What's in a name?

What do you call your band?
 Patricia Downes
The Celibate Rifles, a simple but clever reference to the Sex Pistols and an evocative name in and of itself. Source: Wikimedia Commons (

Warning: this article contains explicit language and odd word associations.

Whilst enjoying a meal a while back I happened to notice a poster advertising an upcoming gig by a group calling themselves Starf*ckers. The first thought that sprang to mind was whether I should read the name as a postmodern self-deprecating expression of disdain for those seeking fame at any cost, or as signifying that the performers were suffering from some form of low self-esteem since they advertised themselves as groupies rather than players. Either way, it’s certainly an attention getter of a name.


Then I pondered on the f-word’s normalisation – the hotel seemingly had no qualms about displaying the poster in their windows so that passers-by could pop the date in their diaries. From where I was sitting, few of the people wandering past seemed likely to do so; indeed, I heard more than one matronly type ‘tut-tut’ at the poster as she walked by.

Anyway, as I trundled along in the train to Canberra soon afterwards, I was thinking about how bands come up with names for themselves. I think I’d find the whole naming process the hardest part of being in a band, if the paralysing option anxiety that assails me when I have to come up with a team name for a pub quiz night is anything to go by.

Would I be tempted to go for shock value? Probably not; no matter how good the name might be, its ability to shock would wear thin pretty quickly. I suspect it would also limit any critical evaluation of the music being played. In the case of a band such as the Sex Pistols, rendering critical judgement unconscious was all to the good – they weren’t really up on stage showing off years of musical training. Unfortunately for me and the band that inspired this post, there’s really no way to emulate Johnny Rotten and his gang without coming off looking second best and unoriginal.

I like the one word name idea – but how to choose that one word? According to the ten minutes or so of dodgy internet research I did, some bands simply randomly choose a word from the handiest dictionary (hello Evanescence). Blur, on the other hand, got their name off a list of suggestions from their record company (goodbye Seymour).

An acronym often adds a little something – they’re easy to remember and might make a person curious by their brevity. Imagine if REM were instead called Rapid Eye Movement? On the other hand, confusion may abound if you happen to choose an acronym associated with multiple things – take the English band EMF as an example. Although they named themselves after a fan club of New Order called the Epsom Mad Funkers, various explanations for their name have been espoused including ‘Electromotive Force’ and ‘Ecstasy Mother F*ckers’. Until recently I assumed the acronym referred to an electromagnetic field – they make electronic music so it didn’t seem too much of a stretch.

Puns are tricky, like the shock value name they can wear a little thin. When the pun is a reference to another band it can be even trickier. My favourite example of this type of name is the Australian band, The Celibate Rifles, a simple but clever reference to the Sex Pistols and an evocative name in and of itself.

Seeking inspiration in literature is always a valid life option but has the potential to mark your band as pretentious, teen-angsty or ill-read depending on your audience. I can think of two bands that have taken their names from characters in Charles Dickens’ works: Uriah Heep (from David Copperfield) and Artful Dodger (from Oliver Twist); plus the inimitable ukulele-wielding performer known as Tiny Tim (from A Christmas Carol).

Then there are the Rock’n‘Roll Hall of Fame inductees with over 40 million album sales under their belts: Steely Dan. Sounds pretty normal, doesn’t it? As though Dan was a determined chap with strong nerves, the sort of man one might depend on in a crisis. Or maybe he was a sometime member of Wyatt Earp’s posse. Think again, Steely Dan is the nickname of an intimate device that appears in William S Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch.

And, finally, a shout out to the word nerds of the world – who’s keen for a band called A Definite Article or maybe The Indefinite Article?