It’s one of the most critical decisions a band will face: what to call themselves. And yet, so many get it just so wrong. Lucky for us, for every band that thinks of a horrible name and keeps it, there’s a band that thinks of a horrible name and plays a few shows and then finally comes to its senses. This phenomenon is actually more common than you think.
From Def Leppard to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Black Sabbath, many popular groups started their life cursed with a flat-out bad name. Fortunately, these bands went through some growing pains and landed a name worthy of adorning the t-shirts of millions of devoted fans across the globe. As they say, the name makes the band, so here is our list of bands that almost didn’t get made.
Paul Simon and Arthur Garfunkel were only 15 years old when they started shopping their songs around. However, let’s just say that the duo didn’t have the most marketable names in the world. So Paul became John Landis (taking the last name of his crush, Sue Landis), and Arthur became Tom Graph (because, true story, he loved to graph the progress of his hit songs on graph paper).
Apparently, not fearing a lawsuit from Hanna-Barbera, the duo called themselves Tom and Jerry, and they actually had a minor hit. Hey Schoolgirl had some radio play, and, according to Rolling Stone Magazine, they even played it on American Bandstand. After focusing on college (and failing to produce another hit), they recovered as a folk act and decided to go with their real names.
Before earning a permanent spot as the house band for the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, The Roots were just two guys performing in their school’s talent show, but with, let’s just say a much nerdier name. It all started in Philly back in 1987 when Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter called themselves Radio-Activity, which turned into Back to the Future, before finally settling on the Square Roots.
But as “Hip-hop’s first legitimate band” began to gain traction, they discovered that there was already a Philadelphia folk group with the same name. So they shortened their name to something a bit less mathematical: The Roots.
In October 1990, a new band from Seattle performed their first concert with the name Mookie Blaylock, a New Jersey Nets point guard whose trading card actually wound up in the cassette case of one of the new band’s early demos. Well, the name worked for a while, but as they began to gain national attention and then record their first album, they couldn’t keep using the name of a popular NBA player.
The story of how the band came up with the name Pearl Jam has been mythologized over the years (due to Vedder claiming that it came from his grandmother who made hallucinogenic jam), but the real story is much more mundane. Bassist Jeff Ament randomly came up with Pearl, and the rest came after seeing Neil Young and Crazy Horse play a wild set, where every song was a 20-minute “jam.”
Radiohead first came together when they were high school students at Abingdon School in Oxfordshire, England. They would rehearse every week after school on Friday nights, inspiring them to call themselves On a Friday. The band didn’t play too frequently (probably because they were only practicing once a week), but then, in the early ’90s, they became regulars on the Oxford circuit.
They even made a demo, which featured future Radiohead songs like “Prove Yourself,” “You,” and “Thinking About You.” The demo wasn’t a hit, but it did catch the attention of EMI records, who not only signed the band but suggested they get a better name. All of the group members were huge fans of the Talking Heads, so they named themselves after the band’s obscure 1986 song Radio Head, and the rest is history.
The goths who would become The Cure may not seem like the sort of guys who would name themselves after a large, pointed pillar, but, like any middle school boys in the seventies, that’s exactly what they did. While Robert Smith (pre-raccoon eyes, of course) was more of a background figure in the band, he moved up quickly through the ranks and eventually took charge of the group’s name.
He first changed the name to Malice, but after a few gigs, the group wanted a different name. So they cut up all of their lyrics and put them into a hat. To Smith’s disappointment, Easy Cure was the piece of paper that was chosen. Deeming the name as “a bit hippyish” and “sounding stupid,” Smith officially shortened it to The Cure.
The name Smile simply does not do justice to Brian May and Roger Taylor’s future band’s music. Author Mark Hodkinson wrote in his book Queen: The Early Years, that the band’s original vocalist and bassist, Tim Staffell, “adopted the concept of a group called ‘Smile’ as part of a college project and built a graphics campaign around it.”
But when Staffell left the band, Freddie Mercury joined May and Taylor and gave the group a more fitting name: Queen. “The concept of Queen is to be regal and majestic,” Mercury once told Circus magazine. “Glamour is a part of us, and we want to be dandy. We want to shock and be outrageous.” Well, Queen sure is a suitable name for such a fabulous band.
Atomic Mass is defined not only as an atom’s mass but also as a really horrible idea for a rock band name. In true rock and roll form, the group from Sheffield, England, stuck to their guns and kept their name for some time, even though it never scored them a gig. Eventually, singer Joe Elliott came to and told his bandmates about some fake band posters he painted for an art class project.
The fantasy band was called “Deaf Leopard,” and although the group liked it, they didn’t want to be compared to punk bands. So they played with the spelling and graced us with the most memorable-looking band name since the creation of Led Zeppelin.
