What if Radiohead was still known as On A Friday? What if Ozzy Osbourne was still performing under the name of his mother’s favorite talcum powder? What if Malcolm and Angus Young had never noticed “AC/DC” on their sister’s sewing machine? Would New Kids On The Block have ever found success as Nynuk? We’ll never know now, but the stories behind these groups’ original names are curious, sometimes hilarious, and always fascinating.
Pen Cap Chew was merely one of Nirvana’s earlier names. Others included Ted Ed Fred, Skid Row, and Fecal Matter a.k.a. Brown Towel. Pen Cap Chew most likely was a reference to an action lead singer Kurt Cobain took whenever he stopped to think while writing or drawing in his countless diaries. It was also the name of one of the songs on the band’s first demo tape. Unfortunately, the master tape ran out halfway through and the band didn’t want to buy another reel.
There’s a very simple explanation for this one: before Radiohead came on the scene with Pablo Honey in 1993, they were known as On A Friday, a group of friends who rehearsed on, well … Fridays, in the music room of their high school in the 1980s. They continued to rehearse whenever they could, even after the various members went away to college. As they became more serious about world domination, they changed their name to Radiohead, in honor of a Talking Heads song.
Van Halen began mainly as a cover band that performed the songs of other ‘70s acts like James Gang, Captain Beyond, and Black Sabbath. In fact, “Rat Salad” is a Black Sabbath song. However, David Lee Roth insisted on the name Van Halen, saying it “had power to it.” It reminded him of the name Santana, the band named after Carlos Santana. Alex and Eddie Van Halen initially argued against it, because they didn’t want to seem conceited. They eventually came around to it … reluctantly, of course.
When they first started out, The Supremes performed alongside The Temptations, known back then as the Primes. However, when the Supremes got their own record contract in 1961, they broke away from being known as a mere female version of The Temptations. Diana Ross reportedly didn’t like the new name at first (it was on a list of suggestions given to the group by the record label), but eventually it grew on her.
Before KISS were the tongue-wagging, fireworks-setting, pyromaniac rockers we all came to love, in the early ‘70s they were Wicked Lester. “We hardly sound[ed] like KISS,” Gene Simons has said. In fact, Simmons described Wicked Lester’s sound as “like a cross between Three Dog Night and the Doobie Brothers.” However, the website Ultimate Classic Rock, an authority in classic rock, called Wicked Lester’s sole album, which was never officially released by the band’s label, “an unsettling blend of hard and soft rock, prog and pop.” Ouch, harsh!
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were two New York City teenagers from the Jewish neighborhood of Kew Gardens, Queens, when they decided to start making music together in the late ‘50s. Very shortly after making a demo tape—in fact, in a stroke of profound luck, they were actually overheard by producer Sid Prosen as they were recording the demo—they signed with Prosen’s label Big Records. The label was concerned that the boys’ last names were “too ethnic-sounding” for Middle America, so they chose “Tom and Jerry” after the cartoon series. Back then, Paul and Artie (as Art was known to his friends) were heavily influenced by the Everly Brothers, before they settled into their own names, and their own distinctive sound, in the ‘60s.
Before they were Joy Division, the band was called Warsaw, after the David Bowie song “Warsawa.” They then changed their name to Joy Division, which is a reference to the 1955 novel House of Dolls, in which “Joy Divisions” were groups of Jewish women in the concentration camps who were used sexually by Nazi soldiers. In 2015, on the 35th anniversary of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis’s death, The Guardian republished a 1978 interview with Curtis in which he talks about the group’s purported interest in Nazi history, while debunking rumors that the group itself was at all glorifying that history.
When Smile began performing in the late ‘60s, Freddie Mercury (then Farrokh “Freddie” Bulsara) was merely a fan who attended a lot of their shows and gave constant gentle and well-meaning suggestions on how they could improve. The original lineup consisted of singer and bassist Tim Staffell, guitarist Brian May, and drummer Roger Taylor, all students at various universities in London. Their logo, large smiling lips and teeth designed by Staffell, predated the similar Rolling Stones logo by a few years, according to Ultimate Classic Rock. They had already recorded a few songs with Mercury Records when Bulsara first became a regular at their shows. Staffell left the band to sing for another group called Humpy Bong, Freddie (soon-to-be Mercury) Bulsara took his place, and the rest is history. By the band’s 1973 album debut, they had decided on the much catchier name Queen.
