Subscribe

(Credit: Alamy)

From David Bowie to Bob Dylan: 10 rock stars and how they got their names

After a stint working in advertising, Frank Zappa realised that modern music was “50 per cent” to do with the image. While that quota might be a little bit high, his sagacious mind had, nevertheless, identified a truth universally acknowledged within the industry’s backrooms but rarely amid consumers on the shop floor: that music is a product to be sold. As such, it needs all the same marketing ploys that any other commodity needs, including the right brand name. 

Even when blunt terms that sound so unfitting of the spiritual wonder of music are sequestered (i.e. commodity), the fact remains that an artist’s entire creative gestalt is there for our judgement these days. Part of the beauty of pop culture is that personality and talent sit alongside each other, and when we buy into an oeuvre, we often celebrate the whole thing.  

Thus, a name can say a lot about an artist and how they choose to present themselves to the world. A band with a name like Half Man Half Biscuit are never likely to be extolling the virtues of anything overtly profound, and likewise, you get the impression that King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard are likely to be somewhat experimental and anything but banal from the name alone.  

In short, a musical moniker is by no means something that will define your work, but it’s a million miles away from a flippant decision considering it is how you will be known for the rest of your artistic life. Below we’re looking at ten rock stars and the fascinating backstories to their names. 

How rock stars got their names:

Bob Dylan (Robert Allen Zimmerman)

Bob Dylan is now a name cemented in the aeons of musical history. While it is widely known that the star was born Robert Zimmerman, it is less well known why he settled on Dylan as his name forevermore. On the 2nd of August, 1962, the 21-year-old Minnesotan became known as Bob Dylan for the very first time.  

He had initially been playing under the name of Elston Gunn, but as he explained in his memoir Chronicles One, that switch was only temporary. “What I was going to do as soon as I left home was just call myself Robert Allen. As far as I was concerned, that was who I was – that’s what my parents named me. It sounded like the name of a Scottish king, and I liked it. There was little of my identity that wasn’t in it.” 

However, he goes on to write: “The first time I was asked my name in the Twin Cities. I instinctively and automatically, without thinking, simply said: ‘Bob Dylan.’ Now, I had to get used to people calling me Bob.”

He goes on to say: “I had suspected that the musician changed the spelling of Allen to Allyn. I could see why. It looked more exotic, more inscrutable. I was going to do this too. Instead of Robert Allen, it would be Robert Allyn. Then, sometime later, unexpectedly, I’d seen some poems by Dylan Thomas,” he added.

Concluding: “Dylan and Allyn sounded similar: Robert Dylan, Robert Allyn. I couldn’t decide – the letter D came on stronger. But Robert Dylan didn’t look or sound as good as Robert Allyn. People had always called me either Robert or Bobby, but Bobby Dylan sounded too skittish to me, and besides, there was already a Bobby Darin, a Bobby Vee, a Bobby Rydell, a Bobby Neely and a lot of other Bobby.” Thus, fate had forced his hand and Bob Dylan was the last moniker on the shelf. 

David Bowie (David Robert Jones)

From an early age, the boy who would become known as David Bowie identified his birth name as a little bit beige for his phosphorescent character. Therefore, when he first dabbled in music, he immediately set about crafting a stage name. 

Initially, the tweak was subtle, simply veering to Davy Jones, hoping to stir up connotations of the famous pirate. Whilst he would go on to wear an eyepatch, the name still wasn’t quite his glass slipper, and Davy Jones of The Monkees was an unavoidable hurdle for the star who had not quite fallen to Earth just yet. His next step was to go with Tom Jones, but a certain Welsh performer took issue with that.  

The way he finally happened on David Bowie is delineated in the book America in the British Imagination: 1945 to the Present; John Lyons writes: “In 1965, David Jones adopted the name David Bowie in homage to Jim Bowie.” Jim Bowie was the protagonist of the 1960 historical war film The Alamo, directed by John Wayne. Played by actor Richard Widmark, Bowie was a Texan rebel in the film. 

Bono (Paul Hewson)

Like a Brazilian footballer, Paul Hewson has forever been known under his mono-name Bono. Fortunately for Bono, his nickname dates back to his boyhood and is not just some latter-day self-dubbed snatch at a semblance of cool.  

