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December 12, 2013

The whoWhen  my freshman year roommate in college showed up with shoulder length blow-dried  hair and carrying an electric bass guitar back in 1978, I naturally had a lot of questions.

“So, what ‘s the name of your group?”  was the first thing I wanted to know, anticipating a band name that perfectly captured the still enormously popular classic rock era we held on to .

“If you mean the one I played with in high school,” he said, “it was called Orpheus Express.”

“Oh yeah?” I said, holding in my laughter. “How did you happen to come up with that?”

“I guess there used to be a local band called Orpheus Express and somehow one of the guys in our band found their sign at a garage sale,”  my wannabe rock star roomie explained matter-of-factly as he plucked a string on his bass.

Hearing that story again recently only made me want to understand how some of my favorite classic rock bands from the 1960s and 1970s came up with their names. I mean, why name your band after an insect (The Beatles) or an animal (The Animals) or even after an inanimate object (The Doors)? There has to be reason behind every band name, right?

Thanks to a little research on the internet, here is what I came up with about the name origins of some famous rock bands:

  • The Beatles — The Crickets, Buddy Holly’s landmark rock band, has always been cited as an inspiration for the name. Additionally, the misspelling of “beetles” was a play on words, describing the “beat” of the band.
  • The Doors — The band took its name from Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, the title of which was a reference to a William Blake quotation: “When the doors of perception are cleansed, things will appear to man as they truly are… infinite.”
  • Grateful Dead — Originally called The Warlocks, Jerry Garcia found out that another band had the same name. Supposedly, he looked in a reference book at random and found a folk tale about a troubled soul who is put to rest by a traveler. The spirit then helps the traveler with his own quest. Hence, the Grateful Dead name.
  • Jethro Tull — Having trouble getting repeat bookings, the band early on took to changing their name frequently to continue playing the London club circuit. Band names were often supplied by their booking agents’ staff, one of whom, a history enthusiast, eventually christened them Jethro Tull after a famous 18th-century agriculturist. The name stuck because they were using it the first time a club manager liked their show enough to invite them to return.
  • The Kinks Songwriter and lead vocalist Ray Davis said the name was chosen because it only had five letters and it fitted on billboards. “Even on the bottom of a bill, our name still looked big,” Ray said in an interview, adding, “I’ve always hated the name.”
  • Led Zeppelin  The band name refers to the Hindenburg disaster; and a joke made by Keith Moon and John Entwistle. The two were discussing the idea of forming a band with some prominent young guitarists at the time. Moon and Entwistle suggested that a supergroup containing themselves, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck would go down like a “lead balloon”, a British idiom for disastrous results. Lead was quickly shortened to Led, for fear that their American fans would mispronounce their name.
  • Lynyrd Skynyrd — Named after Leonard Skinner, a gym teacher at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Florida who was notorious for strictly enforcing the school’s policy against boys having long hair.
  • Pink Floyd — Playing under multiple names, including “Tea Set”, the band found themselves on the same bill as another band with the same name. So, founding band member Syd Barrett came up with the alternative name The Pink Floyd Sound, after two blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.
  • Rolling Stones — Depending on who you ask, they were either named after the Muddy Waters song “Mannish Boy” or taken directly from the Howlin’ Wolf blues song “Rolling Stone” which was also recorded by Muddy.
  • Steely Dan — Named after a dildo in the novel Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.
  • Velvet Underground — Named after a book about sadomasochism by Michael Leigh.
  • The Who — They were originally called The Detours, then changed their name to The Who after a suggestion by a friend of Pete Townshend. A better story is that Pete’s grandmother would always refer to popular bands as “The Who?”, due to her impaired hearing.

And my favorite band name story? It , of course, comes from one of my favorite classic rock bands, The Band.

They were known as The Hawks, after their original lead singer Ronnie Hawkins. While working with Bob Dylan in the 1960s, they decided to change their name. The guys considered a lot of names, including the Chocolate Subway and the Marshmallow Overcoat. According to band member Richard Manuel, they even once considered calling themselves the Honkies at one point, even though drummer and singer Levon Helm always referred the name of the Crackers.

After much discussion, they finally settled on calling themselves as simply “The Band”, mainly as their way of making fun of the entire band naming thing.

Which brings me back to the opening story about my college roommate’s band name, Orpheus Express. When I looked it up, I found that Orpheus is a legendary musician, poet, and prophet in ancient Greek religion and myth. The major stories about him are centered on his ability to charm all living things and even stones with his music.

It all makes sense now.

So, now it’s your turn. Please share your favorite rock band names and the stories behind them.

Id love to hear.

  1. Keith Ripley permalink

    I heard that Steely Dan was the name of a Dildo in an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. Is this true? I have no idea,but it makes for a funny story.

    • Yes, Keith, this is the story of the name origin of Steely Dan. It makes sense for a band with a great sense of humor.

  2. Dan permalink

    A great band that was plagued by a lack of original material, and their name really captures that singular weakness: The Jeff Beck Group

  3. Michelle permalink

    Tangential comment: one of my favorite movies, “That Thing You Do!”, has a great band name story. (Are you familiar?) The band started off as The Oneders–pronounced “Wonders”–which they then changed because everyone kept pronouncing it “Oh-need-ers”.

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