By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
It's widely known that band names, which once tended to give you a sense of what the artist's music sounded like, have devolved into an apocalypse of in-jokes, cleverness, punctuation, and strange capitalization. It's almost impossible these days not to look at a festival lineup without feeling dumber for the experience.
But how did the exercise of musical moniker application devolve into a no-man's land of pretentious cacophony? How did we get from the Byrds to 3OH!3? From the Rolling Stones to Fartbarf? Below, we trace the descent decade by decade.
Sixties and Seventies: Nouns
The 1960s and '70s were a time when it was OK for music groups to have names that made sense. For every confusing handle (Buffalo Springfield, Thee Midniters) there were many that were simple: The Kinks, the Doors, the Who, Genesis, and the Runaways.
You had fauna-themed monikers (with and without altered spellings) like the Byrds, the Beatles, the Animals, the Monkees, and the Eagles. Groups used their members' own names (Fleetwood Mac; Crosby, Stills and Nash), and even when they got crazy (Velvet Underground, Grateful Dead, Electric Light Orchestra), you could still wrap your head around them.
There were acts named for places (Boston, Chicago, Asia) and even acts that threw an adjective in there (Black Sabbath, the Pretty Things, the Small Faces). It was a sweet, almost naïve era in band names.
Eighties: Golden Era
The '80s produced, without a doubt, the best band names in music history. My four favorites might be R.E.M., the Replacements, the Stone Roses, and the Misfits — does it get any better? Then there were Jane's Addiction, Public Enemy, the Stray Cats, Beastie Boys, My Bloody Valentine, N.W.A., the Go-Go's, Culture Club, Bananarama, U2, and the Smiths.
Some bands with great names came to life in the '70s — the Cure, Los Lobos, Talking Heads, Dire Straits, Black Flag, the Police — and prospered in the '80s. That decade also gave birth to killer metal monikers: Slayer, Metallica, Anthrax, and Megadeth, whose names you don't read and wonder what they sound like. Ditto punk bands like Minor Threat, Bad Religion, Dead Kennedys, and Bad Brains, the latter two of whom are best known for their '80s work. Even the much-derided hair metal acts knew how to name themselves: Poison, Cinderella, Skid Row, Quiet Riot, Vixen, Warrant, and, of course, Guns n' Roses. All hail.
Nineties: Gateway to Shittiness
Somewhere around the time that George H.W. Bush's no new taxes turned into Bill Clinton's saxophone solos, band name trends began to change. No longer were they trying to sound cool. Now they were trying to sound clever. Or ironic.
For every Outkast or Nirvana there were whole heaping stink-piles of monikers trying too hard. They used three words, or related to food somehow: Bowling for Soup, Archers of Loaf, Neutral Milk Hotel, Stone Temple Pilots, Blind Melon, My Morning Jacket. Pearl Jam sprang up.
Even the names that didn't totally stink, like Smashing Pumpkins, Built to Spill, Radiohead, Soundgarden, Dinosaur Jr., and Modest Mouse, still have something about them that stick in your craw. Limp Bizkit, Boyz II Men, Death Cab for Cutie, *NSYNC, Korn, Linkin Park, Jimmy Eat World, and Color Me Badd, meanwhile, are all beyond terrible. The Backstreet Boys might not be so bad if it weren't such a misnomer.
Still, for as lame as these names were, they weren't actively trying to offend you. That came later.
In the '00s, bands actively sought to repel people with tweeness. The most obvious offenders: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, !!!, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Saturday Looks Good to Me, Portugal. The Man, The Dear Hunter, We Were Promised Jetpacks, and Of Montreal (who are from Georgia). Some bands in this category started in the '90s, but it wasn't until the Bush II years that they came of age.
Bands used the F-word in their names a lot in the '00s — Holy Fuck!, Fuck Buttons — or confusingly spotlighted their race or sex (The Whitest Boy Alive, Black Kids, Girls). Ironies doubled in on themselves until all that remained were giant, clever turds.
A new wave of emo and emo-like bands included Panic! at the Disco, I Set My Friends On Fire, Taking Back Sunday, and Boys Like Girls. Oh, and of course, Cute Is What We Aim For, which sort of sums up the whole ethos of the era.
Like the '60s, there were lots of animal names, but now they were animals with stupid characteristics or modifiers: Wolf Parade, White Antelope, Frightened Rabbit, Crystal Antlers, Deer Tick, Bear in Heaven, New Young Pony Club, Animal Collective, Tiger Bear Wolf.
'10s: Somehow Even Worse
Bad band names have now become a cottage industry. For many years now the A.V. Club has chronicled them in great detail.
