We know the bands, we listen to their music, and we’ve even heard all about their feuds, breakups, and the stories behind their most famous songs. But we don’t necessarily know about their origin stories. Sometimes, a band’s beginnings are humble – like the Van Halen brothers who recruited David Lee Roth to save money – and some are a little more, um, extreme – like the Grateful Dead’s early days performing at Ken Kesey’s “Acid Tests.”
The wild and remarkable stories behind some of the most iconic rock acts are often recited, but the ways in which they came to exist aren’t as well-known. Every band has a story, and this is a collection of the best ones, from Jefferson Airplane to U2 to The Beatles.
Carlos Santana Started With the Violin
Believe it or not, the master guitarist’s first instrument wasn’t even the guitar. Carlos Santana actually started by playing the violin at age five with his father while they were living in Mexico. He didn’t love the instrument, though, and by the time he was eight years old, he had picked up a guitar instead.
A few years later, his family moved to San Francisco. Santana listened to, and became heavily influenced by, American rock music of the 1950s. After earning some money at a local restaurant and busking in his spare time, Santana decided to try his hand at a music career. Santana brought together a number of musicians.
He Didn’t Want to Be the Frontman
Together with bassist David Brown, vocalist and organist Gregg Rolie (who played with Journey, too), drummer Rod Harper and rhythm guitarist Tom Frazer, Santana formed the Santana Blues Band. But, according to Rolling Stone, Santana was uneasy about being the group’s frontman, but the problem was that the local musicians’ union required every band to have a leader.
And so, he was thrust into the spotlight, and the band eventually just called themselves Santana. They made their stage debut in 1968 at San Francisco’s The Fillmore to a standing ovation. After that kind of reception, they were invited to the Woodstock stage a year later, which only boosted their popularity even further. Soon enough, they were signed to Columbia Records and the rest is history.
From Janitor to Goth Icon
As it turns out, Nine Inch Nails, the iconic Goth rock band, came to be because Trent Reznor was the janitor of a recording studio. And the owner of that studio was kind enough let Reznor record for free during open studio time. Before that, Reznor was the keyboardist in the New Wave synth-pop band, Exotic Birds.
He then left the band and his ‘80s hairdo after only three months. Instead, he took a job at Cleveland’s Right Track Studio as the janitor. Studio owner Bart Koster remarked on his remarkable abilities at waxing the floor. Koster agreed to let Reznor use the studio to work on some of his new material. Eventually those demos landed Reznor a deal with TVT Records. That early janitor/studio material later appeared on Pretty Hate Machine, NIN’s debut album.
Golliwogs Wasn’t the Right Name for Them
John Fogerty, Stu Cook, and Doug Clifford were friends at Portola Junior High in El Cerrito. The three friends soon formed a musical trio in 1959, calling themselves The Blue Velvet. They played as a backing band for Fogerty’s older brother Tom. In 1964, Tom joined the group and the four boys signed to San Francisco’s Fantasy Records, where Tom was working at the time.
After signing to Fantasy, the guys switched around on musical parts, and for a while, they went by the name the Golliwogs. But the Golliwogs weren’t so successful. Only when they changed their name to Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1967 did things start to turn around. By 1969, with their second album, “Bayou Country,” the group began establishing themselves as one of the most successful rock bands of the late ’60s.
Jefferson Airplane Began in a Pizza Shop
Jefferson Airplane has been widely credited with helping to pioneer psychedelic rock, and they were a signature part of the ’60s and early ’70s San Francisco scene. They started out, unlike most other rock groups. In 1965, vocalist Marty Balin and a group of investors purchased a pizza shop on Fillmore Street and turned it into a music venue.
He then met guitarist and vocalist Paul Kantner at the Drinking Gourd, which was a different venue in the city. Together, Balin and Kantner convinced several other performers to help them form a house band for Balin’s new venue, which Balin dubbed The Matrix at the time. One of the first to join was vocalist Signe Toly Anderson, but her time with the band was short-lived.
Goodbye Signe, Hello Grace
In 1966, after singing on the band’s first album, she had her first baby and had to leave the group. Jerry Peloquin, Bob Harvey and Skip Spence were also early members, but left for other reasons. The “classic” lineup eventually consisted of Balin and Grace Slick on vocals, Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen on guitar, Spencer Dryden on drums, and Jack Casady on bass.
With an early endorsement by jazz critic Ralph Gleason (of The San Francisco Chronicle), Jefferson Airplane was signed to a record deal with RCA Victor. Slick taking Anderson’s place was clearly the right move as she solidified the group’s iconic place in rock music. But as you know, the band eventually broke into two: Jefferson Starship and Hot Tuna.