Robert Smith was only 13 years old when he formed his first band, called The Obelisk, with Michael Dempsey and Lol Tolhurst. It involved a performance at their middle school, called Notre Dame, in Crawley, West Sussex. They promptly renamed themselves Malice, then the Easy Cure, finally settling on The Cure once they found a label and released their debut album Three Imaginary Boys in 1979.
In 1987, Green Day was known to the California punk scene as Sweet Children (which also became the name of their third EP), but they decided to change their moniker before releasing their first album in order to minimize the fact of their own relative youth (and perhaps to be taken more seriously). It was also to avoid being confused with another local band called Sweet Baby. Thus they became Green Day, a term they used to describe an entire day of smoking marijuana.
When former NBA point guard Mookie Blaylock was in a car accident back in 2013, the members of Pearl Jam took the time to wish him a speedy recovery . “Sending good thoughts to Mookie,” they wrote on their Instagram. In the years before they were officially known as Pearl Jam, the band had adopted the moniker Mookie Blaylock (whose own real name is Mookie Wilson), and they even titled their debut album Ten as a nod to Blaylock’s uniform number. They had been offered a spot on an Alice In Chains tour, needed a quick name, and, having recently gotten Blaylock’s card in a pack of sports trading cards, Jeff Ament suggested Mookie Blaylock in a pinch. It was never meant to be the group’s permanent name.
Before they were the Beach Boys, the band that harmonized about all things related to surfing, they were briefly the Pendletones, a reference to the Pendleton Woolen Mills plaid shirts that surfers loved to wear. Their label found the reference too obscure, and hence they became the unmistakable Beach Boys.
Before settling on the catchy name New Kids On The Block, teen heartthrobs Danny, Donnie, Joey, Jon, and Jordan were known to the world as Nynuk, a meaningless word their producer Maurice Starr pulled out of thin air when the group first formed in 1984. They were heckled and attacked with their free merch at their first show. By 1986, when they released their self-titled album, they were New Kids On The Block, which would soon be affectionately shortened to NKOTB.
Before they were the Black Crowes, these modern-day hippies were Mr. Crowe’s Garden, named after the illustrated children’s book Johnny Crow’s Garden by Leonard Leslie Brooke.
Before they were known simply as The Cranberries, they were known as “The Cranberry Saw Us,” which, when said quickly, sounded like “the cranberry sauce.” At that point, it wasn’t a very serious band. Then, once they became simply the cranberries, they chose to keep it all lowercase because “we like being humble.”
If you believe some of the think pieces out there examining the phenomenon, Nickelback is one of the world’s most hated bands. So it’s probably a good thing they changed their name from The Village Idiots to Nickelback. The new name was inspired by band member Mike Kroeger’s stint as a Starbucks employee—“Here’s your nickel back.”
Soft White Underbelly, Blue Öyster Cult’s original name, supposedly referenced a famous remark by Winston Churchill in which he referred to Italy as “the soft underbelly of the Mediterranean.” The band’s final name was inspired by the poetry of then-manager Sandy Pearlman. In one of his poems, a Blue Oyster Cult was “a group of aliens who had assembled to secretly guide Earth’s history.” Far out!
When they first formed in the 1950s, the Bee Gees first went by The Rattlesnakes (because it sounded cool?). They went through a few other names before settling on the BGs (which stood for the Brothers Gibb), which then became The Bee Gees.
When a club owner in Connecticut refused to put their name on his marquee, the Sex Maggots desperately searched for an alternative name, and found an advertisement for a “Goo Goo Doll” in True Detective magazine. “That’s how the folklore goes,” bassist Robby Takac said. “[Goo Goo Dolls] doesn’t really mean anything … The first name was bad, so we moved on to another bad name, got 15,000 fans, and were afraid to change it.”
He had a Caesar cut, and she wore winged eyeliner just like Liz Taylor in that movie that was making a splash that same year, 1963. So, for a short while, Sonny Bono and Cher Sarkisian decided to call themselves “Caesar and Cleo.” Their first gig was at a roller rink, the second at a bowling alley. Their third was at a Hollywood club called The Purple Onion. They even got a record deal, but, because their record wasn’t garnering much attention, they went simply with Sonny & Cher.
Before they were Sugar Ray (named after boxer Sugar Ray Leonard), these Orange County dudes were a cover band that played frat parties. At one of these frat parties, Mark McGrath jumped on stage, grabbed the microphone, and became the singer from that point on. Back then they were called the Shrinky Dinks after the mass market arts-and-crafts project of the same name. Hasbro threatened to sue, and rather than fight it, the band became Sugar Ray after boxer Sugar Ray Leonard. Interestingly, a singer named Raymond Alan Norcia had been going by the same moniker for almost 30 years when he received an offer of $1000 from the group to waive his rights to sue them for the use of the name. He countered with $1500 but never heard back.
