Panic! At The Disco and the Art of Band-Naming
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
- Everything But the Girl
- 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
- The Deele
- Dixie Chicks
- Herman's Hermits
- 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
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
It’s a pity people no longer give their children old-school names like Ezra and Percy and Philomena. What an adorable baby name Ezra would be? Better than … James … John … Robert …
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
I suppose one way to take the focus off a strange band name that sounds like a line from “Little” Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips - Part 2” is to write a song called “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth” and make it the centerpiece of your 2005 self-titled debut album.
As culture clubs go, this totally sounds like one I’d want to get into.
I Break Horses
You do what? Well … “I Kill Your Love, Baby!” Yes, that’s an actual song title from the Swedish duo’s 2011 debut album, Hearts, which features the dreamy and less violently titled “Pulse.”
Machine Gun Fellatio
Every time I listen to the now-defunct Australian band’s “Summer,” I picture that deadly firearm in a most compromising position, cocked, loaded, and ready to be swallowed.
I have no idea what a mazzy star looks like, or even how to visualize the title of the duo’s second album, Among My Swan. Yet I feel like I’m staring at so many mazzy stars shining whenever I listen to Mazzy frontwoman Hope Sandoval sing.
According to the industrial-rock duo’s Wikipedia entry, the founding members “shared an interest in witchcraft, talking to trees, and collecting runestones in Chelmsford and Little Badow.” So why wouldn’t they pick a name that sounds like a fictional bald Nazi villain who’s gotta dance? Fun facts: 1) NE’s Bon Harris and Douglas McCarthy share the distinction of having been my first-ever internationally known interviewees when I profiled them in 1990 for the University of Florida’s Independent Florida Alligator student paper. 2) Their 1991 album, Ebbhead, was one of the first that I reviewed for People magazine.
It’s an oxymoronic title indeed, but I wouldn’t dream of calling a band behind such classic ’80s alterna-pop as “Faron Young,” “Appetite,” and “Goodbye Lucille #1” anything else.
She Keeps Bees
My friend Marcus, who introduced me to Machine Gun Fellatio via Australia’s triple j radio station in 2010, took me to a bee farm in Melbourne the next day. Is “bee farm” what you call the place where they’re raised? If I ever go back, I should recommend “Vulture” (from 2011’s Dig On) as its official soundtrack. That song stings.
Tones on Tail
What do you think? Just an excuse to get to the acronym TOT?
10 Honorable Mentions
? and the Mysterians, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Foster The People, Ocean Colour Scene, Procol Harum, Romeo Void, Soft Cell, Swing Out Sister, Stone Temple Pilots, Three Dog Night