“The Warlocks” Was Already Taken
The first iteration of The Grateful Dead was formed in 1965 with the diffusion of the Palo Alto-based band called Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions (points if you’ve heard of them). The newly formed group called themselves The Warlocks at the time.
The original group consisted of guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia, guitarist and vocalist Bob Weir, bassist Phil Lesh (who replaced Dana Morgan Jr.), keyboardist and vocalist Ron “Pigpen” McKerman, and drummer Bill Kreutzmann. For a period of time, The Warlocks performed around the South Bay area, but they were forced to change their name when another band of the same name was signed to a record label.
From Acid Tests to Gold Status
The group then became what we know them as now: The Grateful Dead, which was supposedly pulled out of a folklore dictionary. The newly named group performed their first show in San Jose in December of 1965 during one of Ken Kesey’s notorious “Acid Test” parties.
Within a month, the band was performing at the Fillmore and the psych-rock Trips Festival. By 1967, The Grateful Dead released their first self-titled LP with Warner Brothers and embarked on their first tour. Only when their third album, 1969’s Aoxomoxoa, came out did the groups hit certified gold status.
He Posted a Note on the School’s Bulletin Board
In 1976, a 14-year-old named Larry Mullen Jr., a student at Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin, Ireland, decided to post a note on the school’s bulletin board. He was looking for musicians to form a band. Six people saw the note, responded, and met at Mullen’s house.
With a set up in his family’s kitchen, Mullen was on the drums, Paul Hewson (aka Bono) was on lead vocals, David Evans (aka the Edge) and his older brother Dik Evans were on guitar, Adam Clayton (the brothers’ friend) was on bass guitar. Mullen later recalled that he dubbed it “The Larry Mullen Band” for about ten minutes.
Then Bono Walked In…
Then Bono “walked in and blew any chance I had of being in charge.” Another kid, Peter Martin, had brought his guitar and amplifier to the young group’s first practice, but he couldn’t play and didn’t stay with the group. Similarly, another boy named Ivan McCormick dropped out after a few weeks.
The remaining five members decided on the band name Feedback because it was one of the few technical terms they knew. Almost all their original music consisted of unoriginal material – they did mostly cover songs – which they admitted was not their strength. By 1978, they were known as U2.
“Loud, Rude and Aggressive Guitar Player Available”
Mötley Crüe came to be in early 1981 when bassist Nikki Sixx left his band London and started jamming with drummer Tommy Lee and vocalist/guitarist Greg Leon (who worked in a band called Suite 19). The trio played for a while until Leon decided not to stick around.
Sixx and Lee then searched around for new members and met guitarists Robin Moore (Jeff Gill) and Bob Deal (aka Mick Mars) thanks to an ad placement. Mars had placed an advertisement in The Recycler that read: “Loud, rude and aggressive guitar player available.” That’s basically all he needed to do, because he got the right attention.
Getting Neil on Board Wasn’t Easy
Mars auditioned for Sixx, Moore and Lee during a session that got Mars hired and Moore fired, according to the band’s biography The Dirt. Another vocalist named O’Dean auditioned, too, but Lee had someone else in mind. He already knew Vince Neil from their high school days (at Charter Oak High School in Covina, California), and the two had even performed in the garage band circuit, although in separate bands.
At first Neil refused the offer to become the frontman, but once members of his band Rock Candy became involved in other projects, Neil grew anxious to try something new. Neil finally joined the band on April Fool’s Day in 1981, but the band needed a name.
“A Motley Looking Crew”
Sixx later recalled that he originally wanted to call them “Christmas,” but the others weren’t very receptive to that idea. Then, Mars remembered an incident that happened when he was playing with another band called White Horse. Someone from White Horse referred to their group as “a motley looking crew.”
Mars recalled having written down the phrase as “Mottley Cru.” After they modified the spelling a bit, the band selected “Mötley Crüe” as their name. It was Neil who suggested adding the two sets of metal umlauts (the dots above “o” and “u”), inspired by the German beer Löwenbräu, which the band was drinking at the time.
Two Brothers, the Drums, and a Guitar
The Van Halen brothers, Alex and Eddie, were born in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in the 1950s. Eddie learned classical piano when he was a child but started dabbling with the drums. He and Alex, who played guitar at the time, began playing together in the ‘60s.
