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.
As for the worst names of the decade? It’s a tie between Vampire Weekend and Hoobastank.
’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?
The answer so far has been through weird capitalization and punctuation use. Case in point, tUnE-yArDs, which actively seeks to inconvenience. All-caps and strange, gratuitous stylings are also popular: HAERTS, CHVRCHES, DIIV, and POP ETC.
Then there’s fun., who managed to simultaneously employ three separate horrible trends: improper case usage, punctuation, and dull, defeated irony.
There’s also an artist called CALLmeKAT.
The awfulness finally became numbing: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., Tiger! Shit! Tiger! Tiger!, Diarrhea Planet, Oneohtrix Point Never. The worst part? Groups like Milk Dick can’t even explain why they chose their names.
In the end, this threatens to ruin music for a generation of fans. While our parents reminisce about Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin, we’re left with tales of acts like Hypocrite in a Hippy Crypt and Vagina Panther. It’s enough to make you start your own band, one not with a nonsense name, but with an entire nonsense language. Oh wait, Sigur Rós did that in the ’90s.