’d like to research, when that became common practice, though as I think more clearly a lot of people had named backing groups and of course Louis Armstrong had his variously numbered “Hot” combos), but come on. You just want to take a cheap shot at Dave Matthews because we’re in a period where he is a prime target for mocking (not that I really have a problem with that).

    I’m trying to think of some bad band names and of course I am completely blanking out on any.

    • theelderj says:

      I wasn’t too old objectively, I was just “too old” in that I was not really open to new artists at the time. I think if the White Stripes had come out when I was in High School or even 3-4 years later, I might have been readier to give them a chance.

      And we are all old(er)

      • T.A. Gerolami says:

        Fair enough-I think I just happened to catch them (and The Hives) at the right time.

  5. […] love old country music and especially Willie Nelson.  Recently, Jack White hosted an 80th birthday party for the Red Headed stranger at his Third Man Studios in Nashville. […]

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