It's one of the biggest decisions any band will face: what to call themselves. And yet, so many get it so wrong. Fortunately, for every group that comes up with a terrible name and sticks with it, there's a band that comes up with a terrible name, plays a few shows under it, maybe releases a demo or even an album or two but then finally comes to its senses. Many well-known and successful groups – from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Green Day – have been through the latter growing pains, starting out life cursed with a misguided moniker before landing on a name destined to adorn the T-shirts of millions of devoted fans. The name makes the band, as they say; here are 25 bands that almost didn't get made.
Final name: Simon and Garfunkel
Paul Simon and Arthur Garfunkel were just 15 years old when they started shopping their songs around the Brill Building in 1956. Realizing they didn't have the most marketable names in the world, Paul became John Landis (after a girl he had a crush on, Sue Landis) and Arthur became Tom Graph, because he loved to graph the progress of hit records on graph paper (really). They called themselves Tom and Jerry (apparently fearing no lawsuit from Hanna-Barbera) and actually scored a minor hit with "Hey Schoolgirl," which they played on American Bandstand directly after Jerry Lee Lewis did "Great Balls of Fire." (Sadly, no video survives.) They failed to land a follow-up hit and soon focused on college, and by the time the duo reconvened in 1964 as a folk act they decided to use their real names, even though they risked alienating segments of the country that weren't amenable to openly Jewish entertainers. "Our name is honest," Simon said. "I always felt it was a big shock to people when Bob Dylan turned out to be Bobby Zimmerman. It was important that he should be true."
Final name: The Roots
The Roots originated when Questlove (Ahmir Khalib Thompson) and Black Thought (Tariq Trotter) were high school classmates in Philly. They called themselves Radio Activity for a school talent show in 1989, which became Black to the Future, then the nerdiest of the handles yet, the Square Roots. Black Thought explains why on the song "Anti-circle": "Yo, I'm tha anti-circle. . . Never comin' twice in one form. . . so hip that I'm square." True to the lyrics, the band didn't come twice in that form once they discovered that there was already a Philadelphia folk group by the name, instead shortening their moniker to the less mathematical the Roots.
Final name: Pearl Jam
In October of 1990 a new band from Seattle played their first concert at the Off Ramp under the name Mookie Blaylock, a New Jersey Nets player whose basketball card wound up in the tape case of one of their early demos. "It was kind of goofy," admitted Eddie Vedder. "But that first week we were too busy working on songs to think about a name." This was fine for a completely unknown local band, but when they started to attract national attention and record an album they couldn't continue to have the same name as a popular NBA point guard. Among many other problems it posed, they couldn't exactly trademark it and sell merchandise. The story of how they came up with Pearl Jam has been much-mythologized over the years, largely due to the fact that Vedder claimed it was after his grandmother Pearl who created hallucinogenic jam, but the real story is far more mundane. Bassist Jeff Ament randomly thought of the name Pearl, and the rest came to them after they saw Neil Young and Crazy Horse play a killer set at the Nassau Coliseum on the Smell the Horse tour. "Every song was like a 15-or 20-minute jam," said Ament. "So that's how 'jam' got added on to the name. Or at least that's how I remember it."
Final name: Radiohead
The five members of Radiohead first came together when they were high schoolers at Abingdon School in Oxfordshire. They rehearsed after school let out for the week on Friday nights, inspiring them to call the band On a Friday. Gigs were extremely infrequent – perhaps because their moniker seemed to limit their availability to just one day of the week – until the early 1990s when they became regulars on the Oxford circuit and even cut a demo featuring future Radiohead songs "You," "Thinking About You" and "Prove Yourself." It wasn't a hit but did grab the attention of EMI Records, who signed the band and suggested they think of a better handle. The group were all huge fans of the Talking Heads, so they took their new name from the super obscure 1986 song "Radio Head."
Final name: The Cure
The sallow goths who would become the Cure might not seem like the sort of blokes to name themselves for a large phallic monument, but that's just what they did when the then–middle school students got together in the early Seventies. Robert Smith, pre–mop top and raccoon eyes, was a background figure in the Obelisk, playing piano, but he soon moved up front and took charge of the group's moniker. After a few more lineup changes and a couple transitory names, Malice and Easy Cure (the latter of which the singer found too "hippyish"), Smith dubbed them the Cure. For more than a few lovelorn sad sacks, they would live up to billing.
