Classic Rock Band Names And The Stories Behind Them

Classic Rock Band Names

Photo: Bruce Alan Bennett / Shutterstock

What’s in a name? Well, recognition, and self response to others. Our pets have names, some cute, some that were not very fair to the animal, but luckily they don’t know that. In the last century when recorded music became available, people could listen to music at home and the advent of radio was even more revolutionary at the time than the internet and all its impact today. So, memorable names were important, but also, local stations in small markets gave listeners a chance to play on evening local music shows when the networks weren’t broadcasting, local sports, community and church services, etc.

But naming bands and musicians other than after the band leaders was rare, although Louis Armstrong made his back up band “The Hot Seven” very popular in the late ’20’s. Another was the Mound City Blowers, and the Delta had a few “Blind Men” vocal groups, including “The Five Blind Men of Mississippi” and “The Five Blind Men Of Alabama”.

Arkansas native Louis Jordan, who is a critical pioneer in helping develop rock and roll music (and I’m a bit hacked frankly at the lack of attention he receives, given his amazing string of huge hits especially from the late 1930’s through WWII, where his hits were hugely popular, particularly amongst those in the Armed Services. At the time the recording industry was almost at a complete standstill as artists refused to perform for any label until major reforms including much better royalties and the right to compose their own material was addressed.

The exception was Victory records, acetate singles sent to troops in all theaters, and Jordan’s timely subject matter touched the troops and sailors, with songs that reminded them of better times at home albeit sometimes with plenty of ribbing to go along with it. “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” “Five Guys Named Moe”, “Caldonia Boogie”, and “Nobody Here But Us Chickens” were huge, and darned if rock and roll couldn’t be found nosing around in those boogie woogie tempos and fiery solos! That my home state of Arkansas is nearly oblivious to this great man is sad. But name wise, Jordan named all his combos for reasons known only to him as The Tympani Five, when there were no less than seven men in his band at any given time. But let’s move on. The ’50’s really started the ball rolling, and while band names might not have been especially flashy compared to what was coming, band names were more a part of rock and roll, and single performers stayed more in the pop chart territory.

It was the ’60’s that would change naming bands and performers forever. So, we all know the name game here. The Beatles, after a few earlier names like The Silver Beatles, The Beetles (before Lennon liked using the “beat” society reference, and The Quarrymen, their first band if you will, stayed with their famous spelling. The naming of The Rolling Stones was no mystery either. Brian Jones, in the first years when he was much more prominent before succumbing to increasingly horrific drug use and contributing almost no material before drowning in a swimming pool, was the one who formed the Stones, and named them. Now, they are of course the greatest rock and roll band of all time, a major music publication named itself after them, and the world mourns the loss of Charlie Watts, the greatest rock and roll drummer ever.

There were others all poised to break big:

The Who were a scruffy lot, tough as nails, and were known as the High Numbers, The Detours, and after a night tossing around ideas for a new name, one of Pete Townsend’s friends, Richard Barnes, suggested The Who because according to him it “had a pop punch.” Townsend didn’t care for it, but Roger Daltrey settled on it the next day.

Jimi Hendrix called his band “The Experience” and asked “are you experienced” on what most rock fans think is one of the most mind bending debuts and futuristic albums of all time.

And speaking of The Who, Jimmy Page, after wanting to form a new band after the dissolution of The Yardbirds, first wanted to call his new band The New Yardbirds and they actually did one gig as such before becoming Led Zeppelin, when, while debating a name, Keith Moon, after hearing the name, said the name would go over like a “lead zeppelin.” Page thought the heavy/light contrast was great, and one of the greatest bands with one of the greatest names was born.

Meanwhile, the band formerly known as the Polka Tulk Band and Earth, after becoming Earth, found there was a much milder hippy band in the Birmingham, UK area, and clubs booked Tony Iommi’s Earth, not expecting what was probably close to the early Sabbath sound and driving everybody out of the club. But they decided on “Black Sabbath, after a movie with Boris Karloff with the same name in 1963.

Another great but terribly underrated Welsh three piece band was Budgie, named after what people also call parakeets. Bassist/vocalist Burke Shelley, with his Geddy Lee like range, and a very heavy sound that appealed to hard rock fans except for some reason the US, liked the name Budgie for the same light/heavy connotation as Led Zeppelin. Budgie would get some critical recognition when Metallica covered “Breadfan” and “Crash Course In Brain Surgery” but their days were numbered. Sadly Shelley very recently passed away as well. People who love early Rush and the earthiness of Sabbath and other hard working hard rocking bands can check the band out our Top 10 Budgie Songs.

Jefferson Airplane had one of the better names for the San Francisco hippy movement, right up with the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and who knows how many other weirdly named bands all over the place. One story had it that a “Jefferson Airplane” was slang for a clip to hold a joint, but guitarist Jorma Kaukonen says a friend called him “Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane”. The “Thomas” of course was dropped, the rest left to compliment the early blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Mention must be made for a Jacksonville, Florida band that besides defining southern rock basically forever, did the odd deed of naming their band after their physical ed teacher, Leonard Skinner. But more baffling is the fact they also created one of the hardest names in rock and roll to spell – Lynyrd Skynyrd. Took me forever to add that second “y” in both words.

Motorhead was not named for car and race fanatics. Bassist and legendary leader Lemmy Kilmister, who also played in one of the most beloved psychedelic UK bands Hawkwind was fired but not before he wrote the song “Motorhead”, slang for somebody who used a lot of speed, his favorite drug.

If your wondering where that guy Pink Floyd got his name from…sorry I couldn’t myself. Nonetheless, if you are wondering where the name Pink Floyd came from, the band named themselves after American blues singer Pinkney Anderson and American blues guitaris Floyd Council.

One of the greatest pop/rock bands out of the New Wave era were The Cars. This Boston outfit was known as Cap’n Swing, before settling on drummer David Robinson’s suggestion of  The Cars. Sadly, both vocalist/guitarist Ric Ocasek and bassist/vocalist Ben Orr have passed away.

Van Halen was named not by the brothers Van Halen. They had been known as Mammoth, and pretty much ruled the LA party scene, and helped spawn dozens of glam bands, even though they were much more a super hard rock band that also could write a good pop tune. Singer David Lee Roth liked the name Van Halen as it didn’t really tell the listener anything and thus was harder to pigeonhole.

Without naming all of them, the ’70’s also saw lots of bands using the name of their home towns and at least two states (Kansas,  Black Oak Arkansas). The only one that may have raised eyebrows was Kansas, but they were from Kansas before relocating to Atlanta. Atlanta Rhythm Section was a hot session band in that great southern city before deciding to do it on their own. Boston, Chicago and Nantucket  also did well, although Nantucket for some reason hailed from North Carolina. And Metallica got their name from a fanzine that drummer Lars Ulrich spotted and wanted for his band. This probably ended the tape trading, word of mouth type band success that didn’t have the internet to help them.

And let’s hear it for my little band that did originals and sloppy copies, but played with all our hearts, and truthfully, we weren’t bad. We didn’t get to record, but it was my band nominally since I played lead guitar, sang and wrote the originals, and introduced most of the covers. My friends who were brothers were happy that way – I didn’t tell them what exactly to do, they could shoot down anything they didn’t like, and we had a certain chemistry that made us pretty tight, and could play by ear. We called ourselves The Lost Episodes.

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