A group of musicians isn’t a proper band until they’ve settled on a name. But in deciding what to dub themselves, ensembles must account for a litany of considerations. The name needs to have a nice ring to it, that’s a given. And of course, similarities to existing bands ought to be avoided – otherwise you’re basically asking for a cease-and-desist letter. It can’t be too predictable either; you want something nuanced and quirky. Ideally, musicians craft a band name that captures the essence of their music. You don’t see Christian Rock bands operating under the moniker Bastards of Lucifer’s Bestial Bloodbath. Sometimes a group hits the jackpot by venturing outside the box to claim a name that enhances its mystique, encapsulates its sound, and looks great on a Hall of Fame induction plaque. So to elucidate some of the more unconventional names out there, we’re asking the same question as Juliet Capulet: “What’s in a name”?
First formed in London in 1962, the formidable years of Jethro Tull were rife with change. Members shuffled between instruments, individual’s names were changed, and founding member Ian Anderson picked up the flute. By 1967, the group had also developed a knack of changing their name to help pick up more regular gigs in the London circuit. Aided by their booking agent’s assistant, who had a love for history, the group happened upon the name of an 18th Century agriculturist named Jethro Tull. It wasn’t that the group was particularly fond of the name. But, after a performance behind the Jethro Tull alias led to a repeat booking, the name just stuck. Unfortunately for the original Tull, the name will forever be more associated with the band that took home the first metal Grammy on the prowess of a flautist. –Derek Staples
Not many bands are named after the subtleties of film subtitles, but dance punks !!! fit that bill. In the 1980 South African film, The Gods Must Be Crazy, the clicking sounds in the language of Botswanan tribesman was represented in the film’s subtitles by exclamation marks. While, technically, each of the three !s in the band’s name could represent any monosyllabic sound or word, the band’s long been tied to a vocalization of chk chk chk. So, if you’re interested in being a nonconformist, go ahead and call them pow pow pow in conversation; you won’t be wrong. –Adam Kivel
Jazzy rock outfit Steely Dan touts two absolutely virtuosic musicians: Donald Fagan and Walter Becker. Strangely, neither is named Dan. After meeting at Bard college’s Red Balloon café, Fagan and Becker began playing together in a series of local groups. First came the ironically titled The Bad Rock Group, and when that fell apart, they tried again as The Leather Canary (featuring none other than comedian Chevy Chase on drums). A relocation to Brooklyn and series of session gigs followed, but Fagan and Becker still couldn’t make ends meet in the Big Apple. Out to seek their fortune, the two musicians migrated westward. Joining up with guitarists Denny Dias, Jeff Baxter, drummer Jim Holder, and singer David Palmer in Los Angeles, the Bard grads signed with ABC records under the name Steely Dan.
Drawing inspiration from William S. Burroughs, Fagan and Becker named their band Steely Dan after “Steely Dan II from Yokohama”, a freaky steam-powered dildo from the Beat writer’s ‘59 book of interconnected vignettes, Naked Lunch. Channeling the band’s puckish blend of quirky lyrics and dense arrangements, Steely Dan provided a perfect namesake for the art school rockers. Aside from a confusing — and hilarious — similarity to English folk-rock ensemble Steeleye Span, the name has served Fagan and Becker quite well over the years: 40 million in album sales, an inexplicable 2001 Grammy for Album of the Year, and a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. –Henry Hauser