Final name: Queen
More benignly forgettable than truly offensive, the name Smile simply cannot approximate the power of the music that the group's guitarist, Brian May, and drummer, Roger Taylor, would record with their next band: Queen. In his book Queen: The Early Years, author Mark Hodkinson wrote that the group's bassist and vocalist, Tim Staffell, "adopted the concept of a group called 'Smile' as part of a college project and built a graphics campaign around it." When Staffell quit the group, May and Taylor formed a new group with singer Freddie Mercury who gave them the name Queen. "The concept of Queen is to be regal and majestic," he once told Circus. "Glamour is a part of us and we want to be dandy. We want to shock and be outrageous."
Final name: Def Leppard
Atomic Mass is defined, first, as the mass of an atom and, second, as a really bad idea for a band name. That notion did not deter a group of rockers from Sheffield, England, including bassist Rick Savage, guitarist Pete Willis and singer Joe Elliott, from using that nonstarter of a moniker, despite the fact that it never landed them a paying gig. Eventually Elliott snapped out of it and told his bandmates about posters he'd designed in art class at school for a fake band called "Deaf Leopard." The group played around with the name's spelling to avoid being compared to punk bands and stumbled on one of the most memorable-looking monikers since Led Zeppelin.
Final name: Maroon 5
Adam Levine and Co. had to start somewhere, and they started as a suit-clad Nineties alt-rock outfit called Kara's Flowers – a name that referenced a groupie who had a crush on all of them, but sounds like a Lilith Fair–ready girl group. Under that unfortunate moniker, the band released two albums, the self-released We Like Digging? and the major label flop (surprise, surprise) The Fourth World prior to dubbing themselves Maroon 5 for 2002's funky Songs About Jane. In a 2004 interview with Rolling Stone, guitarist Jesse Carmichael claimed that before Kara's Flowers signed to Reprise, their fuzzy guitar pop was akin to "Fugazi and System of a Down meets Sesame Street – the Sesame Street part was in our lyrics, which were nonsense." Likewise, the band's name.
Final name: Beach Boys
When Brian Wilson began writing songs about surfing in 1961 he'd hardly ever even touched a surfboard, so to get some credibility he called his new group the Pendeltons after the plaid, wool shirts favored by the surf community. Just three months later, Los Angeles–based independent label Candix Records agreed to release their debut single "Surfin'." But they hated the stuffy-sounding name and changed it to Beach Boys (after almost going with the Surfers) without even telling the band. It's as generic as it comes, but the group had no choice but to go with it. In the early 1970s, tired of being known as a Beach Boy, Wilson suggested they change their name to Beach. The others didn't go for it. They knew they were destined to be Beach Boys for life.
Final name: Green Day
When Green Day took the stage at Cleveland's House of Blues days before their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year, everyone but the most hardcore fans in attendance were confused by the name on their drum riser: Sweet Children. The faithful knew this was Green Day's original moniker, and they were using it again for one night only as a celebration of their earliest days. Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt started playing local shows around the Bay Area as Sweet Children in 1986 when they were just 14 years old. They gained a tiny following and even got signed to Lookout! Records under that name, but they switched it to Green Day soon afterwards to avoid confusion with fellow California rock outfit Sweet Baby – and perhaps because being "sweet" ain't so punk rock, even if it's meant ironically. They took their new name from one of their early songs, which refers to a day when not much is done outside of smoking marijuana. Much more punk rock.
Final name: The Black Crowes
The Georgia rock band led by battling brothers Chris and Rich Robinson played a ragged mixture of garage rock and alt-country for about five years under the name Mr. Crowe's Garden – reportedly inspired by Johnny Crow's Garden, an early 20th century children's book by Leonard Leslie Brookes – before changing it to something a little more in sync with their newfound Humble Pie/Faces obsession. As limp as their original moniker was, though, it could have been much, much worse: According to Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman, Def American head honcho Rick Rubin once told them, "'I think you should be the Kobb Kounty Krows and spell it [like] the KKK.' And we all laughed, and he goes, 'No, I'm serious. . . I think that'd be marketable.' We told him to go fuck himself. I mean, it was completely insulting on every level."
