Know what’s harder than coming up with a name for your band that people will think is cool, has quick recall value and hasn’t already been bagged by another band somewhere in the world? Finding a whole new name for your outfit because you suddenly decided that the existing one was naff.
My band Rock Machine found itself in that predicament in 1993, even as we were hitting our highest level of name-recognition. We had met a Dubai-based event promoter called Russell Mason on a concert tour of the Middle East that he had booked us to play on. Eager to take our music even further beyond India’s boundaries, we had asked Russell if he’d be interested in managing us internationally. After agreeing, he proceeded to upset the apple cart. One of the first things he suggested—gingerly and tactfully—was that we rename the band.
Needless to say, we balked. Our popularity had grown exponentially, thanks in great part to the arrival of MTV Asia. We had released a series of heavily played music videos on the channel by then, one of which, a song called ‘Pretty Child’, was having an unprecedented impact on rock and pop fans across India (we’re still baffled by its success). Dumping our identity at the peak of our popularity was a preposterous idea.
But the more we thought about it, the more sense it made. A name like Rock Machine was more suited to a college band. If we were serious about taking our music into the wider world, particularly to the West, every young band’s Mecca for rock ’n’ roll, we’d be wiser adopting a name that allowed our music to mature and grow. To be honest, we all hated the name Rock Machine, so it was an opportunity we were subconsciously waiting for.
Clockwise from top: Members of The Who in 1965; Indus Creed’s CD cover; Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band; Thermal and a Quarter; Frank Zappa with daughter Moon Unit
So what’s the first thing a band does when confronted with this conundrum? You drink. And the names began to leap out and pop… and quickly be dropped. We learnt soon enough that that totally killer name from the night before sounded like absolute rubbish after the whiskey had worn off. We dodged a couple of heavy gauge bullets: We very seriously considered Om Tattoo at one point and, even more worryingly, found ourselves a hair’s breadth away from becoming Ashram Mothers. It was a torturous process, rife with hand wringing and name-calling (and more alcohol). But when the words Indus and Creed paired up, we knew we had it. Unanimity, that rare bird of democracy, had landed.
Coming up with a catchy moniker that everyone will love is bloody hard, I’m tellin’ ya. But it could also be darn easy—if you don’t care about being saddled with a lame name for posterity. Truth is, it doesn’t matter. And yet it does at the same time. Put yourself in the shoes of a young startup outfit. You suggest to your imminent bandmates that they call themselves The Who. What do you think would happen? How many guffaws after the incredulity? How about Deep Purple? Pink Floyd, anyone? (Fact: When Rock Machine was still nameless, the promoter who organised the band’s first gig suggested Deep Pink. He was soundly ignored.)
But as with all things ‘artistic’, this is highly subjective territory. It’s tougher than naming your child. You could have 10 Vivaans (or some other disyllabic name ending in –aan, per the trend of the times) in your class alone; they’ll be known by their nicknames anyway. A band name is akin to a brand name—there are laws that protect the one who planted the flag first. It’s a company name that can’t sound like a company name. The good thing is band monikers are meant to be unconventional, unlike a human being’s name (unless you’re a mad guitar genius who names his daughter Moon Unit, as Frank Zappa did 47 years ago). So if you think Death Cab For Cutie is a hip handle, go for it—only problem is American musician Ben Gibbard already owns the title to that one.
The weirdest ones often have stories behind them, some strait-laced, others… well, weird. Gibbard named his band after a song by a couple of guys from an outfit with an even more outlandish title: They were called Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Pink Floyd was the result of pairing the first names of a couple of blues musicians: Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. Typical of their long-running proclivity for irony and perversion, jazz-blues-pop wizards Donald Fagen and Walter Becker named their band Steely Dan after a strap-on dildo from a novel by William S Burroughs. Bangalore funk-rockers Thermal and a Quarter’s name is rooted in their original lineup, which featured three full Malayalis (or ‘Mallus’) and one quarter (the singer-guitar player
Bruce Lee Mani).
The names are getting weirder for obvious reasons: After about 60-plus years of rock ’n’ roll, the easy ones are all taken. And so you could land up naming your acoustic trio Whirling Kalapas, as I did, even if some people think it implies twirling testicles. The upside: There was no chance anyone had already reserved the URL.
(The author is the lead singer of Indus Creed)
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(This story appears in the Jan-Feb 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)