Panic! At The Disco and the Art of Band-Naming

Sometimes simple and superb — hello, Blur! — just won’t do.

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Brendan Urie of Panic! At The Disco (Photo: Decaydance/Fueled by Ramen)

If you’re going to produce hits with arch, complicated titles like “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up)” or “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” your band should have a name as cool and quirky as Fall Out Boy (after a character on The Simpsons, no relation to the family of bassist Pete Wentz’s ex-wife Ashlee Simpson) or Panic! At The Disco.

And if your band has cool and quirky name, be prepared to be asked about it … a lot. God knows I’ve done a lot of asking over the course of my career as a music journalist.

I recently interviewed 3 Doors Down for the liner notes of the 20th anniversary re-release of their 2000 album, The Better Life. It was the first time I’d chatted with them since I interviewed them for Teen People magazine in 2000, and I finally got around to asking them about the origin of their name.

It involved a dilapidated store front and a sign pointing to something “3 doors down.” Voila! Instant band name.

“Kryptonite,” the title of 3 Doors Down’s debut single, would have made a much cooler moniker, and no-one ever would have had to ask about its origin.

But then, where is the poetry in the too-obvious? Let’s say you arrive by spacecraft from an English-speaking planet far far away and someone makes you a Spotify playlist. Songs unheard, would you be be more intrigued by the ones credited to bands named Foreigner and Journey or the ones by Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco?

Would you miss out on amazing music by The Call, The Church, The Cult, and The Cure because you’ve been bombarded with so many nearly interchangeable “The” band names? Offbeat may not always be better, but it’s generally more “must check out.”

The Words Fit Together Like Poetry

  • Killing Joke
  • Love and Rockets
  • Meat Beat Manifesto
  • My Bloody Valentine
  • Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
  • Psychedelic Furs
  • Sonic Youth
  • Spandau Ballet
  • The Teardrop Explodes

Go all-out wacky, though, like A Flock of Seagulls, at your own risk. It might lead to endless derision (much of it 30 years later, by your peers, in books like my best friend Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein's Mad Love: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s) and, at best, a very limited engagement on the charts.

“I Ran,” “Space Age Love Song,” and “Wishing” were as great as any hit singles launched by the early ’80s new-wave movement, but AFOS is largely and unfairly remembered as a total joke.

So Bad They Aren’t Even Remotely Good

  • Dixie Chicks
  • Herman's Hermits
  • Kajagoogoo
  • Love Spit Love
  • Mike + The Mechanics
  • My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult
  • Scritti Politti
  • Shed Seven
  • Throbbing Gristle

Blame AFOS’s fate on frontman Mike Score’s hair all you want, but the frightfully coiffured Robert Smith never had a problem getting respect. He was smart enough to call his band “The Cure,” a band name that a) rolls right off the tongue, b) is bland enough to age well, and c) offends and perplexes no one.

Simple and Superb

  • Curve
  • Fuel
  • Gene
  • Lush
  • Pulp
  • Queen
  • Ride
  • Styx
  • Suede

Which brings us to the big difference between R.E.M. and The Jesus and Mary Chain. I once went out with a French guy in London who loved all the same bands that I did, with one exception. He was a devout Catholic, and every time he tried to give The Jesus and Mary Chain a chance, he felt like he was losing his religion.

Alas, not every band moniker can be as lean and inoffensive as R.E.M.’s. Here are 10 that, though less concise and not always fathomable, still sound like music to my ears.

Better Than Ezra

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

Human League

I Break Horses

Machine Gun Fellatio

Mazzy Star

Nitzer Ebb

Prefab Sprout

She Keeps Bees

Tones on Tail

10 Honorable Mentions

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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