Eddie had to deliver newspapers in order to pay off his drum set. Meanwhile, Alex was secretly developing a passion, as well as a proficiency, for the drums. Eventually, out of frustration and perhaps brotherly love, Eddie told his brother, “OK, you play drums and I’ll play your guitar.”
Trojan Rubber Co. to Genesis to Mammoth
The brothers formed their very first band called The Broken Combs in 1964 and gained popularity by playing gigs at backyard parties and local high school events. They changed their name to The Trojan Rubber Co., and then to Genesis in the early ‘70s, but they soon realized that a major British band had already claimed the name.
So, they changed it again to Mammoth. At the time, Eddie was both vocalist and lead guitarist and their friend Mark Stone was on bass. They were renting a sound-system from David Lee Roth for $10 per night.
And Finally, Van Halen
Roth was the son of a local ophthalmologist, who was fronting a band of his own, The Red Ball Jets. In a way to save money, they invited Roth to join the band as their lead vocalist even though Roth’s auditions were less than convincing.
Ultimately, it was because of Roth’s charismatic approach and talent and allowing Eddie to focus on song composition, that he was invited in. In 1974, they replaced Stone, who wasn’t sure if he even wanted a career in music, with Michael Anthony Sobolewski. That year, the group officially became Van Halen, and, according to Roth, it was his brainchild.
When John Met Paul
It all began in 1957 in a fateful meeting between two music-loving teenagers. 16-year-old rhythm-guitarist John Lennon was performing with the skiffle band The Quarrymen. The band was setting up for a church in Woolton, Liverpool, when the bass player introduced Lennon to his classmate, 15-year-old Paul McCartney.
McCartney joined the band for a few songs that night and was soon was offered a permanent spot in the band. McCartney played his first official event with the group that fall, but things didn’t go nearly as planned. “For my first gig, I was given a guitar solo on ‘Guitar Boogie.’ I could play it easily in rehearsal so they elected that I should do it as my solo,” McCartney recalled.
Then George Came In
At first, things were going fine, but then he got “sticky fingers,” as he put it. He thought to himself, “What am I doing here?” It was “too big a moment with everyone looking at the guitar player,” and he just couldn’t do it. “That’s why George was brought in.”
15-year-old George Harrison joined The Quarrymen, and since the rockabilly sound influenced him, his guitar licks helped shape the group’s early sound. Between 1958 and 1959, the Quarrymen played gigs whenever and wherever they could, like at local parties and family events, including Harrison’s brother’s wedding.
Beetles and Beat
They also landed some professional bookings, including venues like the Casbah Coffee Club in Liverpool and the Hippodrome in Manchester. Soon enough, they embarked on their own venture. But during this period, their band name was fluid and constantly changing.
The group was playing under names like Johnny and the Moon Dogs, The Silver Beetles, and The Silver Beats. A friend of Lennon’s named Stuart Sutcliffe was brought in to play bass. Sutcliffe and Lennon are often credited with coining the Beatles’ name, which combined the words “beetles” and “beat.”
A Legendary Partnership
Lennon and McCartney grew to form a friendship that would become the foundation of their singer-songwriter partnership to come. They would often go away together to play acoustic sets in small pubs. “John and I used to hitch-hike places together,” McCartney recalled in Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now by Barry Miles.
“It was something that we did together quite a lot; cementing our friendship, getting to know our feelings, our dreams, our ambitions together. It was a wonderful period. I look back on it with great fondness.” Such humble beginnings led to a level of super stardom that has yet to be beat(led).
From Clover to Huey Lewis and the News
Harmonica player Huey Lewis and keyboardist Sean Hopper were originally part of a Bay Area jazz-funk band called Clover. They were backing musicians for a while in the 1970s. Then, in 1978, Lewis and Hopper joined another local group called Soundhole, which included saxophonist and guitarist Johnny Colla, bassist Mario Cipollina, and drummer Bill Gibson.
Together, they worked on a few singles for a label called Phonogram Records. At first, the band recorded under the name Huey Lewis and the American Express (shortened later to just American Express). But eventually, the band chose a more copyright-friendly name: Huey Lewis and the News, which they used for their first self-titled LP. By 1982, they went gold.
A Guitarist and a Playboy Bunny
Inspired by the growing music scene at the Mercer Arts Center in Manhattan during the mid – ‘70s, guitarist Chris Stein wanted to join a band. He entered The Stilettoes in 1973 as and soon formed a romantic relationship with one of the vocalists, Debbie Harry, who was a former waitress and Playboy Bunny.
