While in Las Vegas last year to fulfill best man duties for my friend Jeff, we were killing time at the Mandalay Bay blackjack tables when we noticed a band starting to set up.
The group of six had all the markings of a cheesy casino cover act: They were color-coordinated in red attire. Some had hats on. Some had mullets. One guy sported a keyboard tie.
Jeff and I began a series of increasingly ridiculous guesses as to what the dreadful act's name might be:
The Muffin Tops.
Royal Water Closets.
On a whim, Jeff said, "Let's go find out what they're really called."
We sauntered over to the lanky guitarist, who was meticulously setting up his Ibanez gear.
Jeff asked, "What time are you guys going on?"
"In about 20 minutes," the guitarist said, not looking up from his sunglasses.
"Cool. What are you guys called?" I asked.
The guitarist took a long drag from his cigarette, then announced, "We're Party Central."
Although I nearly fainted trying to suppress laughter, I began to envision a band meeting where the members were pitching names ... and Party Central was the winner that everyone agreed upon?
The point of this gambling-tinged flashback: A name often says everything you need to know about a band without ever having to hear its music.
In Lawrence, where everyone is either in a band or knows somebody in one, the name game proves to be a constant struggle.
Lawrence drummer Eric Melin of Dead Girls Ruin Everything says his quartet's provocative name comes with two disadvantages:
1. "People get us confused with Pretty Girls Make Graves," Melin says.
2. "People think we are some kind of metal-core screamo outfit. Dead Girls Ruin Everything doesn't exactly scream 'power pop.' On the other hand, lots of people listen to us just because they are curious about the name."
"As much as I love the guys, and as much as I love their music, Dead Girls Ruin Everything has to take the cake for worst local name of all time," says Billy Brimblecom, drummer for Blackpool Lights.
Brimblecom describes the process of naming Blackpool Lights as "painstaking."
"I personally came up with around 200 names that one or more of us shot down. My friend Jason Sudeikis (a cast member of "Saturday Night Live") tried to help, coming up with names like Found Hundo, Boobies and Full-Blown AIDS. The latter was at least thought-provoking."
After narrowing the list to 100, the musicians made their eventual selection.
"Then, later that night we found out there was a White Stripes DVD called 'Under Blackpool Lights' released the same week," Brimblecom recalls. "I insisted we stand our ground, and it has yet to bite us in the (butt)."
The Lawrence tandem known as Drakaar Sauna admits to coming up with its two-word moniker rather quickly.
Has the group encountered any professional drawbacks because of its eccentric name?
"Perhaps," says singer/guitarist Wallace Cochran. "But in the range of professional drawbacks, this would finish a distant third to our attitudes and lack of dynamic musicianship. Occasionally we have been booked as a progressive Nordic burlesque review, which is at least partially thanks to our name."
William Allen White Foundation professor Charles Marsh spent much of his youth as a bassist in local bands.
"Picking the name was harder than finding places to play," Marsh says. "I earned the nickname Tater because I was in a band that wanted to call itself Potatohead. I said, 'If we call it that, I quit!' So guess what my nickname instantly became?"
Marsh, who teaches marketing at Kansas University, claims the difficulty in finding a perfect band name is because what is catchy to one person may be offensive, irrelevant or perplexing to another.
"My 16-year-old son loves Papa Roach. To my generation, roach has at least two meanings - neither of which is positive anymore. ... But you might want to choose a name designed to alienate certain groups, because as you alienate certain groups you'll attract others," he says.
Although he admits to having the benefit of hindsight, Marsh thinks simple names like The Who and The Beatles are particularly effective because they are built to last.
He says, "One reason marketing has so much appeal to me is we can analyze things. But at the heart of it, band names remain a mystery - just like great poetry. Why is My Chemical Romance a great name for a band and Sum 41 isn't? My Chemical Romance just sparks so many great ideas. It makes me sit down and wonder. And Sum 41 doesn't have that same resonance."
Between stupid and clever
Kief's Downtown Music manager Steve Wilson has witnessed his share of band names. First, as singer of the Lawrence act Thumbs ("which we named after seeing this public TV thing on opposable digits and their role in the advance of the species," he says), and the second from seeing thousands of records come through his store over the decades.
"Several things influence whether I listen to something or how quickly I listen to something. And certainly a (crappy) name will put you on the back burner," he says.
When it comes to local acts throughout the years, Wilson says, "The Embarrassment was a great name, particularly for those guys. Whereas, even though I have affection for these guys, Mortal Micronotz never did it for me. It was one of those comic book names you had to be 14 to care about.
"As for newer stuff, I like The Pomonas. I'll take that over Appleseed Cast. I don't know what that means, and for some reason it doesn't intrigue me."
For national acts, Wilson cites one particular pet peeve that has become a naming trend.
"It's names that are complete sentences, like I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness," he says of the Austin, Texas, act. "On the one level, it's funny. But it's also representative of something I think is silly."
Wilson adds, "Whether it's something as simple as The Libertines or The Decemberists, I hear that and go, 'How did they get that?' If something intrigues me or has some sort of poetic or historical resonance, I'm going to listen to that before I listen to, say, The Plain White T's."
Or Party Central, for that matter.
My list of worst band names
"Famous" bands only, in no particular order:
¢ Limp Bizkit
¢ Toad the Wet Sprocket
¢ Gnarls Barkley
¢ Ace of Base
¢ Hootie & the Blowfish
¢ String Cheese Incident
¢ Meat Beat Manifesto
¢ Def Leppard
¢ (hed) pe
¢ Cherry Poppin' Daddies
¢ Grand Funk Railroad
¢ Jesus and Mary Chain
¢ Five for Fighting
¢ Trout Fishing in America
¢ Cat Power
¢ Big & Rich
¢ Boyz II Men
¢ Puddle of Mudd
¢ Mr. Mister
¢ Jefferson Starship
¢ Bowling for Soup
¢ Echo and the Bunnymen
¢ The Dave Matthews Band