The band had to start somewhere, so why not name yourself after a groupie that had a crush on the entire band? Even though Kara’s Flowers sounded a bit like a Lilith Fair girl group, the band released two albums. But the second album, The Fourth World, was a major flop so their record label decided to drop the band.
The group decided to focus on college and then reemerged as Maroon 5 in 2001 after signing with Octone Records. The group released their funky album Songs About Jane in 2002, which went quadruple platinum in 2005. That same year Maroon 5 won a Grammy for Best New Artist, and the rest is history.
When songwriting legend, Brian Wilson, began writing about surfing in 1961, he had barely ever touched a surfboard. In fact, Wilson never went into the ocean because he was deathly afraid of water. So to gain creditability as a band that could hang ten, the group called themselves the Pendletones, a play on the words “Pendleton” (the plaid shirts that surfers wear) and “tone.”
Three months later, Candix Records agreed to release their first single, Surfin’. But the label changed the band’s stuffy-sounding name to something a bit more generic, the Beach Boys, without even telling the group. In the early ‘70s, Wilson suggested that they try to shorten the name to Beach, but the other band members didn’t like his suggestion. He accepted his fate and became a Beach Boy for life.
When punk rockers Green Day took the stage at the House of Blues in Cleveland just a few days before their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, everyone was confused by the name on their drum: Sweet Children. Only the most hardcore, faithful fans knew that this was Green Day’s original name and that the band was paying homage to their earlier days.
Mike Dirnt and Billie Joe Armstrong started out as Sweet Children when they were just 14 years old. After gaining a tiny following in the Bay Area and being signed by Lookout! Records, they decided to change the name to something that sounded more punk and wouldn’t be confused with another Californian punk band, Sweet Baby.
Brothers Rich and Chris Robinson played a sort of ragged mix of alternative country and garage rock for nearly five years with the name Mr. Crowe’s Garden. According to Rolling Stone Magazine, the name was inspired by a 20th-century children’s book, Johnny Crow’s Garden. But the battling brothers decided that they needed a new name, something that was more in sync with their sound.
By the ‘80s, the band had evolved into a more ‘70s-era blues-rock act under their new and improved name, The Black Crowes. Their first studio album, Shake Your Money Maker, sold over 5 million copies, earning them a multi-platinum certification, and their second album, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion reached number one in 1992.
The melody-soaked ‘90s rap act came together when they were in junior high school students in Cleveland, Ohio. The name reportedly started when Anthony “Krayzie Bone” Henderson cashed his moped, and his entire crew came to school with bandages to stand in solidarity with their wounded friend.
But after being introduced to Eazy-E in 1993, Anthony changed their name to the more marketable name, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. That name stuck for more than 25 years, but as of February 2020, the group now goes by, wait for it, Boneless Thugs-N-Harmony. Why you might ask? The name change is part of a marketing campaign for Buffalo Wild Wings. While it may seem like a joke, the group is one hundred percent serious and is even selling merchandise under their new name.
Long before the Bestie Boys were belting out some rhymes about objectifying women (and later apologizing about it), Adam Yauch and Michael Diamond were misappropriating other cultures with their original name, The Young Aborigines. According to Rolling Stone Magazine, original bassist Jeremy Sharon later explained that the name originated from the group’s idea that music should be primitive.
But when Shatan moved away for the summer (and left the band), the group made a quick name change to the Beastie Boys. In true Beastie Boys fashion, Mike D later told reporters that “It was the stupidest name we could come up with.” No offense, but we think their new name is much better than the group’s original moniker.
In the two years before Kiss, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons played in a New York rock band under the ridiculous name Wicked Lester. Not only was the sound generic, it didn’t have enough guitar, according to Simmon’s 2001 memoir.
Craving a more bombastic sound, Stanley and Simmons left the band and turned to the Rolling Stone classified ads for a new drummer, which is how they found Peter Criss. In need of a new name, Criss mentioned that he once played in a band called Lips, which inspired Stanley to come up with the name Kiss. Criss reportedly hated the name, but, as he would later learn, things didn’t go his way. So Criss learned to live with the name and even grew to like it.
The phrase “screaming abdabs” is an old school British slang for giving someone the heebie-jeebies or extreme anxiety. It is also the goofy-sounding name of Pink Floyd’s early lineup. An example of the term in a sentence is: “The thought of playing with Pink Floyd for one more second often gave Roger Waters a case of the screaming abdabs.”
The band was founded by London architect students Roger Waters, Richard Wright, and Nick Mason, who actually originally called themselves Sigma 6 before changing their moniker, as well as their line up, several times. But Screaming Abdabs wasn’t even the worst name choice. The band also played under the name Meggadeaths, Leonard’s Lodgers, and the Tea Set, before settling on Pink Floyd.
