x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Naming conventions

From Lynyrd Skynyrd to Duran Duran, bands get inspiration for their names from the most unlikely places

The grade-school gym teacher who was the inspiration for the band name Lynyrd Skynyrd died last week, prompting band members to write a tribute to coach Leonard Skinner on their website.
The grade-school gym teacher who was the inspiration for the band name Lynyrd Skynyrd died last week, prompting band members to write a tribute to coach Leonard Skinner on their website.

Back in the mid 1960s, The Robert E Lee High School in Jacksonville, Florida, was a traditional, no-nonsense seat of learning. Teachers were strict disciplinarians, and pupils were expected to behave. Rather quaintly, the boys were also warned not to grow their hair below their starched collars. So when Gary Rossington not only formed - shock, horror - a rock'n'roll band, but rebelliously refused to cut his flowing locks, his stern gym teacher drew a line in the Florida sand. Sick of boys who refused to play by the rules, he sent Rossington to the principal's office, and the keen guitarist was suspended from school. Rossington's reaction would become legendary. The name of the killjoy high school basketball coach? One Leonard Skinner. And so this naughty schoolboy changed the name of his band to Lynyrd Skynyrd, to mock his Southern accent. The rest, of course, is the rock history that begat Sweet Home Alabama and Freebird.

Sadly, the real Mr Skinner died last week, aged 77. He'd spend most of his later years answering the phone to excitable Lynyrd Skynyrd fans. But he'd made his peace with the band who had given him such a backhanded compliment. Rossington even said last week, in a tribute on the Skynyrd website, that Coach Skinner had "a profound impact on our youth". Not least because Rossington knows that the naming of a band can involve just as much hand-wringing as writing the actual music. Take U2. Forget any talk of the biggest band in the world having some sort of intelligent connection with an American spy plane. Bono has admitted that it was meant to be read as "You Too" - the kind of slushily cheesy name even a boy band would probably discard. Even U2 band members finally chose it because it was the name, out of six, they disliked the least.

Thankfully, some take the naming process a little more seriously than that. Half the fun of heavy-metal band Iron Maiden is the dark iconography and mythology that surrounds such a group with a zombie-like "mascot" called Eddie. So it seems only natural that their name is derived from a medieval, cabinet-like torture device - also called an Iron Maiden - which formative member Steve Harris saw in cult film The Man in the Iron Mask. The name, however, was also a sneaky reference to his favourite football team, West Ham United - often referred to as The Irons.

Films and literature work as a reference library for bands scrabbling around for a snappy moniker. British folkers Noah and the Whale admitted their playful, children's-book-style name was in fact a simple conflation of their favourite director - Noah Baumbach - and their favourite film: The Squid and the Whale. Musicians' love of A Clockwork Orange has spawned electronic acts called Moloko and Heaven 17, and the less well-known Campag Velocet - all names derived from Anthony Burgess's book. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club might be a darkly brooding indie band, but it's also Marlon Brando's gang in The Wild One. And any fans of Roger Vadim's French sci-fi movie Barbarella would have smiled when a 1980s Birmingham synth-pop band rather publicly announced their love of its villain, Dr Durand Durand.

Sometimes the choice of name seems to be nothing more than a signpost to how culturally savvy said band is. Light relief comes from the etymology of one of the greatest groups of all time, Led Zeppelin. Rewind to 1968, and The Who's Keith Moon and John Entwistle were at the time canvassing opinion on a new supergroup that would also include former Yardbirds' Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. Entwistle laughingly said such a move wouldn't just go down like a lead balloon, but a lead zeppelin. Page remembered his words with affection when the time came to rename the New Yardbirds.

It's not the only random saying that has ended up being immortalised in rock. Giving change to customers in Starbucks was so imprinted on the brain of Mike Kroeger, he suggested his brother call their band Nickelback. No Doubt was original singer John Spence's favourite expression. But the sweetest band-naming story has to be derived from a prosaic suburban scene in Surrey, England. Apparently, a young Nicola Weller was having breakfast one day with her brother, Paul, and wondered out loud why there was a band by the name of Bread, but not one called Jam.

Putting a finger on random words in the dictionary worked for the Pixies, REM, the Grateful Dead and Evanescence. And Oasis seemed to be a great name for its time, representing a rock'n'roll band that would bring succour to music fans thirsty for the next Beatles - or just desperate for something other than grunge. Sadly, that credits Noel and Liam Gallagher with a little more intelligence than they deserve: Liam had simply spotted an Inspiral Carpets poster (Noel was their roadie) for a tour that stopped off at the Oasis Leisure Centre, Swindon, and liked the name. Having been to said venue and lived in said town, I can confirm it's possible that it is the most uninspiring place for a concert, or a band, in the wide world of rock'n'roll.

Granted, how Oasis got their name is not quite as good a tale as Lynyrd Skynyrd's. But there's a reason for that: such stories are becoming increasingly rare. Depressingly, groups these days conjure up names based on how far up a search-engine list they can get. There's even an app called Band Name, which does the legwork for the truly uninspired, although the risible Spark Darkens the Dream (a suggestion for an Emo group) seems to be the best it can come up with. Honestly.

Next they'll be saying naming a band after the Archduke who triggered the First World War is a good idea...