While having a great band name is by no means a be-all, end-all, it never hurts to have a badass moniker. Especially in heavy music, having a name that conveys what the band sounds like, looks great in logo form and sounds cool when someone says it makes for a huge advantage — both in reeling prospective listeners in and keeping them there by convincing them to buy a record or a shirt with that name plastered on the front. Which makes it all the more remarkable that some of the most iconic bands in heavy-music history started out with really bad names — monikers so lame, offensive or downright dumb that they would've hindered their future success if they didn't make much-needed switches early in their careers.
Below are 10 great bands from all over the heavy map — grunge, hardcore, thrash and more — who started out with god-awful names before they picked the one that helped make them stars.
Original Band Name: Fuck
Alice in Chains isn't the most tasteful band name one could've picked, a perverted play on Alice in Wonderland that imagines the innocent protagonist in bondage. That said, it's a helluva lot better than what the Seattle alt-metal luminaries were previously billing themselves. After cycling through comparatively tame monikers like Mothra and Diamond Lie, the fledgling band — singer Layne Staley, guitarist Jerry Cantrell, bassist Mike Star and drummer Sean Kinney — started literally calling themselves Fuck while they kicked around the Pacific Northwest underground. "We weren't getting work anyway, so we thought it wouldn't hurt us," Staley once told Rolling Stone, recalling how they used to pass out condoms that said "Fuck the band" as a cheap publicity stunt
Eventually, knowing that they had absolutely zero future with a name as stupidly offensive as Fuck, the group adopted Alice in Chains — which was a recycled version of Alice 'N Chains, the moniker of the hair-metal band Staley fronted in the mid-Eighties, who were themselves originally called Sleze. Apparently, band names were never these guys' strong suit, but by god could they rip some riffin', screamin' grunge-metal like no other.
Original Band Name: Panic
Panic isn't an atrocious band name, which is why, according to Discogs, there've been upwards of 50 Panics in music history — many of which are punk or metal. If Black Flag continued under that moniker after using it from 1976 to 1978, then maybe they still would've been a kickass punk band, but there's a chance they wouldn't have changed the shape of music forever. A huge reason why the band became so notorious in California was by spray-painting their iconic logo — a flag broken into four black bars — on every surface they could find in L.A., which spread the word to local punks and fooled cops into thinking they were some kind of gang, leading to the notoriously violent beatdowns at their shows that would give them and their hardcore scene peers visibility on local news channels.
More than just an aesthetically pleasing pair of words, the black flag is the anarchist symbol and the opposite of the white flag associated with surrendering. Calling themselves Black Flag perfectly encapsulated their militant tenacity to not let anyone — violent cops, jocks, rednecks, etc. — or anything — shady labels, grueling tours, or their squalorous living conditions — stop them from pioneering a hardcore-punk network throughout the U.S. and creating the DIY ethos that spawned so much independent music thereafter. When you look at it that way, the name Panic wasn't going to cut it.
Original Band Name: The Polka Tulk Blues Band
Black Sabbath created metal. The sound, lyrics and look of their 1970 debut was the full package right from the jump, a foreboding masterpiece that was 10 shades darker than anything of its time — launching not just one of the greatest bands ever, but also the greatest genre ever (in our opinion, of course). The Polka Tulk Blues Band, on the other hand, no matter what kind of music they make, aren't founding anything. The Polka Tulk Blues Band are playing the wedding for a couple of well-dressed badgers in an English fairytale. The Polka Tulk Blues Band's only claim to fame is writing the jingle for a shoe-shining company. There's literally nothing metal — hell, not even proto-metal — about the name the Polka Tulk Blues Band, so we can't emphasize enough how thankful we are that Black Sabbath didn't actually continue making music under that name.
But, yes, there was a time when the godfathers of heavy metal called themselves that. Back when the core four — Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward — started the project in 1968, they were initially a six-piece featuring a saxophonist and a slide guitar player, which actually makes a lot of sense for a group called the Polka Tulk Blues Band. Within a year's time, they ditched the other two guys, refocused their sound, changed their name a few times and eventually landed on Black Sabbath. As was meant to be.
Original Band Name: Wicked Lester
Between their absurd outfits, saucy stage moves and party-time lyrics, KISS were already torturing suburban parents worldwide throughout their Seventies and Eighties heyday — but imagine how much worse it would've been if their name was Wicked Lester? The hard-rock group's original moniker brings to mind icky weirdos or the type of hammy bar-rock band that Jack Black was fronting at the start of School of Rock — the sort of group who thinks they're as cool and effortlessly rambunctious as KISS but actually aren't even close.
Unsurprisingly, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley weren't achieving the success they dreamed of when they were briefly going by that lame handle, so they refined their sound and image, changed their name to KISS, linked up with a few new bandmates and became one of the most successful rock bands of all time — a future that wasn't in the cards for ol' Wicked Lester.
