Great musicians would make great music no matter what they called themselves, or named their groups.
But one of the fun things about rock music is the names that bands have given themselves, or been given by others. As Nationally-Syndicated Columnist Dave Barry — it seems like that was his full, legal name — said enough times to make a career of it, “Which would be a really great name for a rock band.” Or something like that.
Not that there wasn’t word play in the naming of music ensembles before the mid-1950s, but it was usually some play on a musical term. Even in the early years of rock, the band names weren’t very distinctive — the Four Lads, the Teenagers, the Platters, and so on. And a lot of the artists were solo acts and just went by their name, stage or otherwise. (Although some of those were interestingly changed, a topic for another day.)
Things started getting crazy in the early 1960s. American Bandstand’s Dick Clark changed Ernest Evans’ name to Chubby Checker, seeing in him a younger Fats Domino. Gary Bonds was a reliable investment for Legrand Records, as U.S. Bonds.
The Beatles were one of the first groups to put extra meaning in the band’s name, what had been the Quarrymen paying homage to Buddy Holly’s Crickets, changing the spelling of an insect to emphasize the beat. One of the British Invasion bands that followed them, the Hollies, also tipped their hats to Buddy.
The Byrds got their naming inspiration in part from the Beatles’ deliberate misspelling, and partly from founding member Jim McGuinn’s interest in flight. The Beatles busted out in 1964, and Graham Nash et al and the Byrds the following year. Nineteen sixty-five also brought us Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs — besides having an off-the-wall name, interestingly a proto-Tex-Mex band doing an Egyptian-themed stage schtick.
Also making it big in ’65 was a band named after the living dead — something you wouldn't have seen a few years earlier — the Zombies. Another group breaking into the Top 40 years was a band named after a critter not associated with music, the Turtles.
Likewise surfacing that year were a couple acts using a standard band-naming formula, leader’s name plus members, but with a bit of a twist: Freddie and the Dreamers, and Herman’s Hermits. Ditto for Paul Revere and the Raiders, who — along with Domingo “Sam the Sham” Samudio — perhaps started a trend of historical references in band names.
Some of those historical references were to cultural phenomena. The Amboy Dukes, who gave us Ted Nugent, were named after a World War II-era teen gang in the Irving Shulman novel of the same name. (There was also an English ska band named after the gang, and I knew their sax player — another topic for another day.)
The Young Rascals (who later dropped the first part of their name), got their monicker in part, and their early stage schtick, from a series of movie shorts that also ran on TV. Spanky and Our Gang got their name from the same source.
The Beau Brummels (another 1965 upstart) were named after an 18th Century English dandy and fashion trendsetter, because that San Francisco band liked the British sound of it. They copped their style in clothes from the British Invasion, too.
The Grateful Dead got their name also by reaching back into history, for a religious term — or randomly picked words out of dictionary, depending on which story you believe. (They had been going by the name the Warlocks, but there was an East Coast band by that name, so they switched — after the Velvet Underground stopped using that name.)
But about the time the West Coast Warlocks became the Dead, the name game was getting weirder. Bands were naming themselves after inanimate objects, like the Boxtops, Buffalo Springfield (with a hyphen, a steamroller) and Sopwith Camel (a World War I fighter plane).
Some groups combined names of unrelated inanimate objects, or juxtaposed incompatible adjectives with nouns: Electric Prunes, Iron Butterfly, Lemon Pipers, Wishbone Ash, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Ultimate Spinach, Vanilla Fudge, Velvet Underground, etc.
Jefferson Airplane could fall into that category, except they may have gotten their name from an item of drug paraphernalia.
Moby Grape might be another example — but I could swear there was joke going around back at that time, “What’s purple and lies on the bottom of the ocean,” or something like that.
Pink Floyd sounds like that sort of thing, too, and an appropriate monicker for a psychedelic band, except that it was actually named after two old blues musicians.
Even in that phase of the name game, there was still some word play going on. Canned Heat was an inanimate object, but also referred to the band’s energy; Harper’s Bizarre riffed on the name of a magazine. Tonto’s Expanding Head Band was another example, as was the Peanut Butter Conspiracy — although they never seemed to follow up on their “Is Spreading” album title pun.
In the midst of this explosion of strange names for rock bands, in 1968, along came the weirdest of them all. The group that had backed rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, and continued to use the name the Hawks after parting company with him, then toured with Bob Dylan, decided to call themselves the Band.
Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson et al helped revolutionize American rock, and made a lot of really great music. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but the name game never seemed the same after them.
There were still some interesting handles attached to rock bands, but the New Wave, punk and retro groups that took over The Music in the later ’70s seemed to revert to the old naming techniques: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and so on.
It was fun while it lasted, though.