The Etymology of 10 Famous Band Names

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On Monday, Coach Leonard Skinner — the beloved high school teacher and namesake of Lynyrd Skynyrd — passed away at the age of 77, and a little piece of frat rock died with him. A sad event for lovers of Southern jukebox-jams everywhere, to be sure, but also a reminder of a pretty good band name back story. It got us thinking about our favorite, unexpected band names and where they come from. Virginia Woolf stories, slang terms for speed, poorly understood foreign terms: all are fodder for some pretty excellent handles. So, in memory of Coach Skinner, we’ve compiled the etymology of 10 famous band names.

1. The Velvet Underground

Lou Reed and friends took their name from the book The Velvet Underground by Michael Leigh after John Cale’s friend Tony Conrad showed it to the group — though other accounts say Reed found it on the sidewalk. The book was about sadomasochism, which the group thought was fitting (thanks to the song “Venus in Furs” that they’d already penned) plus, it just sounded cool and mysterious and stuff.

2. U2

Originally named “The Hype” (fitting!), U2 named themselves this brilliantly-text-message-friendly name because it was a symbol of audience participation. You know, like, “you…too.” And they wanted something like “XTC” but different. Plus, it happened to be the name of a spy plane. So, both sinister/military and warmly inviting connotations. Perfect.

Bonus: Bono, whose actual name is Paul Hewson, got his stage name from a hearing aid store in Dublin called “Bono Vox.”

3. Gnarls Barkley

Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse had some band-naming block when they formed their collaboration, apparently. They couldn’t think of anything that would quite encapsulate the awesome they were about to unleash on the world. So what did they do? Stole the name of a fantasy basketball league. Done and done.

4. Jefferson Airplane

There are a couple different stories about the origin of Jefferson Airplane’s name. One claims that it was a lampooning of the blues singer “Blind Lemon” Jefferson. But our favorite is that it was named after a modified roach clip made from a paper match, popularly known as a “jefferson airplane.” Win!

5. Modest Mouse

This hyper-literate group named themselves after a line from the Virginia Woolf short story “The Mark on the Wall,” describing “modest, mouse-coloured people…” Smart and weird, too: double points.

6. The Ramones

Apparently, when Paul McCartney checks into hotels he uses the alias “Paul Ramon.” The Ramones, in a sort of pseudonym frenzy, adopted this cover name as their own, creating a fictitious family of fake McCartneys. Awesome.

7. Steely Dan

Steely Dan takes the cake for having a name that is both literary and highly pornographic. A Steely Dan, as described by William Burroughs in the seminal drug-addled lunatic bible that is Naked Lunch, is an enormous steam-powered dildo. It almost makes us want to give the band another listen.

8. Radiohead

Originally named “On a Friday,” the band was forced to change their name after signing with Parlaphone, who (wisely) thought it wouldn’t move much merch. “Radio Head” comes from a Talking Heads song, which Yorke proclaimed “the least annoying song” from the album True Stories.

9. The Grateful Dead

Accounts vary as to who it was, exactly, who landed on the name “The Grateful Dead,” but all of them go something like this: they were all sitting around doing psychotropic drugs and landed on it in the dictionary, possibly through a board game of some sort. And then they were all like, “far out, man” and someone laughed and passed the spliff. Apt, no?

10. Joy Division

You might think that the name Joy Division is an ill-fitting for such a gloomy band — or maybe slyly ironic. Turns out, it’s just kind of horrifying. Originally called Warsaw, the band renamed themselves to avoid confusion with another similarly-titled band and took the term “Joy Division” from the 1955 book The House of Dolls, which described Nazi-visited brothels in concentration camps. And the name for these sexual slavery quarters? You got it. Joy Divisions. Yow.