The decade so far, however, has presented challenges for bands wishing to name themselves in a way that will disgust potential fans: With so many horrendous names and concepts already snagged, with so many layers of irony exhausted, how does one up the ante?
no Cherry Poppin' Daddies? Either they assumed they would never get played on the radio and didn't care how icky it sounded, or they hoped they'd get played on the radio and didn't care how many DJs would really not want to say it. either way, ick.
Death Cab For Cutie is name after the song performed by the BONZO DOG DOODAH BAND (now there's a name) in Magical Mystery Tour
Singing lead is Neil Innes, AKA the guy responsible for the music of The Rutles
Death Cab For Cutie is named after the song the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band (now THERE'S a band name) performed in the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour
That's Neil Innes singing lead, AKA the guy responsible for The Rutles
Is the village voice just written by cranky old people now? This article sounds like the music writers equivalent of yelling "Get off my Lawn!"
The reason you know (and accept) the 60s and 70s band names is because they're bands that you grew up hearing and everyone has lauded. You forget the Peanut Butter Conspiracy and 1910 Fruitgum Company, two names that sound like they could be playing any college bar on a Wednesday night with Dale Earnhart Jr Jr. Lots of stupid names are forgotten about because the bands didn't go anywhere - not because the name sucked, but because they weren't as good as Led Zeppelin. In 30 years, no one will remember CHVRCHES or the Fuck Buttons, just like you aren't remembering 60s bands that don't fit your theory.
One point and one question:
- The Misfits should considered a "70's" band.
- Would you @nal consider C*nt to be a "bad" name, or a "good" name?
Some good points and a solid idea for an article, but this could have been compiled and written much, much better. Best and worst names per decade for example. What is more interesting than the perceived lack of imagination is the (de)evolution of language over time due to the internet, texting, Lol has cheeseburger, etc. Speaking of (de)evolution, no mention of Devo? or Blondie?
How about writers with fancy hyphenated last names? That's not going to make you a British aristo ripe for Downton Abbey, you know. It's just pretentious.
Ah, but those bands with "awful" names have succeeded in one thing... They're being talked about. And for MANY of these bands, only the "Indie" or "niche" programmers/DJs will even consider them for inclusion. So they HAVE to stand out! It doesn't always work, and probably backfires more than they figured. But it beats a blank.
As a DJ who does an indie rock show on a community radio station, I am, actually, interested in this topic. I know a band's success these days is not so dependent on radio airplay, but I'm so annoyed when band names include words the FCC won't let me say on the radio, or strange, unpronounceable symbols, like "!!!" (Yes, I know it's supposed to be "chk, chk, chk", but I had to look that up, and it was more trouble than the band's music was worth). I tend to pass over such bands when I'm preparing a show. Given the fact that band publicists call our music director to find out if their music has gotten airplay, I guess they care. But not enough to put more thought into the name?
Animal names are becoming a problem, because too many are too similar. I love Deerhunter, but there's not even enough space here to list all the bands with "Deer" in their names. It's hard to keep them straight, so they may get shortchanged on airplay, too.
Lastly, it's really helpful when a band name gives you an accurate image of a bands music. Recently discovered a Detroit band called The Headstones. Were they, as I surmised, garage-punk? Yes they were. And great, too. Only there's so much profanity in their lyrics that I can only play about two songs on the air without having to do a radio edit. But that's another topic entirely.
This Bike is a Pipebomb
Made out of Babies
1000 Homo Djs
...and You will Know us By the Trail of Dead
architecture in helsinki
Black Moth Super Rainbow
The list could go on forever.
I want to read an article about the decline of thought provoking writing and see this as one of the case studies. You have Portugal. The Man as the article photo. First of all, awesome band name and even cooler band. Second, you reference Sigur Ros as made up words? It's Icelandic! Are there lame band names today? Yes. Have there been lame band names in the past? Yes. Will there be lame band names in the future? Yes. Will there be lame articles written in the future? If this is a template, then yes.
Instead of struggling to write an article, go out and live a real life and write something interesting. .
Some people are born with hyphenated names, and some create them. But it's not pretentious in the least.
Do you also think that people with Spanish names are also pretentious? Many add their mother's maiden names to the fathers, so you get a name like "Juan Pablo Fernández de Calderón García-Iglesias".
There are customs that people have in some countries that you may not agree with, but to call them pretentious, is, well...pretentious.
@Ellycakes Amen! I like everything I've heard from them! But I STILL haven't gotten a clear answer at to why the "dot" in their name. It's not like it's "Portugal.com"!
@ianmwalter I enjoyed this article. Get off your high horse.
Sigur Ros are Icelandic, but sing some of their songs in "Hopelandic"- a made up language which they invented.
There is an in review John Gourley did where he talks about how they came up with the name. He also mentions when they saw the period in print they knew they'd made a mistake. But at least people are talking about them (even if it is an article about terrible band names).