Final name: Bone Thugs-N-Harmony
The most melody-soaked rap act of the Nineties came together as junior high school kids in Cleveland when the city was a rap desert. Anthony "Krayzie Bone" Henderson crashed his moped, his crew came to school with bandages in solidarity and the Band Aid Boys were born. It's unclear if he had broken any bones, but if he did, then maybe they would have arrived on their name a little sooner.
Final name: Beastie Boys
Before the Beastie Boys were reciting regrettable rhymes about objectifying women (and apologizing for it), teenagers Michael Diamond and Adam Yauch were misappropriating other cultures with the name of their early hardcore group called the Young Aborigines. "We came up with the idea that the music should be primitive in some way, which is how we came up with the Young Aborigines as the name of the band," bassist Jeremy Shatan explained. "I even bought a record of Australian Aborigine music for inspiration." Eventually, Shatan moved away for a summer and the group adopted the name Beastie Boys. "It was the stupidest name we could come up with," the rechristened Mike D told Rolling Stone of the new name. Not quite.
Final name: Kiss
Two years before they formed Kiss, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley played in a rather generic New York rock band bearing the certainly not generic, if totally ridiculous, name Wicked Lester. "There were all these three-part harmonies that sounded like Doobie Brothers," Simmons wrote in his memoir Kiss and Make-Up. "And there wasn't nearly enough guitar." Determined to create a more unique and bombastic band, Simmons and Stanley split from their bandmates and looked in the Rolling Stones classified ads to find new drummer, which is where they found Peter Criss. He mentioned he was once in a band called Lips, inspiring Stanley to propose they start calling themselves Kiss. "Get the fuck out of here," Criss complained. "That's a terrible pansy name." As would happen many times in the future of the group, things did not go the way the drummer wanted, though he learned to live with Kiss. "Good kissing makes for good laying," he wrote in his memoir Makeup to Breakup. "It's sexual, it's cool." And it's infinitely better than Wicked Lester.
Final name: Pink Floyd
"Screaming abdabs" (also spelled "habdabs") is old-timey British slang for a mystery ailment along the lines of the heebie-jeebies and possibly tied to the idea of delirium tremens. It's also the goofy-sounding and internationally inscrutable name of an early version of Pink Floyd. Examples of usage of the term include: "Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Richard Wright were architecture students at London Polytechnic when they joined a band called Sigma 6, which later became the Screaming Abdabs," and "The thought of spending one more second as a member of Pink Floyd gave Waters a case of the screaming abdabs."
Final name: Blue Öyster Cult
While Blue Öyster Cult may not be the world's greatest band name, it's still a damn sight better than Soft White Underbelly, the moniker that founding BÖC members Buck Dharma, Albert Bouchard and Allen Lanier performed and recorded under during the late Sixties. It took the exit of original lead singer Les Braunstein – who was replaced by Eric Bloom – and a particularly scathing review of one of their shows at the Fillmore East to convince band manager Sandy Pearlman that Soft White Underbelly needed a new name. After initially recasting them as Oaxaca and then the Stalk-Forrest Group, Pearlman came up with Blue Öyster Cult. . . and the rest is cowbell-clanking history.
Final name: Earth, Wind and Fire
EW&F leader Maurice White cut his teeth as a session drummer in Chicago during the Sixties, for everyone from Betty Everett ("You're No Good") to Etta James to the Ramsey Lewis Trio ("Wade in the Water"). In 1969 he formed his own trio, and its name was pure Sixties cheese: the Salty Peppers. "I was still in a jazz state at that time," White told Vibe in 1999. A move to L.A. and seven more bandmates later, White turned to astrology for a bigger, better name: as a Sagittarius, his elements were earth, air and fire.
Final name: Doobie Brothers
Introduced to each other by psych-rock icon Skip Spence, guitarist Tom Johnston and drummer John Hartman formed Pud in San Jose. They slowly picked up the other two Doobs and changed their name from a childish weiner reference to a slightly-less-childish pot reference. They pulled Pud and released their Doobie debut in 1971.
