ONE OF THE sublime pleasures in starting a band is the hallowed ritual of conceiving its name. Hell, it’s half the fun of learning an instrument, and truth be told, many musicians would grudgingly admit to having spent more time imagining the perfect band name than mastering their instrument. They will then head back to the kitchen to check on your jalapeno poppers.
Beyond funny ideas hatched over bong hits, the name of a band carries massive long-term implications for its musicians, dictating everything from potential radio exposure to logo design to what type of fans will respond. Some bands care while others don’t. Ultimately, a great band name provokes some sort of reaction that causes people to remember it, but at the same time, that leads people into the band’s music; because a band should exist for the music, not out of a warped sense of obligation to a clever name, and the only thing less cliched than a list of great band names is an attention-grabbing name with nothing behind it.
For your pleasure and derision, we have scoured our iPods, vinyl crates and unpacked boxes of cassettes (that we’ve dragged around from house to house for the last seven moves), to come up with the fifty best band names in history. Please note that this is not a list of the best bands, simply the best band names. Because some of these artists…well, you’ll see.
Here, in no particular order (despite the numbering), are the 50 Greatest Band Names of All Time:
50. The Flaming Lips—this brightly-spangled, Grammy-winning outfit enjoy massive worldwide popularity due to some extent to their catchy name. Most music fans have heard of The Flaming Lips, yet markedly fewer are those who can name a Flaming Lips song.
49. Godspeed You! Black Emperor—these Canadian post-rockers took their name from a Japanese movie about a biker gang named the Black Emperors, and if you have ever heard their music or seen them live, you will understand how this name—which has nothing to do with anything—makes perfect sense.
48. Impotent Sea Snakes—when the Editorial Board at The Weeklings asked me to contribute a column about the 50 Best Band Names to go along with their “50 Best” series, this was the first band that came to mind. ISS are my favorite underground band, with a gloriously provocative name that falls neatly in line with their sexually-obscene lyrics and a stage show that treats the First Amendment like a marathoner treats a pair of running shoes.
47. Lynyrd Skynyrd—named after their high school gym teacher, Leonard Skinner, this seminal Southern Rock collective managed to sell millions of albums with a name so phonically baffling that they named their debut album Lynyrd Skynyrd (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-’nérd ‘Skin-’nérd), just to face the confusion head-on.
46. The Dancing French Liberals of ‘48—this old school punk outfit eschewed angry, confrontational punk naming conventions in favor of gleeful historical footnote. Nicely done, lads.
45. The Sex Pistols—simple, offensive and to the point. Which also sums up the musicians and their songs. The name represented an enormously ballsy gesture on the part of manager Malcolm McLaren; with such an explicit alias, radio support was anything but certain. Thankfully, he and the boys came up with a few ideas to let the world know about them.
44. Machine Gun Fellatio—weapons and a sex act. Says nothing about the music but it arouses enough curiosity to inspire further investigation, rewarding listeners with some of the most fun and danceable music of the past twenty years.
43. Blue Öyster Cult—with the umlaut and the ominous implications of the word “Cult,” BOC galvanized stoner rockers across the globe and in doing so, carved out a much-needed new direction from their original name—Soft White Underbelly.
42. Spooky Tooth—you’ve got to love a band that really goes for it, and nothing says “We’re going for it!” like calling your band “Spooky Tooth.” And being serious about it.
41. Alien Sex Fiend—three shades of scary here; you’ve got a fiend, but not just any fiend—a sex fiend. Just for good measure, cast this sex fiend as an extraterrestrial, and you’ve got one of the most adventurous band names ever.
40. Cattle Decapitation—San Diego’s beloved troop of pet-friendly deathgrinders chose this name for its shock value as a protest against the abuse and consumption of animals. Their lyrics and album art often feature humans enduring the systemic horrors regularly inflicted on farm animals. Also, the music is heavier than a black hole.
39. Happy Mondays—these groovalicious, pill-popping club faves conceived this paradox of a moniker to dovetail into their ecstasy-friendly strain of Britpop. Massive in Europe, US audiences missed the point, and the boat.
38. The Gaza Strippers—puerile, irreverent and five flavors of awesome.
37. Queens of the Stone Age—deceptively epic name for a gaggle of tatted-up dudes slinging sleazy jams about sex, drugs, and more sex and drugs.
36. INXS—sublime in its simplicity, hard to forget, and looks great on a t-shirt.
35. The Jesus and Mary Chain—this clumsy and awkward label, fraught with thorny religious implications, sent this band and their infectiously bleak music straight into the tiny black hearts of 80s goth kids everywhere.