In the late ‘60s, Harry was also in a folk-rock band called The Wind in the Willows. By the summer of 1974, Stein and Harry left The Stilettoes and started a new band with ex-Stilettoes drummer Billy O’Connor and bassist Fred Smith. At first, they called themselves Angel and the Snake, but for only two shows that summer.
By the fall, they renamed themselves Blondie. Why Blondie? Apparently, the name was inspired from comments made by truck drivers who whistled at and catcalled “Hey, Blondie” to Harry as they drove past the blonde bombshell. Blondie started performing regularly at the venues Max’s Kansas City and CBGB.
By the summer of 1975, the band’s first recording was a demo produced by Alan Betrock. They signed a record deal and released their debut album, Blondie, but it wasn’t a commercial success. Their first commercial success was in Australia in 1977, when the TV show Countdown mistakenly played their video for In the Flesh, the B-side of their single at the time, X-Offender.
Alternating Current/Direct Current
Brothers Malcolm and Angus Young moved from their home country of Scotland to Australia in the early ‘60s. Malcolm started playing with a band called the Velvet Underground (not the New York-based Velvet Underground). Malcom and Angus then formed AC/DC. Their older brother George had a band of his own and helped them find vocalist Bon Scott.
The idea for the name was inspired by their sister, Margaret Young, who saw the initials “AC/DC” on her sewing machine. The abbreviation represents “alternating current/direct current” electricity. The brothers believed that it truly symbolized their raw energy and power-driven performances.
A Nod to Mookie Blaylock
Pearl Jam fans already know that the rock band name initially went by the name Mookie Blaylock. And NBA fans already know that Mookie Blaylock is the former all-star who spent 13 years in the league. The band members were reportedly fans of the player.
But the truth is that one of them randomly found the player’s card in a pile of NBA fan cards. The name stuck and they started calling their band by the same name. However, they had to change their name due to trademark issues.
Grandma Pearl’s Special Jam
Even after they changed their name to Pearl Jam, they still chose to give a nod to Blaylock by naming their wildly successful album, Ten, after his jersey number. Frontman Eddie Vedder said they chose the name Pearl Jam as a reference to his great grandmother, Pearl.
She was married to a Native American and, as the story goes, the couple had a special recipe for peyote-laced jam. This theory has been dismissed by others who claim that “Jam” came from Neil Young’s lengthy jams during his concerts, when he extended his songs.
Mick and Keith at a Train Station
The Rolling Stones story began in October 1961 when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards officially met at a train station in Dartford, England. It wasn’t, however, the pair’s initial introduction – they both grew up in Dartford and went to grammar school together – but they had lost touch.
At the train station, Jagger was heading to the London School of Economics and Richards to Sidcup Art College, and the old pals got to talking about the blues and R&B records that Jagger was holding under his arm. Both young men had been influenced by the new music they had heard from across the pond.
Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys
By this point, Jagger had already developed a unique singing style, and he was quickly gaining ground with his guitar. The two of them realized they had a mutual friend: guitarist Dick Taylor, who had played with Jagger before in a band and had also jammed between classes with Richards at Sidcup.
It didn’t take long for the trio to get together regularly and listen to records and explore their talents. They then teamed up with two others to form Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys. Once they became the early iteration of the Rolling Stones, they were still without a name…
In the spring of 1962, Jagger and Richards went to the Ealing Club in London to see a set by Alexis Korver’s Blues Incorporated band. The drummer, Charlie Watts, was clearly talented, but the 19-year-old musicians were taken away with the slide guitar work of Brian Jones (who was performing under the name “Elmo Lewis”)
Jagger and Richards joined Blues Incorporated, but Jones was determined to make his way on his own. Taylor then joined the group, and with an ad placed in Jazz News, keyboardist Ian Stewart came along.
Inspired by a Muddy Waters Track
That summer Blues Incorporated was taken out of their regular gig at London’s Marquee Club (thanks to a scheduling conflict), and Jones, Jagger and the rest were suggested as replacements. Their group, which was still without a name, needed one to be put on the lineup.
Jones thought of the Muddy Waters track, Rollin’ Stone, and, well, the rest is history my friends. On July 12, 1962, the Rolling Stones debuted, with Jagger as the lead singer, Richards and Jones on the guitar, Taylor on the bass, Stewart on keyboards, and Mick Avory on the drums.
“Here’s Your Nickel Back”
They’re not as popular as they once were and, for some reason, they are the butt of many jokes, but whether you’re a Nickelback fan or not, the Canadian band has an interesting backstory. The name Nickelback was the idea of bassist Mike Kroeger (the brother of frontman Chad), who was working at Starbucks when they formed the band.
