Q&A: ‘AC/DC’, ‘Led Zep’, ‘Bee Gees’ – the origin of classic band names

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, name that band…

Q: Hey AWC, I thought we might have some fun this week.

A: That’s highly unusual.

Q: Very funny. Specifically, I’d like to ask about the origin of some famous band names.

A: You’re right – that is fun. But there are a lot of bands.

Q: Maybe we just look at the older ‘1980s and earlier’ ones in this chat? We can do more modern bands another time.

A: Deal. Where do you want to begin?

Q: Well, it’s a beautiful day and we haven’t yet found what we’re looking for… so, how about U2?

A: We’d probably do that one with or without you.

Q: Haha. It’s easy right – named after the American U2 spy planes, yeah?

A: Well, sort of. They originally called themselves ‘Feedback’ but changed their name to ‘U2’ two years later in 1978. Lead singer Bono later claimed in an interview that a friend had given them a list of names and they simply hated ‘U2’ the least – with it giving general future vibes and hints of spy planes and U-boats.

Q: And is it true that their hit ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ was about a malfunctioning GPS unit?

A: Haha. No.

Q: Is it about US streets then, which are all numbers – like 34th Street?

A: Cute, but also no. Again, according to Bono, that song is about searching for a spiritual place “where there are no limitations” – as well as being about escaping their hometown of Belfast and the way a city can trap you or hold you back.

Q: Wow, deep. Okay, next U band. UB40?

A: This UK reggae-pop band also named themselves in 1978 and it came from the Unemployment Benefit (UB) form 40 that anyone looking for work at the time had to complete to claim money.

Q: Okay, The Beatles? What’s the story there?

A: Well, most trivia-buffs will know these fab four started out as ‘The Quarrymen’ in the late 1950s. It was John Lennon and his buddy Stuart Sutcliffe that suggested a name change to ‘Beatals’ – to pay tribute to the recently-deceased Buddy Holly’s band, ‘The Crickets’. It would morph to the ‘Silver Beats’ and then the ‘Silver Beatles’ (among others) before ending on the one we remember.

Q: Something Australian – AC/DC?

A: Angus and Malcolm Young literally stitched this name together. Or their sister Margaret did – suggesting the name after seeing it printed on an electrical adaptor for her sewing machine!

Q: Thanks sis!

A: It gets better, because Margaret was also the one who first suggested Angus wear a school uniform on stage! History in the making.

Q: What’s something else funny sounding? How about Lynyrd Skynyrd?

A: This American rock band of the 1970s jokingly paid tribute to their school’s PE teacher, Leonard Skinner, who had hated boys who had long hair. 

Q: Led Zeppelin?

A: This band started life as ‘The Yardbirds’ then ‘The New Yardbirds’, but were forced to change it in 1968 by legal action of a former member. So, thinking that their newly formed line-up might ‘go down like a lead balloon’ (i.e. fail), they went with ‘lead zeppelin’ – in reference to the 1937 Hindenburg zeppelin disaster. 

Q: Instead of sinking though, they climbed the stairway to heaven!

A: True. They would ultimately change the spelling to ‘led’ so people didn’t pronounce it like a ‘leed’.

Q: People really do have a lot of trouble with ‘lead’ and ‘led’, don’t they?

A: They sure do. We spoke about it previously here.

Q: While we’re in this corner of the music spectrum, can you tell me about ZZ Top?

A: Good one. This name came about in 1969 as the band was looking for a good title. They noticed from band posters that a lot of musicians had initials, such as BB King and ZZ Hill. So, why not combine them to create ‘ZZ King’? However, this was deemed too similar, so they dug out the thesaurus and figured a king is at the ‘Top’. 

Q: And still going more than 50 years later. As names go, it certainly had legs!

A: And it knew how to use them.

Q: Okay, quickfire round. ABBA?

A: From each of their names – Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny and Anni-Frid.

Q: The B-52s?

A: From the alternative name for the ‘beehive’ 1960s hairstyle, which in turn was named after the B-52 bomber aeroplane.

Q: Beastie Boys?

A: While technically not the origin, the band retrofitted the name to be an acronym meaning ““Boys Entering Anarchistic States Towards Inner Excellence”.

Q: Cool. Okay – Jethro Tull? How was that seed planted?

A: A booking agent gave the band this name after the guy who invented a horse-drawn seed drill in 1701 and revolutionised modern agriculture.

Q: Marilyn Manson?

A: Exactly what it sounds like – a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Charles Manson.

Q: Frankie Goes to Hollywood? Who was Frankie?

A: It was Frank Sinatra! The band saw the line on a poster in their rehearsal space announcing Sinatra’s move from Las Vegas to Los Angeles.

Q: Duran Duran?

A: From the character, Dr Durand Durand from the 1968 film, Barbarella.

Q: And finally, the Bee Gees? That’s easy – ‘Brothers Gibb’, yeah?

A: Actually, no – stop the clock. That common misconception is just a coincidence. The band’s name was actually created in Brisbane, Australia in 1960 – from three people with the initials ‘BG’. Band member, Barry Gibb, a promoter named Bill Goode, who used to hire the boys as entertainment at his speedway track, and the radio presenter he subsequently introduced the band to, Bill Gates.

Q: Is he the—

A: Nope. A different Bill Gates. It was Gates who suggested naming the group the ‘BGs’ – which they later changed to ‘Bee Gees’.

Q: Fascinating! Well, we better ‘Be Going’ – this has been fun. We’ll have to do a sequel!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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