February 20, 2020

Classically Named

While John Lennon certainly had a role in choosing the Beatles’ band name, the record is rather inconsistent about other aspects of this choice. In early 1960, the band, then known as the “Quarry Men,” were playing a lot of Buddy Holly’s Crickets songs, and the alternative insect name idea took shape. During that year, the band played as the Silver Beetles, Silver Beats, the Silver Beatles, and finally, in August 1960, just the Beatles. Band members fielded the name origin question many times, and were sometimes facetious or evasive in answering. However, John answered it this way for the 1968 Beatles authorized biography: “I was sitting at home one day just thinking about what good name the Crickets would be for an English group. The idea of beetles came into my head. I decided to spell it BEATles to make it look like beat music, just as a joke.” Beatle historian Bill Harry credits early band member Stuart Sutcliffe with the insect name, but John with the ultimate “ea” spelling. However, John twice described a wholly different inspiration: “Well, I had a vision when I was twelve. And I saw a man on a flaming pie, and he said, ‘You are the Beatles with an A.’ And so we are.” While this seems playful, Paul McCartney said in one interview that Yoko Ono believed that John had such a vision and hence deserved full credit for the name. George Harrison and others close to the band have suggested that the 1953 Marlon Brando film “The Wild One” inspired the name, since “The Beetles” was a motorcycle gang in the movie. However, band historian Bill Harry refutes this, pointing out this movie was banned in England until long after the Beatles were named, so the band members could have at most heard about the movie, but not actually seen it yet.

The Rolling Stones were named for the Muddy Waters song “Rollin’ Stone.” When early band member Brian Jones was called by Jazz News magazine and asked the name of his band, he looked down at Muddy’s album on the floor and saw that song title.

After some musicians which included two future Led Zeppelin members played a great session together, they pondered forming a band and discussed possible names. Among them was The Who drummer Keith Moon, who said: “We can call it Led Zeppelin, because it can only go down, like a lead balloon.” Keith did not join the later band, but Jimmy Page loved his idea.