Shock ‘n’ Roll: 7 Controversial Band Names

There's far more to scandalizing names than body parts and four-letter words

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Swing a guitar and there’s a good chance you’ll hit a band with a “look-at-me!” name incorporating some part of the human anatomy or a word you can’t say on television. But those aren’t the only entertainers with controversial aliases. Take all Asian-American band The Slants. As TIME reported on Wednesday, band founder Simon Tam plans to go to court this week in hopes of forcing the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to register his band’s name—something government officials have declined to do so far, saying it’s disparaging to people of Asian descent.

(READ: ‘The Slants’ Suit: Asian-American Band Goes to Court Over Name)

Tam argues that there is no controversy, or, at least, that there shouldn’t be. The band, he says, has taken a word used as a slur and is instead using it to empower. “Asian-Americans,” he says, “understand.” The USPTO, at least for now, disagrees. Here’s a look a seven other band names that have feather-ruffling names or namesakes, some more obvious and intentional than others.

I Am the World Trade Center

Any band name that reminds people of 9/11 is going to raise eyebrows, if not hackles—even if, as was the case with this New York electronic duo, the name pre-dated the September 11 attacks. Three days after smoke billowed up from downtown Manhattan, MTV reported that the band was, at least temporarily, shortening their name to “I Am The …” out of respect for the victims and their survivors. The year before, band members Dan Geller and Amy Dykes had chosen the name as a metaphor for their relationship, seeing the towers as two entities standing tall together yet independently.

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The Muslims

Indie band the Soft Pack had a hard time when they went by another name: The Muslims. “We were sick of it,” guitarist Matty McLoughlin said after they announced the change in 2008. “Sick of questions, jihad comments, basically everything about it. It became a total nuisance.” The San Diego musicians had chosen the name rather arbitrarily, saying that it wasn’t supposed to describe them or associate them with anything in particular. Their decision to abandon the title had critics, too. “You had a super-sexy name that was challenging and daring and naughty and funny and inappropriate,” wrote Guardian music journalist Steven Wells, “and you bottled it.”

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Dead Kennedys

Emphasizing the deadness of a beloved, assassinated American president is not a subtle choice. And it’s not particularly unexpected from a punk band that took shots at Ronald Reagan, named an album Frankenchrist and illustrated a cover with a penis. “Over a spalshy eight-year career, Dead Kennedys managed to outrage a curious array of parties,” SPIN‘s RJ Smith wrote in 2000. “Congressional subcommittees used their name in vain, newspaper editors refused to print it.” One anthology of popular music declared that, “Their name alone practically ensured commercial failure in the U.S.” But it probably helped solidify them as punk-rock legends.

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Steely Dan

File this backstory under “I bet you didn’t know …” cocktail banter. The name Steely Dan, chosen by founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, was inspired by a fictional dildo in William S. Burroughs beat-generation novel Naked Lunch. (The bedroom aid’s full name was “Steely Dan III from Yokohama.”) Given how esoteric the reference is, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers’ name flies safely under the parental-control radar. The book itself, full of drug-infused, sexual stories about life in the 1950s, was banned in cities like Boston and Los Angeles.

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Joy Division

Like Steely Dan, the name of this 70s rock band may seem innocuous. But it ranks among the world’s more disturbing euphemisms. It comes from Yehiel Dinur’s 1950s Holocaust novel House of Dolls, an account of  women being forced into brothels—known as “joy divisions”—near Nazi concentration camps where they were sexually abused. “While the band may have felt they were empathizing with, or calling attention to perhaps the greatest atrocity the Nazis committed,” Chris Ott writes in a book about the band’s musical legacy, “the name Joy Division referred to an aberration so offensive, it probably shouldn’t have been associated with something so slight as pop music.”

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N.W.A

As part of the group that took gangsta rap out of Compton and to the masses, artists like Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E went by an incendiary acronym: N.W.A, or Niggaz With Attitude. “In the mainstream press and among African Americans nationwide, N.W.A, by virtue of their name, single-handedly reignited a debate about the word n—–,” Greg Tate writes in Britannica’s Guide to Black History. They courted other controversy too, releasing singles like “F— tha Police,” which earned them a letter of disapproval from the FBI, and riddling their lyrics with what Tate calls “savage” and “persistent misogyny.”

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Marilyn Manson

There have been few quiet, hunky-dory things about shock rocker group Marilyn Manson, a band known for provocative androgyny, violent lyrics and having a name that is half starlet and half serial killer. Lead singer Brian Warner shares his alias with the band and has argued in interviews that neither of his namesakes—Marilyn Monroe and Charles Manson—is quite so evil or innocent as they seem. In a congressional hearing about marketing violence to children, held in the wake of the Columbine shootings, lawmakers railed at “the rock singer whose lyrics are laced with violence because he named himself after Charles Manson, a mass murder.”

3 comments
vrcplou
vrcplou

The Vibrators, The Stranglers, The Slits.  Although none of these are mainstream enough to be "controversial", I guess.

cowboyesfan
cowboyesfan

List fails without Butthole Surfers and Hitler Youth.

SimonTheTam
SimonTheTam

Ironic: almost every one of these artists have trademarks on the name, while "Slants" remains elusive.