So the story goes, as a youngster in Dublin, Hewson was a member of a street gang called ‘Lypton Village’. The young kids didn’t seem to get up too much other than patrolling the local neighbourhoods and larking about. However, one shop in town caught their eye – a hearing aid establishment under the name Bono Vox which is Latin for “good voice”. Finding it applicable for the crony formerly known as Hewson, the name stuck, and the rest is ancient history. 

Freddie Mercury (Farrokh Bulsara)

Freddie Mercury was born in Zanzibar in 1946 to Parsi-Indian parents before his family fled during the revolution and relocated to Middlesex, England in 1964. He had already become known as Freddie owing to a nickname given to him by English teachers at the boarding school he attended in India, but the rock ‘n’ roll surname wouldn’t come until quite a bit later. 

According to Brian May, Freddie had always thought about swapping Bulsara for something a bit more enigmatic, and upon writing the Queen track ‘My Fairy King’, he found his new name. The song contains the lyric “Mother Mercury, look what you’ve done to me…”. Freddie told May that the song was about his mother, and he intended to take up her spiritual epithet as his own.

Joe Strummer (John Mellor)

John Mellor is a solid name, the sort that hints at a good reliable character, but it seems more befitting of a cracking reasonably priced joiner than an iconoclastic revolutionary. Thus, Strummer needed something different, and he found his name quite simply.

He had been known as Joe among friends for a long time, but the rocking surname fell into place when his early days as a musical wannabe owing to his distinctive self-taught guitar style. It would seem that this particular rock ‘n’ roll moniker came about in the exact way you always imagined it had in the first place, but it always pays to double-check nevertheless.

Flea (Michael Balzary)

Flea is now a name more synonymous with bass guitar than a genus of over 2000 species with a global population. However, interestingly, in this case, it is not a cooler-than-cool name like Johnny Thunders or Slash, and Michael Balzary is a pretty catchy title in the first place.

The reason that the switch came about was simply beyond the bassist’s control. He was dubbed ‘Mickey B. The Flea’ by his bandmate Anthony Kiedis when the two were just schoolmates because he was constantly springing about like a restless bug who had landed in an Espresso earlier that morning. Naturally, the name eroded down to just Flea, and he was referred to by his nickname almost exclusively ever since. 

Iggy Pop (James Osterberg Jr)

James Osterberg Jr had one hell of a musical education. As he said himself, “My cover band, The Iguanas… had a professional engagement the summer that we graduated high school at a teen club called The Ponytail in northern Michigan. They served Cokes. And a lot of big acts came through. I got to play drums behind the Shangri-Las, the Crystals, the Four Tops. Learned a lot.”

Determined to cling to a bit of that high school fame, he willingly accepted the name Iggy as a shortening of his band’s name. The ‘Pop’ element came through rather more obscure circumstances. 

During his time living with The Stooges and experimenting with drugs, the frontman shaved off his eyebrows and began to resemble a completely hairless acquaintance of the band by the name of Jimmy Pop. Seeing that the two now looked related in some follicle fraternity way, he took up the hairless surname. 

Alice Cooper (Vince Furnier)

It would seem that the wild frontman, formerly known as Vince Furnier, never actually intended to change his name; he simply found himself typecast as a homicidal geriatric. 

Alice Cooper was originally a replacement band name after Todd Rundgren snatched the group’s first title of Nazz. However, this offered up a creative clean slate and the band decided to get meta, crafting a fictional character who would front the group – a murderous and demented old woman by the name of Alice Cooper. Furnier played the role so well that it simply stuck.

The entire Ramones

Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy were the original gang of brats that brought punk to the masses. Over the years, a few faces came and went, but just about every member married into the band’s fictional surname. 

Like so many other things in music, the name itself came from none other than The Beatles. 

Johnny Ramone once revealed: “Paul [McCartney] would check into a hotel using the name Paul Ramon. Dee Dee was a big fan, so he changed his name to Dee Dee Ramone. We decided to call the band the Ramones.” They ran with the mantra of brotherhood and changed music themselves as The Beatles had done before them.

Elvis Costello (Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus)

Simply put, Declan McManus wouldn’t give off the right impression musically unless you were crafting music akin to The Proclaimers. With Elvis Costello dabbling in a sui generis field pretty far from traditional Celtic music folk tales, a name change was obviously in order.

When the young songwriter signed his first professional recording contract, he opted for the name Elvis, after some obscure artist from the 1950s reportedly of the same name, and Costello came from his own father’s stage name who was a performer himself. Thus, the name is a mixture of heritage in both senses of the word.

