A band’s name being the identity marker we all first encounter means the perfect moniker is of primary importance. Be it books, pen names, films, stage names, band names, album titles and so on, naming has been a conscious and creative procedure from time immemorial. In art and literature, names have almost always carried deeper meanings and allusions that mean something to the creator or artist. But the function of names transcends the intellectual plane as, often, its commercial aim is a vital one.
Speaking of band names, the English rock band Joy Division had a particularly hard time picking the group’s relevant name. Formed in 1976, the band contained lead vocalist Ian Curtis, bassist Peter Hook, guitarist Bernard Sumner and drummer Stephen Morris. Sumner and Hook, who were childhood friends, formed the band after being inspired by a Sex Pistols concert. Often seen as one of the most influential gigs of all time.
Sumner described Pistols as a group who “destroyed the myth of being a pop star, of a musician being some kind of god that you had to worship.” Curtis had too been on the lookout for a new artistic venture and followed the band’s advertisement for a vocalist to an audition and was hired in no time: “[I] knew he was all right to get on with and that’s what we based the whole group on. If we liked someone, they were in” said Sumner.
The team was all set to rock stages with their music but had to check one final box before that. Being a newborn band, an impactful name was necessary to attract attention. The first suggestion came from the band’s promoter Richard Boon, who suggested the morbid name ‘Stiff Kittens’ before the team embarked on their first-ever live gig in 1977. Boon probably suggested this keeping the image the band was trying to maintain in mind, as the name referred to the unfortunate event of the Buzzcocks’ member Pete Shelly’s stillborn pet cat. Memorable? Yes. Loveable? Not really.
However, when the band reached the venue, they presented themselves as ‘Warsaw’ after a David Bowie song that featured in his then latest album Low. Curtis was an incredibly huge Bowie fan and the name seemed to fit all the parties. It seemed like Warsaw had found their title. While booking some concerts in late 1977, however, Morris found out that their band’s name collided with the Warsaw Pakt, a Ladbroke Grove-based act that rose to prominence after releasing an album within 24 hours of its recording.
Under these circumstances, they felt compelled to discard the name as it wasn’t unique and without the press backing they would need to overturn Warsaw Pakt’s command of the name, they turned their attention to finding a new moniker.
In January 1978, the band took on the name of ‘Joy Division’, named after the prostitution wings of the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. A holocaust survivor’s book House of Dolls was the source of their off-beat name. There was a great deal of criticism that flooded in with the change of name as many assumed them to be right-wing supporters. However, the band rolled with this name for the next two years producing some iconic songs that spoke enough about their sensibilities to prove the conspirators wrong.
After the distressing suicide of Ian Curtis on 18th May 1980, which was just 24 hours before the band’s US tour, the rest of the band members found themselves in a tricky position. While they wanted to continue with their profession, they decided to start afresh with a new name. Though a commercial kamikaze, they were persistent on this sacrifice as it dated back to an agreement they made in their starting days. They promised each other that they wouldn’t continue under the band’s name if a single member walked out of it. As a sign of respect to Ian Curtis, the remaining three willingly took the risk.
Being back to square one, they went name hopping yet again. After the trio played at their first event in July 1980 without a name, band manager Rob Gretton made it his mission to find one at any cost. There were plenty of suggestions some random like ‘The Sunshine Valley Dance Band’, ‘The Witch Doctors of Zimbabwe’, ‘Steve and the JDs’ and some too political like ‘Black September’, ‘The Immortals’ and ‘Khmer Rouge’ which was also the name of a terrorist group, a genocidal communist party in Cambodia. Gretton’s enthusiastic “that’s pretty normal” was met with “F**king hell Rob, no it bloody isn’t” by the members. Weary of this name hunt, Gretton suggested one last once again taking from a newspaper headline — ‘The New Order of the Kampuchean Front’.
The name was revised a couple of times finally taking the form of ‘New Order’. A major reason for sticking by this name was that there used to be a Los Angeles based band ‘The New Order’ whose frontman was the former Stooges guitarist Ron Ashton. As Stooges was a favourite of Curtis, it seemed a considerable option. Unluckily, this name was also found to have ties with Adolf Hitler. The phrase was used a few times in his autobiographical book Mein Kampf, being the descriptive term for his holocaust plans. Peter Hook later wrote in Substance: Inside New Order, “Never at any point did any of us consider a certain Mr. Hitler…Shows us how daft we were. We just thought it summed up our new start perfectly.”
This notorious name game is probably the only such phenomenon in the history of rock music. However, this confusion never affected the band’s trajectory and thankfully so. Even after starting from scratch and with a disadvantageous name, New Order produced phenomenal albums like Regret, Power Corruption and Lies, Movement and True Faith. Although they categorically refused to perform Joy Division compositions in their early years, they turned around recently by including soul-stirring renditions of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ and ‘Transmission’ among others in their live sets.