With coffee prices at $2.95 and $3.95, he found himself constantly saying “Here’s your nickel back” to customers. The phrase stuck in his head and he suggested it as a band name to his brother. Chad loved it, and the band was born. Despite what the haters say, Nickelback is one of the most successful rock acts of the 2000s, and one of the most successful Canadian groups ever.
“Kings of the Stone Age” Would Have Been Too Macho
They were originally called Gamma Ray, but the band’s founder Josh Homme had to change the name after a German metal band of the same name threatened to sue them. Homme settled on an unusual name for a band: Queens of the Stone Age. The name came from producer Chris Goss, who described his previous band Kyuss as such a few years earlier.
Homme put it plainly: “Kings would be too macho. The Kings of the Stone Age wear armor and have axes and wrestle. The Queens of the Stone Age hang out with the Kings of the Stone Age’s girlfriends when they wrestle.”
It Didn’t “Go Down Like a Lead Zeppelin”
Led Zeppelin formed in London in 1968 under The New Yardbirds’ name (because of Jimmy Page’s previous band, The Yardbirds). Transforming into Led Zeppelin started with Keith Moon and John Entwistle discussing the idea of starting a super group.
The plan wcas to have them, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck in the group. They stated it would “go down like a lead zeppelin,” – a “lead balloon” is a British phrase for a bad idea, where a “zeppelin” is basically a much bigger balloon and, thus, a worse idea. The band changed “lead” to “led” so that it wouldn’t be pronounced incorrectly.
Steely Dan Was Named After What?
Steely Dan, founded by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, sounds like an inoffensive band name for a popular jazz rock act in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but the story behind the name is naughtier than most people realize.
Becker and Fagen were fans of Beat Generation literature, so they named themselves after “Steely Dan III from Yokohama,” an “adult” toy that William S. Burroughs’s mentioned in his novel Naked Lunch in 1959. Steely Dan sold over 40 million albums. If only people knew the truth.
The Who were originally called The Detours. During the time when they were searching for a new name, people would come up to them and offer their suggestions. There were odd suggestions, leading Roger Daltrey, Pete Townsend and Keith Moon to consistently answer with “the who?”
Townsend and his roommate Richard Barnes actually liked the idea of having joke announcements when they were introduced on stage, like “No One” or “The Group.” Another version of the origin story involves Townsend’s grandmother, who would always refer to bands as “the who?” thanks to her impaired hearing.
It Doesn’t Stand for “Knights in Satan’s Service”
The band from New York has consistently denied the widespread rumors that KISS stands for “Knights in Satan’s Service.” They insist that the members of the band are not in the business of doing the devil’s work – they care more for face painting and rocking out.
Other rumors about what KISS stands for include “Kids in Satan’s Service” or “Kinder SS,” which have also been denied by the band. According to band co-founder Paul Stanley, the true story is that they chose the name KISS when they heard that drummer Peter Criss was previously in a band called Lips. To them, Kiss “sounded dangerous and sexy at the same time.”
The Velvet Underground
The influential group that formed in 1965 in New York has a band name that comes from an S&M book about a secret, sexual underground culture in the early ’60s, which journalist Michael Leigh wrote. The book talks about paraphilia in the U.S.A., which is the sexual arousal to atypical objects, situations and individuals.
After Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison’s friend, filmmaker Tony Conrad, found the book lying in New York street, the band decided to use it as their name. It reminded Morrison of underground cinema, and it just stuck.
Gym Teacher Leonard Skinnerd
Lynyrd Skynyrd formed in 1964 in Jacksonville, Florida, and they first went as My Backyard. They didn’t settle on Lynyrd Skynyrd until 1969. The name Leonard Skinnerd was a mocking tribute to the gym teacher they all had when they were in school together.
Mr. Skinnerd was a teacher they disliked because of his strict enforcement of the school’s policy, particularly against boys with long hair. It even led Gary Rossington to drop out of school. The spelling was then altered to avoid a possible lawsuit. With their success as a band, they later became friendly with Skinnerd and even invited him to introduce them at a show they held in the Jacksonville Memorial Coliseum.
In 1969, during their early days, the band played shows in England. They soon discovered that they were being mistaken for a group by another name – Earth. So, they changed their name to Black Sabbath since a movie theater across the street from their rehearsal room was showing a 1963 horror film by the same name.
As they watched people line up to see the film, Butler said how strange it was that “people spend so much money to see scary movies.” After that comment, Osbourne and Butler wrote the lyrics for the song Black Sabbath.