I put together this highly subjective list for an episode of my weekly radio show, The Secret History of Rock. I’ve since had requests to publish it here.
Like I’ve said many times, one of the most difficult things anyone in a band will ever have to do is come up with a name for your group. The name has to sound cool. It has accurately portray an image. It has to somehow represent your sound. It has to lend itself to good graphic design—logos, t-shirts and the like. And it can’t be already be taken by someone else.
Make the wrong choice in a name and you can seriously hamper your chances of success. With that in mind, I would like to run down my picks for the worst band names of all time.
But before we begin, I’d like to lay out some criteria.
First, we’re only going to speak of rock bands. Second, the bands in question have had to at least make an effort to have some kind of commercial success. You have to be serious. If you’re going to call yourself “Cap’n Crunch and the Cereal Killers”—a real band, by the way—you’re not going to go far. Same thing with “Jabbering Trout”—another real band—and “The Sodom and Gomorrah Liberation Front.” This pretty much excludes anything remotely smelling like a novelty act, too.
Third, we’re going to ignore truly classic dumb names like “Led Zeppelin” (a play on “lead balloon”), “Pink Floyd” (a hippy name if there ever was one) and “The Beatles” (which was John Lennon’s punny tribute to Buddy Holly and the Crickets—geddit?)
And fifth, I won’t include any of my personal Hall of Fame Bad Names. That includes Butthole Surfers and Dayglo Abortions. Why? Because those names are in a class of their own.. Like I said, this is my list.
10. Rainbow Butt Monkeys
When a bunch of guys in Burlington, Ontario, formed a band, they needed a name. One suggestion was “The Magic Johnson Experience.” “Stone Soul Picnic” was another. Then a friend outside the band was fascinated by this picture of a mandril ape, animals which have a bottom was of many colours. “What are those ‘rainbow butt monkeys?’” he asked. “That’s it!” everyone cried. And so it came to be that the band became known as the Rainbow Butt Monkeys. They played a lot of gigs, did some demos, won some competitions and actually got signed to a major label record deal. And in 1995, they released an album entitled Letters from Chutney. It sounded like this.
If you don’t know already, the group saw the error of their ways and after one album changed their name to Finger 11. That’s worked out much better.
9. Dead Milkmen
Some people call them a novelty act (which would exclude them from this list), but i disagree. They’re a punk rock band with a strong satircal bent that cut their chops on the Philadelphia hardcore scene. In my eyes, that gives them cred. The name is awful, but at least there’s a backstory.
While they were still in high school, two of the guys from the band invented this mythical band that they called the Dead Milkmen, which they copped from a book called Song of Solomon, a written by Toni Morrison, which won a Nobel Prize in literature. The story followsthe exploits of a guy named Macon “Milkman’”Dead III. These two guys made a series of homemade cassettes following these fictional characters they created. And over the next few years, the fake band grew into the real thing. It’s still a terrible name, but at least the music is interesting.
8. Death Cab for Cutie
Remember what i said about a good name being able to sum up your sound and image? When i first heard about Death Cab for Cutie, I instantly thought of some kind of black metal group from Norway or something. But no! This is a senstive alt-rock band from the U.S. Pacific Northwest that occasionally borders on a sort of emo. So where did they get such an inappropriate name?
From the Beatles, actually. Sort of.
The beatles were friends with a goofy art-school group called the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band. (Horrible name. They could be on this list.) In 1967, they released a debut record called Gorilla which featured a song called “Death Cab for Cutie.” The Beatles liked it so much that they used the song in their 1967 TV special, The Magical Mystery Tour. If you’ve seen it, try to remember the striptease scene.
The song itself was inspired by a story in one of the old-fashioned pulp fiction crime magazines that were popular in in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Cutie, a young teenager, goes partying, grabs a taxi which then runs a red light and crashes. She dies. Ben Gibbard first used the name for a solo cassette he released in 1997. It did well enough for him to turn the thing into a full-time project–and the band has been going ever since. Here’s the original from the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band.
7. Goo Goo Dolls
This band admits that their name sucks and that if they had the chance, they’d go back in time like a terminator and eliminate whoever came up with the idea in the first place. The Goo Goo dolls are truly and honestly ashamed.
Like Death Cab for Cutie, Goo Goo Dolls has its roots in one of those true crime magazines. It was 1985. The group had been working hard to get out of the garage in Buffalo, New York, and finally had a gig. They just didn’t have a name yet. Desperate to come up with something, someone saw an issue of True Detective magazine and turned to the back where there was an ad for a toy—something called a “goo goo doll.”
“Right!” someone shouted, “There’s our name. Now let’s load up and go play.” A decade and a half later, singer John Rzeznik said to Rolling Stone:
We were young and we were a garage band not trying to get a deal. We had a gig that night and needed a name. It’s the best we came up with, and for some reason it stuck. If i had had five more minutes, i definitely would have picked a better name.
Yeah, well, as soon as you had a bunch of hit singles and a couple of platinum records, it’s too late, wasn’t it?
6. The The
Trends for naming bands come and go. Every 15 years or so, we seem to see an onslaught of bands that start with “the.” The Beatles. The Clash. The White Stripes. “The” names were especially prevalent during the punk and new wave era of the late 70s and early 80s: The Cars, The Talking Heads, The Ramones.”