Final name: Lamb of God
"You're automatically stamped with 'Evil' on your forehead with a name like Burn the Priest," Lamb of God singer Randy Blythe said in 2000 of why his band changed its moniker the year before. The Virginian neo-thrash outfit had slogged it out for five years with that inflammatory moniker and even released an album, 1999's self-titled full-length, under the name; needless to say, the over-the-top handle, which at first helped garner the group attention, soon began to get in the way, especially as the five-piece found people increasingly assuming that they played satanic black metal. When a 1999 lineup change gave them the perfect excuse to rechristen themselves, they took on Lamb of God, which Blythe described as "a little less of a sledgehammer in the face," and since have become one of the leading metal bands in the world – though, ironically, they've been banned from playing numerous venues because of their current name.
Final name: Finger Eleven
Before they were the post-grunge hitmakers behind 2003's "One Thing," the members of Finger Eleven were students at Lester B. Pearson High School – mature enough to know that there's only so far a band with the profoundly stupid, Wayne's World–friendly name Rainbow Butt Monkeys can get. Back then they were a hard-groovin' Chili Peps–style thrash-funk clone that eventually got signed to Mercury and released one album under that moniker, Letters From Chutney. Their cryptic new name came with a moody new sound in 1997 and we were, sadly, denied the chance to hear Jay Leno have to say "Rainbow Butt Monkeys" on national TV.
Final name: Sugar Ray
SoCal party animals Sugar Ray originally called themselves the Shrinky Dinks (and later Shrinky Dinx), after the oven-heated children's arts and crafts kit of the same name, allegedly because it was the most useless toy they could think of. But once the group got hot themselves – landing a deal with Atlantic Records in 1994 – their impressively un-badass band name aroused the ire of Shrinky Dinks manufacturer Milton Bradley, who threatened to sue. Mark McGrath and Co. then renamed themselves for boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, who by that point was too dead to give a shit.
Final name: Red Hot Chili Peppers
"That's was how we wanted to play, majestic and chaotic" explained Anthony Kiedis of a name somehow more unwieldy than the six-syllable Red Hot Chili Peppers. In 1983, a friend suggested that bassist Flea, guitarist Hillel Slovak and local character Anthony Kiedis play a song before his band's gig at the Rhythm Room in Los Angeles. Soon, Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem appeared for two shows in February 1983. "I was wearing a paisley corduroy three-quarter-length robe and a fluorescent orange hunting cap," remembered Kiedis about the first night. "Oddly enough, I was totally sober."
Final name: Black Sabbath
Black Sabbath is pretty much the most perfect name for the world's first heavy-metal band, but it didn't come to them immediately. When Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward first came together in 1968 they were doing blues rock numbers under the name the Polka Tulk Blues Band, though one day early on Iommi told Osbourne it was terrible. "Every time I hear it, all I can picture is you, with your trousers around your ankles, taking a fucking dump," he said. "It's crap." His big idea was to rebrand themselves as Earth, though they soon discovered they weren't the only English band with that name. Butler eventually saved the day when he saw a crowd of people lined up to see the Boris Karloff film Black Sabbath and convinced his bandmates to try it out.
Final name: Creedence Clearwater Revival
The hirsute white boys in Creedence Clearwater Revival turned their passion for black music and Southern culture into a distinctive California-soaked choogle that had Tina Turner covering their songs and Bruce Springsteen inducting them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. However, they would probably be remembered as the Vanilla Ice of the Vanilla Fudge era had they stuck with the racist path they started as the Golliwogs — a band in frizzy white afro wigs, a whiteface reversal of the minstrel-like caricature of their namesake. Though they were working as the Visions, Fantasy Records owner Max Weiss changed the name of the embryonic band for its first single, 1964's "Don't Tell Me No Lies." "I think, at least to Max anyway, 'Golliwogs' sounded sort of British," said rhythm guitarist Tom Fogerty. "We always hated the name – still do – but Max owned the label and we were new and wanted very much to make records, so we went along with things." The same corporate meddling that got them into that mess, also got them out: When Saul Zaentz bought the company in 1967, he made them find a new handle.