After a stint working in advertising, Frank Zappa realised that modern music was “50 percent” to do with image. While that quota might be a little bit high, his sagacious mind had, nevertheless, identified a truth universally acknowledge within the backrooms of the industry but rarely amid consumers on the shop floor: that music is a product to be sold. As such, it needs all the same marketing ploys that any other commodity needs, including the right brand name.

Even when blunt terms that sound so unfitting of the spiritual wonder of music are sequestered (i.e. commodity), the fact remains that an artist’s full creative gestalt is there for our judgement these days. Part of the beauty of pop culture is that personality and talent sit alongside each other and when we buy into an oeuvre, we often celebrate the whole thing. 

Thus, a name can say a lot about an artist and how they choose to present themselves to the world. A band with a name like Half Man Half Biscuit are never likely to be extolling the virtues of anything overtly profound and likewise, you get the impression that King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard are likely to be somewhat experimental and anything but banal from the name alone. 

In short, a musical moniker is by no means something that will define your work, but it’s a million miles away from a flippant decision considering it is how you will be known for the rest of your artistic life. Below we’re looking at ten rock stars and the fascinating backstories to their names. 

Ten rock stars and how they got their names:

Bob Dylan (Robert Allen Zimmerman)

Bob Dylan is now a name cemented in the aeons of musical history. While it is widely known that the star was actually born Robert Zimmerman, it is less well known why he settled on Dylan as his name forevermore. On the 2nd of August, 1962, the 21-year-old Minnesotan became known as Bob Dylan for the very first time. 

He had initially been playing under the name Elston Gunn, but as he explained in his memoir Chronicles One, that switch was only temporary. “What I was going to do as soon as I left home was just call myself Robert Allen. As far as I was concerned, that was who I was – that’s what my parents named me. It sounded like the name of a Scottish king, and I liked it. There was little of my identity that wasn’t in it.”

However, he goes on to write: “The first time I was asked my name in the Twin Cities. I instinctively and automatically, without thinking, simply said: ‘Bob Dylan.’ Now, I had to get used to people calling me Bob.”

He goes on to say: “I had suspected that the musician changed the spelling of Allen to Allyn. I could see why. It looked more exotic, more inscrutable. I was going to do this too. Instead of Robert Allen, it would be Robert Allyn. Then, sometime later, unexpectedly, I’d seen some poems by Dylan Thomas,” he added.

Concluding: “Dylan and Allyn sounded similar: Robert Dylan, Robert Allyn. I couldn’t decide – the letter D came on stronger. But Robert Dylan didn’t look or sound as good as Robert Allyn. People had always called me either Robert or Bobby, but Bobby Dylan sounded too skittish to me, and besides, there was already a Bobby Darin, a Bobby Vee, a Bobby Rydell, a Bobby Neely and a lot of other Bobby.” Thus, fate had forced his hand and Bob Dylan was the last moniker on the shelf. 

David Bowie (David Robert Jones)

From an early age, the boy who would become known as David Bowie identified his birth name as a little bit beige for his phosphorescent character. Therefore, when he first dabbled in music he immediately set about crafting a stage name. 

Initially, the tweak was subtle, simply veering to Davy Jones, hoping to stir up connotations of the famous pirate. Whilst he would go on to wear an eye patch the name still wasn’t quite his glass slipper and Davy Jones of The Monkees was an unavoidable hurdle for the star who had not quite fallen to Earth just yet. His next step was to go with Tom Jones, but a certain Welsh performer took issue with that. 

The way he finally happened on David Bowie is delineated in the book America in the British Imagination: 1945 to the Present, John Lyons writes: “In 1965, David Jones adopted the name David Bowie in homage to Jim Bowie.” Jim Bowie was the protagonist of the 1960 historical war film The Alamo, directed by John Wayne. Played by actor Richard Widmark, Bowie was a Texan rebel in the film.

Bono (Paul Hewson)

Like a Brazilian footballer, Paul Hewson has forever been known under his mono-name Bono. Fortunately for Bono, his nickname dates back to his boyhood and is not just some latter-day self-dubbed snatch at a semblance of cool.  