So it was inevitable that someone would take this to its logical and ultimate conclusion. That job fell to Englishman, Matt Johnson. After knocking about with demos and indie albums, Matt’s new band made its debut on may 11, 1979, in London, calling band The The. Ys, very artsy,somewhat existential and maybe just a wee bit pretentious. Yet at the same time, the name was in keeping with the spirit of the era.
But looking back, a name like The The is approaches a “Who’s on First” kind of silliness. And consider later issues wtih Internet and search engines like Google? You can find the band now—Google has learned what to do—but for a long time, it was really, really hard.
I know i’m going to get some heat for this next one—but I don’t care.
Remember how I said that trends come and go when naming groups? There was a period in 1977-78 when people thought they were composing personalized license plates. We heard of XTC. Then INXS. And then U2.
Yes, they’re the biggest band in the world, but let’s be honest. “U2” is a terrible name. But in all honesty, they were very young—and the name was suggested by someone else.
When U2 was still known as The Hype, they were all fans of an Irish band called Radiators from Space (again, a really bad name). The Radiators were Dublin’s (and maybe Ireland’s) first punk band. Bono and crew thought they were brilliant.
The lead Radiator was a guy named Steve Averill, the son of a friend of Adam Clayton’s parents. Adam needed to talk to him. He was thirsty for advice on how to move his band forward.
But then Steve quit the band and went back to his day job as a graphic designer. Still, Aam hounded the guy, at the office and at his house. When they finally got to talking, Steve told Adam that he didn’t think “The Hype” was a serious enough name. He suggest half a dozen alternatives: Flying Tigers; The Blazers; and U2.
Adam liked it because he was into things like spy planes–and that’s what the U2 was: an American spy plane. Bono liked it because it made him think of German U-boats from World War II. The Edge was lukewarm on it, but he hated “The Hype,” so…whatever. And Larry didn’t care, but admited that it was a nice contrast to all the “the” bands that were popular at the time. Plus there were some good design cues for things like logos that had potential. So U2 it was, then.
Later, though, Bono had misgivings. I quote:
I hate the name, by the way. Soon after it caught on, I started realizling that it was an awful pun. That hadn’t dawned on me. You, too? Oh, no!
Who thought it was a good idea to call a band Chumbawamba? Then again, the group included ex-members of bands like Ouch and My Hair’s on Fire But No-one’s Bothered. An early release was under the name Skin Disease. Four members had history together in a band called Chimp Eats Banana.
So where did “Chumbawamba” come from? And what does it mean? Explanations include copping it from the mascot of a football team (proven false), a dream where men where “chumbas” and women were “wambas,” (doubtful), the chanting of African musicians (unlikely) and a possible solution to the Infinite Monkey Theorum (where if you give an infinite number of monkeys and infinite number of typewriters, one of them will write something meaninful).
So what’s the real answer? There isn’t one. The name is deliberate gibberish. I quote from the band’s website:
Chumbawamba doesn’t mean anything. At the time we formed (early ’80s) there was a rush of bands with obvious names. It was the time of ‘peace punk’ and you couldn’t get across a youth club dance floor without bumping into a disorder, a subhumans, a decadent youth or an anthrax t-shirt. We liked the sound of chumbawamba because it wasn’t nailing ourselves down. We wanted a name which wouldn’t date.
That may, in fact, be the truth. Or it could just be another lie. What is true is that “Chumbawamba” is an awful name.
3. Toad the Wet Sprocket
I’ll let Monty Python’s Eric Idle handle this one.
There’s gotta be a story, right? Maybe. Or maybe not.
Singer Doug Robb said in one interview that it’s just one of those words young dudes invent while messing around in high school. It just sounded funny and became this in-joke. So “hoobastank” doesn’t mean anything. It’s just made-up slang.
Then again, there’s one story that says Doug’s brother is (or was) a VP with BMW motorcycles in Germany and that he lives (or lived) near a street called Hooba Strasse. Doug’s German wasn’t very good so he just called it “Hooba Stank.” But people have searched and can’t find anything remotely like that anywhere in Germany. I couldn’t.
Another story says that there’s a gas station in Germany and somehow “hooba” was derived from it.
Whatever the reason, it’s a terrible name—and despite have this one mega-hit, it certainly hasn’t done the band any favours.
1. OMD–Sort of
In case you don’t know, OMD is short for “Orchestral Maneuvres in the Dark”—a very artsy, extremely pretentious name that was nevertheless perfectly fine in its day. But we need to go back into the band’s history to explain their #1 placing.
There were other names before OMD back in the late 70s. One was The Id. Then there was Equinox. For a while, they used VCLXI (appararently the name of a transistor).
Everyone involved was deeply besotted by the experimental electronic music coming out of Germany at the time, especially Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. At the same time, punk was in full throttle in the UK. Back then, it was fashionable to shock people by displaying Nazi imagery. It wasn’t uncommon to go to a punk show and see someone with a swastika on their jacket. It didn’t mean that person was a Nazi or even a fascist sympathizer. It was all about shock value.
So here we have Paul Humphries and Andy McCluskie, two wannabe musicians from Liverpool enamoured with both German electronic music and the shock tactics of punk. It’s also possible that they heard the story of Rochus Misch, known as the last person alive from the bunker Hitler occupied beneath Berlin up to his death. He claims that Hitler loved underwear humour and would often tease minions like Luftwaffe head, Hermann Goerring.
Whatever the case, the name of this pre-OMD band was “Hitler’s Underpants.” That is not a joke. They actually appeared in public under that name a few times.