I don’t know if I personally would have gone with Blue Öyster Cult as a band name, but hey, it’s still a step up from the band’s original name, Soft White Underbelly. But after Les Braunstein, the original lead singer left, and the band received a particularly bad review of their 1969 performance at the Fillmore East in New York, the band’s manager decided that Soft White Underbelly needed a rebrand.
The band went through a few temporary names, including Oaxaca and the Santos Sisters, before finally deciding on the name Blue Öyster Cult in 1971. With a new name, the band was able to get another audition with Columbia Records, and Clive Davis signed them on the spot.
Maurice White was a session jazz drummer during the ‘60s and played for everyone from Etta James to Betty Everett and the Ramsey Lewis Trio. Realizing he had enough talent to form his own group, White formed The Salty Peppers in 1969. But, after moving to Los Angeles and several band members later, White turned to astrology for a better name.
As a Sagittarius, his primary element is fire, while his seasonal elements are air and earth, thus forming his band’s new name: Earth, Wind & Fire. The band released their self-titled debut album in 1971, which reached number 24 on Billboard’s Top Soul Albums list. While rock writers didn’t exactly know how to categorize their sound, they all knew that EWF was well on their way to becoming “one of the greatest bands ever.”
Drummer John Hartman and guitarist Tom Johnston were actually introduced to each other by psych-rock legend Skip Spence of Moby Grape. The two went on to form the base of what would later become the Doobie Brothers. But back then, they were known as Pud.
After slowly picking up two more band members, the group changed their name from a childish “limp” reference to a somewhat less childish marijuana reference. The name actually came from their friend and fellow musician Keith “Dyno” Rosen, who suggested that they call themselves the Doobie Brothers because they were always smoking. Singer Patrick Simmons later said that they had initially intended to use the moniker as a placeholder, but they never came up with a better name.
When asked why the heavy metal band Lamb of God changed their name in 1999, lead singer Randy Blythe said, “You’re automatically stamped with ‘Evil’ on your forehead with a name like Burn the Priest.” While the band played under the name Burn the Priest for five years (and even released a self-titled album), the over-the-top name began to get in the way, especially since audiences expected to hear satanic black metal.
But when the group changed their lineup in 1999, it gave them the perfect excuse to rebrand themselves under a different moniker. The band has since become one of the best bands in the genre, although, somewhat ironically, they’ve been banned from performing at several venues because of their new name. I guess you can’t please everyone!
Long before their 2003 hit track, One Thing, the members of Finger Eleven were high school students hailing from Burlington, Ontario. But back then, the group was known by their wildly colorful name, Rainbow Butt Monkeys. Using money they won from a radio rock band search contest, the group even released their first album, Letters from Chutney, under their original name.
But after Coalition Entertainment signed the group in 1996, the band changed their name to Finger Eleven the following year. Their cryptic new name came with a moodier, post-grunge sound, which earned them exposure on popular TV shows such as Smallville and Scrubs. Amy Lee of the band Evanescence also recorded a duet version of their 2003 hit.
The SoCal rock band, Sugar Ray, originally played under the name Shrinky Dinks after the kid’s arts and crafts kits that you bake in the oven. According to Rolling Stone Magazine, the band chose this name because it was the most useless toy they could think of. But after the band landed a deal with Atlantic Records in 1994, their name irked Milton Bradley, who threatened to sue over the name.
So the group renamed themselves after the late boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. Even with a new name, the group struggled to produce a hit track. It wasn’t until their 1997 summer hit Fly that the band could finally be heard on the airwaves.
“That’s was how we wanted to play, majestic and chaotic,” explained frontman Anthony Kiedis. But like many bands, the group realized they would have to change their name to something a bit more marketable. “There was Louis Armstrong with his Hot Five, and also other bands that had ‘Red Hot’ this or ‘Chili’ that.”
“But no one had ever been the Red Hot Chili Peppers,” Kiedis wrote in his 2004 autobiography, Scar Tissue. “If you think of Red Hot Chili Peppers in terms of a feeling, a sensation, or energy, it makes perfect sense for our band.” With more than 80 million records sold, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are one of the most successful bands in alternative rock history.
Black Sabbath is hands-down the best name for the first heavy metal band in history, but the name didn’t come easy. When Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler, Bill Ward, and Tony Iommi first joined forces in 1968, they were performing blues rock under the name Polka Tulk Blues Band. However, the band members grew to dislike the name, with Iommi even declaring that “It’s crap.”
So he came up with the grand idea to call the band Earth before discovering that it wasn’t the only band from England with that name. Butler came to the rescue when he saw a large line of people waiting to see the Boris Karloff film Black Sabbath. He liked the name and convinced his bandmates to try it out.
Thankfully, these bands came to and changed their names, before going on to record some of the most iconic albums in history. But what’s the story behind these albums and their covers? Let’s check it out!