So the story goes, as a youngster in Dublin, Hewson was a member of a street gang called ‘Lypton Village’. The young kids didn’t seem to get up too much other than patrolling the local neighbourhoods and larking about. However, one shop in town caught their eye – a hearing aid establishment under the name Bono Vox which is Latin for “good voice”. Finding it applicable for the crony formerly known as Hewson, the name stuck, and the rest is ancient history. 

Freddie Mercury (Farrokh Bulsara)

Freddie Mercury was born in Zanzibar in 1946 to Parsi-Indian parents, before his family fled during the revolution and relocated to Middlesex, England in 1964. He had already become known as Freddie owing to a nickname given to him by English teachers at the boarding school he attended in India, but the rock ‘n’ roll surname wouldn’t come until quite a bit later. 

According to Brian May, Freddie had always thought about swapping Bulsara for something a bit more mystifying and upon writing the Queen track ‘My Fairy King’, he found his new name. The song contains the lyric “Mother Mercury, look what you’ve done to me…” Freddie told May that the song was about his own mother, and he intended to take up her spiritual epithet as his own.

Joe Strummer (John Mellor)

John Mellor is a solid name, the sort that hints at a good reliable character, but it seems more befitting of a cracking reasonably priced joiner than an iconoclastic revolutionary. Thus, Strummer needed something different, and he found his name quite simply.

He had been known as Joe among friends for a long time, but the rocking surname fell into place when his early days as a musical wannabe owing to his distinctive self-taught guitar style. It would seem that this particular rock ‘n’ roll moniker came about in the exact way you always imagined it had in the first place, but it always pays to double-check nevertheless.

Flea (Michael Balzary)

Flea is now a name more synonymous with bass guitar than a genus of over 2000 species with a global population. However, interestingly, in this case, it is not a cooler than cool name like Johnny Thunders or Slash, and Michael Balzary is a pretty catchy title in the first place. 

The reason that the switch came about was simply beyond the bassist’s control. He was dubbed Mickey B. The Flea by his bandmate Anthony Kiedis when the two were just schoolmates because he was constantly springing about like a restless bug who had landed in an Espresso earlier that morning. Naturally, the name eroded down to just Flea and he was referred to by his nickname almost exclusively ever since. 

Iggy Pop (James Osterberg Jr)

James Osterberg Jr had one hell of a musical education. As he said himself, “My cover band, The Iguanas… had a professional engagement the summer that we graduated high school at a teen club called The Ponytail in northern Michigan. They served Cokes. And a lot of big acts came through. I got to play drums behind the Shangri-Las, the Crystals, the Four Tops. Learned a lot.”

Determined to cling to a bit of that high school fame he willingly accepted the name Iggy as a shortening of his band’s name. The ‘Pop’ element came through rather more obscure circumstances. During his time living with The Stooges and experimenting with drugs, the frontman shaved off his eyebrows and began to resemble a completely hairless acquaintance of the band by the name of Jimmy Pop, and seeing that the two now looked related in some follicle fraternity way, he took up the hairless surname. 

Alice Cooper (Vince Furnier)

It would seem that the wild frontman formerly known as Vince Furnier never actually intended to change his name, he simply found himself typecast as a homicidal geriatric. 

Alice Cooper was originally a replacement band name after Todd Rundgren snatched the group’s first title of Nazz. However, this offered up a creative clean slate and the band decided to get meta, crafting a fictional character who would front the band – a murderous and demented old woman by the name of Alice Cooper. Furnier played the role so well that it simply stuck forevermore.

The entire Ramones

Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy were the original gang of brats that brought punk to the masses. Over the years, a few faces came and went, but just about every member married into the band’s fictional surname. 

Like so many other things in music, the name itself came from none other than The Beatles. Johnny Ramone once revealed: “Paul [McCartney] would check into a hotel using the name Paul Ramon. Dee Dee was a big fan, so he changed his name to Dee Dee Ramone. We decided to call the band the Ramones.” They ran with the mantra of brotherhood and changed music themselves as The Beatles had done before them.

Elvis Costello (Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus)

Simply put, Declan McManus wouldn’t give off the right impression musically unless you were crafting music akin to The Proclaimers. With Elvis Costello dabbling in a sui generis field pretty far from the folk tales of traditional Celtic music a name change was obviously in order. 

When the young songwriter signed his first professional recording contract he opted for the name Elvis, after some obscure artist from the 1950s reportedly of the same name, and Costello came from his own father’s stage name who was a performer himself. Thus, the name is a mixture of heritage in both senses of the word.

Comments