Formed in 1973, Journey’s first iteration as the Golden Gate Rhythm Section was formed to serve as a backing band for other San Francisco acts. A roadie ended up suggesting the name Journey.
Before they were harmonizing under the apt name Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, they were the Band Aid Boys, which came about when Anthony “Krayzie Bone” Henderson crashed his moped in high school and his whole crew showed up to school wearing bandages in a show of solidarity. And though they’ve been Bone Thugs-N-Harmony for a couple decades, the group announced in February 2020 that they’d be showing solidarity with Buffalo Wild Wings by changing their name to Boneless Thugs-N-Harmony, even going so far to change their individual names to Krayzie Boneless, Flesh-N-Boneless, and Wish Boneless. Layzie Bone was allegedly not down with the name change, and decided to keep his original moniker. “I ain’t changing sh**,” he said.
Before Creed became famous for creating its own musical genre—the post-grunge Christian band—they were briefly known as Naked Toddler. “The name did not go over well,” lead singer Scott Stapp conceded in his memoir. “Girls hated it and said it made them think of pedophilia. They had a point.” So the band settled on Creed, which to Stapp meant “something to believe in.” “I wasn’t thinking in terms of a religious creed,” Stapp wrote. “My goal was simple: to create a rock-and-roll band.”
Black Sabbath’s first iteration, the Polka Tulk Blues Band, was apparently named after a talcum powder Ozzy Osbourne’s mother used. Huge horror movie fans, the band came up with the much more freaky, hardcore name of Black Sabbath after watching Mario Bava’s 1963 three-part horror anthology of the same name.
Before they moved to New York to start an art-punk band, David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, and Chris Frantz all went to the fancy schmancy Rhode Island School of Design, otherwise known as RISD. And guitarist/keyboardist Jerry Harrison went to Harvard. A 1977 article in The New York Times profiled the band’s privileged WASP-Y background, observing, “Byrne was born in Scotland and raised in a middle‐class neighborhood in Baltimore; Harrison is a Harvard graduate; Weymouth is the daughter of an admiral and a member of a socially prominent Weymouth family, and Frantz is the son of a general (Weymouth and Frantz were married this past summer).” So calling themselves The Artistics, as they did at first, might have gotten them heckled on the CBGB circuit … at the very least. Quite smartly, soon after forming, they adopted the self-conscious moniker Talking Heads, the term used to refer to television news pundits.
Before Destiny’s Child, there was Girls Tyme, a group comprised of Beyoncé Knowles, Kelly Rowland, LaTavia Robertson, and LeToya Luckett, as well as other members. They performed on several competition stages until eventually the group re-grouped for the final time and became Beyoncé, Rowland, and Michelle Williams as the now-beloved Destiny’s Child. In December 2019, former dad-ager Matthew Knowles released the lost Girls Tyme album.
In 1978, U2 was still known as The Hype. But then, a fellow Irish musician, Steve Averill (who the band refers to as a Dublin punk guru on their site), told them their name was cheesy and advised them to use “U2,” saying: “It’s the name of a spy plane and a submarine, and it’s got an endearing inclusivity about it.”
Inspired by an Esquire article about ’60s youth culture and its penchant for statement-making haircuts, this all-female band first became the Supersonic Bangs, which soon got shortened to just The Bangs. There was something sort of sexy-bad about it, too. “We liked the double-entendre of the name,” singer Susanna Hoffs told Rolling Stone. “You can read a lot into it. There was something kind of gutsy about it.” However, another band laid claim to the name, and so the four California girls soon became known as The Bangles.
The band started by brothers Malcolm and Angus Young began as Third World War, most likely to reflect the “heavy” style of their music (though they have always preferred to refer to it as “hard rock” as opposed to heavy metal). But their current name came from either a vacuum cleaner or a sewing machine, depending on which brother you ask. According to Angus, he saw AC/DC on the back of their sister Margaret’s sewing machine, and according Malcolm it was on their sister-in-law Sandra’s vacuum cleaner. No matter, AC/DC stands for alternating current/direct current, meaning an appliance can be powered by both types of energy source. The band has denied longstanding rumors that it symbolizes bisexuality, or that it’s a satanic reference.