In a 1983 interview with Musician Magazine, Elvis Costello said that, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture – it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.”
The quote has since been attributed to a dozen other artists, from Thelonius Monk to Steve Martin (I’m surprised no one’s given Churchhill a nod). The sentiment seems to have lived on as a challenge to writers, especially in this era of the blog, so here’s my contribution. Musicians may be designated as such for their mastery of instrumentation and sound, but they do plenty of wonderfully creative things with language, and often the first indication can be found in the origin of bands’ names, which can reveal thoughtful word-play, allusions to literature and history, and foreign language associations. Here is a list of 20 band name etymologies:
Originally named “Bauhaus 1919” after the German Bauhaus art movement, and shortened to “Bauhaus” in 1979
Belle and Sebastian
Inspired from a French children’s television series about a boy and his dog. The show was based on a series of French novels called Belle et Sébastien by Cécile Aubry.
Named after the pinhole camera: an optical device that dates back as far as 400 b.c.e. and was used for drawing and entertainment. It is one of the inventions leading to photography
Italian for “crazy food”.
Named after the 19th century Russian revolutionary group in St. Petersburg who staged a failed coup against the Tsar at the time.
Taken from a French magazine. It means “Fashion dispatch”.
They take their name from Anthony Burgess’ Nadsat word for “young girl,” which is itself derived from the Russian word (девочка) of the same meaning.
After the dance technique “Eurythmy”, which Annie Lennox studied as a child. The word eurythmy stems from Greek roots meaning beautiful or harmonious rhythm; the term was used by Greek and Roman architects to refer to the harmonious proportions of a design or building. Dancing about architecture, indeed!
The name of the trio comes from a form of wordplay very common in Rioplatense Spanish that involves the reversal of syllables. Thus, the word “Tango” becomes “Gotan”, the name the trio have chosen for their project.
Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, offers the definition “Fucked Up, Got Ambushed, Zipped In” in reference to those who were ambushed and subsequently ‘zipped in’ to body bags during the Vietnam war. Or, it possibly derives from the Italian-American slang term ‘fugazi’ for something that is “forged/not authentic.”
In a 1987 interview the band said the name was taken from the Danish language. It translates to “Do you Remember?”. The band claims they didn’t know about the board game of the same name that was heavily advertised on television in the ’70s. They later met George Beck, the guy who created the game and actually played a game with him.
From the sado-masochistic novel ‘The House of Dolls’ by Karol Cetinsky. Joy Divisions were lines of huts in which deported women were forced to prostitute themselves to Nazi officers on leave.
American slang for an improvised roach-clip consisting of a split paper match. At least I didn’t add Steely Dan.
Les Savy Fav
The name is loosely based on a group of French artists characterized by the rejection of form who were dubbed Les Fauves, or, the wild beasts.
Swahili for “thinking while dancing” — they started out as a musical theater group called “The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo”.
Shortened from “Pogue Mahone”, which is a distorted version of Póg Mo hÓn, which is Irish Gaelic for “kiss my ass”.
Röyksopp, which literally means ” smoke mushroom”, is the Norwegian name for puffball mushrooms that will make a smoky cloud if touched.
The singer was inspired when translating the Motörhead song Dancing on your Grave, which is “Dancando Na Sepultura” in Portuguese.
From lead singer Jón Þór Birgisson’s younger sister Sigurrós, who was born the same day as the band was formed. Her name means Victory Rose in Icelandic.
Latin for ‘the greatest amount of voice.’
Yo La Tengo
It translates to “I’ve got it”. The band’s official website offers the following short video with the amusing baseball anecdote behind the name: Yo La Tengo and the Mets: A Band Name Origin
This list just the tip of the iceberg of available information on the subject of band name origins. Here is a list of my sources, which provide more extensive entries:
Heathen World’s Guide to Band Names