34. KISS—one sentence, all caps, with a cool-ass font designed by guitarist Ace Frehley himself. In the 70s, idle-handed puritans alleged Satanic overtones, falsely claiming that the name stood for “Kids In Satan’s Service,” “Knights in Satan’s Service,” or “Kinder SS.” KISS can probably thank them for another couple millions of albums sold.
33. Led Zeppelin—when word spread spread that two London studio legends (Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones) were forming a new band with two chest-beaters from the Midlands (Robert Plant and John Bonham), The Who’s Keith Moon derisively predicted that the project would go down “like a lead balloon.” Who bassist John Entwistle took it one step further, calling it a “lead zeppelin.” When those remarks reached Jimmy Page and quick-fisted manager Peter Grant, they adopted the name “Led Zeppelin,” with the wacky spelling to promote correct pronunciation. Looks great inside the cover of a chemistry book.
32. Massive Attack—not just any attack; a massive attack. Extra points for choosing a name diametrically opposed to their music, which is softer than the California judicial system’s treatment of Lindsay Lohan.
31. The Smiths—unforgettably mopey, just like their music.
30. Cindy Brady’s Lisp—a smirk-inducing reference to the youngest member of the Brady Bunch, whose speech impediment attracted callow taunting from the ill-fated Buddy Hinton. Still waiting for the Lifetime Network to turn this episode into a cautionary after-school special about the evils of bullying, starring Abigail Breslin.
29. Motörhead—a not-so-thinly-veiled reference to the band’s abiding enthusiasm for speed. The original masters of the umlaut, Motörhead wisely augmented the name with a bellicose logo and a catalog of songs that remind the entire known Universe and all lands beyond that they don’t give a flying fuck about anything.
28. Joy Division—these moody teens doubled down on the grim irony by lifting their name from the term assigned to a group of prostitutes in a Nazi concentration camp. Bleak name, bleak music and bleak ending to the band, which fizzled two years after taking the name, when lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide. The surviving members went on to form the more radio-friendly New Order.
27. Pink Floyd—even the most rough-and-tumble among classic rock vets draw blanks when asked to explain the name behind the fathers of psychedelic rock. Granted, it sounds ace, but what does it mean? Is it a drug reference? A crass euphemism for a part of the female anatomy? Hardly. The band cobbled their name from two Georgia bluesmen named Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.
26. The Who—after alternating runs as the Detours and the High Numbers, these proponents of Mod culture opted for a name that was both memorable and certain to confound DJs, promoters and parents. The clip of Tommy Smothers asking the band about their name on the Smothers Brothers show was funny enough to earn its inclusion on the band’s glorious double album, The Kids Are Alright.
25. L7—with their two character label, these hard-rocking Seattle grunge gals resurrected an aged reference for the uncool. Make an “L” with the thumb and forefinger of your left hand and hold it at 90 degrees, then make a “7” with the thumb and forefinger of the right. Now put them together. Got it? L7′s “Shove” is one of the greatest songs to ever issue from the grunge movement.
24. Spinal Tap—nothing fictitious about this band, consisting of the dim-witted, hard-rocking English alter-egos of Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer. For their celebrated mockumentary about a struggling British heavy metal band, they needed a band name that was both bloated and believable, and with Spinal Tap, they scored a direct hit.
23. Ugly Kid Joe—a brilliant case of one band extending a middle finger towards another. Named as a send-up of L.A. pouf-rockers Pretty Boy Floyd, UKJ are perhaps the best example on the list of a band whose name implies everything you need to know about the music.
22. Bathtub Shitter—this Japanese outfit picked their title first, then filled in the band around it. If the name doesn’t induce even a teensy grin, you take life too seriously.
21. Gren—In the early-90s, L.A. rocker Brett White placed a classified ad in search of bandmates, signing the ad “Gren” instead of using his real name. He decided to use it as the new band’s name. An album was soon recorded and a top 40 single scored (“She Shines”). In a turn that would make Greg Khin proud, they named their debut Camp Grenada and sold t-shirts that asked, “What’s that stuff you said I’m on again?”
20. Dropkick Murphys—named after an old timey Boston rehab run by football player-turned-wrestler John “Dropkick” Murphy. Although the swaggering Celtic punks have been around for over two decades, many fans still insist on adding “The” to the beginning of the name. Stop it.
19. Niggaz Wit Attitudes—boasting arguably the greatest hip hop lineup of all time (including Eazy-E, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube), N.W.A. chose a name that told you exactly who they were and then dared you to have a problem with it.
18. Echo & The Bunnymen—a nonsensical name chosen for no other reason than its lack of meaning, and yet thirty-five years later, Echo & The Bunnymen stand as one of the most memorable players in the 80s post-punk movement.
17. Rage Against the Machine—it’s a credo, a command and a powder keg of a name, without a speck of irony. Great for those morning commutes when you can already feel The Man’s foot on your neck.