Original Band Name: Burn the Priest
Of all the other OG names on this list, Burn the Priest is by far the best. Randy Blythe and his Richmond bandmates were young, pissed-off and trying to make a statement in every aspect of their music — wrathful politically charged lyricism, decimating death-groove instrumentation and the vocalist's deranged hardcore-punk ferocity — and Burn the Priest captured exactly what they were going for on their 1999 debut. That said, the band had ambitions that extended beyond the underground extreme-metal circuit, and a black-metal-esque moniker that literally called for the frying of a religious figure wasn't going to get them there. They didn't tone down their music an inch on their 2000 debut as Lamb of God, New American Gospel, so the Christian connotation still had a blasphemous effect — but the new name was also ambiguous enough to allow them access to radio play and Metallica support slots down the line.
Original Band Name: Pen Cap Chew
What was it with grunge bands cycling through a bunch of ill-conceived names before finally picking a decent one that stuck? (See also Pearl Jam's original moniker, Mookie Blaylock.) Must've been something in the water. Before they became Nirvana — a word that probably made people think they were Buddhist hippies instead of a ragged, tortured noise-punk band — Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and then-drummer Aaron Burckhard started playing around Aberdeen under a few different handles that were all pretty terrible and incongruent with their sound and vibe. The most notable one is Skid Row, which they started calling themselves at practically the same time another, much different-sounding band with the same name popped up across the country. However, even worse than Skid Row — which evokes a sort of L.A. rot that Nirvana's music doesn't embody — they also went by the names Pen Cap Chew and Ted Ed Fred, which both sound like joke bands or the names of Eighties hardcore groups who never got it together to cut a 7-inch. "Nirvana" looks much better on a shirt.
Original Band Name: Virgin Killer
Having formed in 1980 — one year before Anthrax, Slayer and even Metallica — Overkill were one of the first thrash-metal groups, and one of the foundational bands from the East Coast thrash scene. Like most metal acts of their time, the New Jersey crew were inspired by the punk bands who took over rock in the late Seventies, and they borrowed some of that genre's nihilistic rudeness during their early years. Bassist D.D. Verni and OG drummer Rat Skates initially played in a foul-mouthed punk group called the Lubricunts, and then started a new band with a slightly different musical direction but an equally unsavory moniker.
Virgin Killer is what they called themselves in their earliest incarnation, which never would've flown if the band wanted to get serious and bring their music to the masses the way they did. Not long after they formed, the group paid homage to their biggest influence, Motörhead, and changed their name to Overkill in honor of Lemmy and Co.'s 1979 breakthrough LP. Overkill's badass sound deserved a name that record stores could proudly display, and thankfully they got one.
Original Band Name: Wings of Fire
Slayer have one of the hardest names in metal history. The implied aggression of the word itself, how it looks in logo form, and the way it rolls off the tongue with the swift speed of a samurai warrior slicing a motherfucker's head off. It's great, so to think that the band almost went with a completely different, much less gnarly moniker is insane. In a 2015 interview with Loudwire, drummer Dave Lombardo revealed that when the group were finalizing a name around the time of their 1981 formation, it came down to a choice between Slayer and Wings of Fire. Wings of Fire may have been cool in 1973, but by the end of the Eighties, Wings of Fire would've sounded like a bargain-bin hair-metal band — while Slayer sounds like a group of hell-spawned maniacs playing the fastest shit in all the land. Slayer was the right choice.
Original Band Name: The Pale Ones
Similar to Slayer, Slipknot is such a powerfully concise and eerily foreboding name that it feels like the only reasonable way of tagging the band's quintessentially aggro sound. But for the purposes of this exercise, queue up "People=Shit," close your eyes and try to decide if it would have the same world-burning impact if the nine-man squad playing it called themselves the Pale Ones. That's what percussionist Shawn "Clown" Crahan and late bassist Paul Gray initially dubbed themselves when they formed the group in 1995, but after adding late drummer Joey Jordison into the fold, they switched their name to the even less intimidating Meld before Jordison suggested they adopt the Slipknot moniker. Pale Ones sounds like a bunch of vampire-loving goth-metal freaks, and Meld sounds like a lame grunge band who never got off the ground, but Slipknot does justice to the Nine's twisted image and ferocious sound.
Original Band Name: New Minority
Type O Negative are one of the most cultishly adored metal bands of the Nineties, and a lot of that has to do with their extra-musical qualities. Sure, their unique goth-metal sound buttressed by Peter Steele's steamy croak still tantalizes listeners decades later, but their carefully curated aesthetic (Steele would spend countless obsessing over the perfect shade of green, for instance) is what makes them such a complete creative project, and the name Type O Negative is a major piece of the puzzle — bringing to mind the idea of blood in a way that isn't gory or obscene. The phrase plays extremely well with the gothic romanticism of their look and subject matter, whereas a name like New Minority, which they originally went by, would've derailed the whole shebang.
Although it didn't come through in Type O's most beloved music all that much, the songs Steele wrote for his Eighties crossover crew Carnivore ("U.S.A. for U.S.A.," "Male Supremacy," "Jesus Hitler," etc.) and sometimes for Type O ("Der Untermensch") knowingly toed the fine line between edgy humor and questionable politics. When he formed the band that would become Type O under the name New Minority in 1989, some of that offensive shock-rock impulse was still at the forefront. Ultimately, it was a good choice to pare that back and pick a moniker (after trying out the names Repulsion and Sub Zero for size) that fit perfectly with where the project would end up.