16. Alabama Thunderpussy—res ipsa loquitur.
15. The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy—a sly play on old socialist literature that condemned “the disposable heroes of hypocrisy;” except those old school socialists didn’t lay down thick, juicy hip hop beats like these guys, who released the greatest all-time cover of the Dead Kennedys with their version of “California Über Alles.”
14. Cherry Poppin’ Daddies—the swing music revivalists have suggested that their name originated from an old R&B album and that they used it because it sounded sexy. You’d have to find an awfully deep cave in the middle of an awfully remote planet to find a right-thinking person who might possibly buy that laughable excuse for an explanation.
13. Peaches and Herb—people who assumed the name to be a reference to sex and weed were time zones away from the truth; it referred to the singers—Francine “Peaches” Barker and Herbert “Herb” Feemster.” Edges out Echo & the Bunnymen for “Least Threatening Band Name In History.”
12. W.A.S.P.—one of Tipper Gore’s favorite pincushions, this L.A. metal outfit inspired robust debate as to the meaning of the acronym. Convoluted theories abounded, including “We Are Sexual Perverts,” “We Are Satan’s Preachers” and “We All Smoke Pot.” In fact, one of the band members saw a wasp one evening and opined that “Wasp” would be a cool name for the group. Singer/guitarist Blackie Lawless later said that they added the periods between the letters, simply because nobody else was doing it and it might incite curious debate. Mission accomplished.
11. Weezer—one word, two syllables and as shy and awkward as the creative force behind it. Singer Rivers Cuomo quickly hatched the name after scoring a last minute gig opening for Keanu Reeves’ band in Hollywood. His occasional asthmatic fits had earned him a fair dose of teasing from other children growing up, many of whom called him “Wheezer.” Millions of records later, who’s laughing now? (see supra, Cindy Brady’s Lisp).
10. 10,000 Maniacs—so fluffy is the sound of this Natalie Merchant-fronted 90s outfit that it’s easy to lose sight of the group’s hilariously over-the-top calling card.
9. The Brian Jonestown Massacre—the greatest 60s music revivalists of all time, the BJM summoned the game show Wheel of Fortune’s “Before and After” trick to concatenate the name of the former Rolling Stone, Brian Jones, with the notorious Jonestown Massacre. Others bands have followed the blueprint (Kathleen Turner Overdrive, Willie Nelson Mandela), but as the saying goes, “ain’t nothin’ like the real thing.”
8. Einstürzende Neubauten—would that we had a four minute clip of radio DJs around the world trying to pronounce this German industrial act’s name, which means “Collapsing New Buildings.” Anyone?
7. Scoring Dope for the Ultimate Woman—while it sounds like it belongs on one of those Internet lists of great unused band names, these guys actually put out a respectable album in the late-90s before fading away.
6. Mott the Hoople—best band name story on the list. Islands record exec Guy Stevens, while in prison, found the William Manus novel, Mott the Hoople, and vowed to find a suitable band to take the name. Enter the UK’s Silence, who were desperate enough for a deal that they changed their name (and singer) for a shot at the big time. The 2011 documentary, The Ballad of Mott the Hoople, is one of the better rock docs in the past decade, shedding bright light and meaty insight on one of music’s most underrated influences.
5. Foxy Shazam—with a name that conjures a 70s porn queen, and the sound of a Freddie Mercury-fronted Led Zeppelin, these guys are the only act on the planet who can get away with the lyric, “That’s the biggest black ass I’ve ever seen, and I like it!”
4. Dethklok—in the same vein of Spinal Tap, Brendon Small needed a name for the cartoon death metal band that served as the centerpiece of a decidedly mature, late night show on the Cartoon Network. Consequently, he found something aching with doom and despair (“a Death Clock”), and applied heavy metal spelling conventions. That show—Metalocalypse—is one of the network’s biggest hits and Dethklok is now a working band, whose 2012 summer tour with Machine Head was one of the hottest tickets of the year.
3. Dead Kennedys—wantonly offensive and entirely unforgettable, when this punk act first came out, this was the shirt you wore around the house when you wanted to let your parents know that you hated them.
2. Congratulations on Your Decision to Become a Pilot—another name that sounds so ridiculous that the first reaction is, “There’s no way this band really exists.” Well, they do. Or at least they did. Admittedly, the name is far superior to the music, yet big points for trying.
1. KMFDM—while the popular assumption behind this name is that it stands for “Kill Mother Fucking Depeche Mode,” this is unfortunately not the case; it stands for KEIN MEHRHEIT FÜR DIE MITLEID (German for “No Pity for the Masses”), although fans and critics alike simply use the initials.
Curious how some of these bands sound? We’ve put together this zesty little playlist with most of the bands above.